No matter how hard we work, it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day to give everything in our life the attention it deserves. If we prioritize our work, making sure all tasks are done and dusted before we clock off, we often don’t have enough time for our personal commitments. But if we prioritize our personal lives, we can find the next day stressful, and rush through tasks feeling anxious and harried.
But we definitely have enough time to do something meaningful each day – it’s just a matter of protecting space for it. To reclaim your workday and find more time for the work that matters, try using the 4 Ds of time management: delete, defer, delegate and diminish. Here’s how to go about it
If you open your inbox and are greeted by 100 new emails, have you ever considered deleting half of them right off the bat? It might sound ruthless – and not advisable for everyone – but there are many people who swear by doing this. You can usually tell from the sender and subject matter whether or not an email absolutely needs your attention, and if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to hit delete. Delete all but the most recent email in a chain, and scan subject lines to see if certain queries have already been resolved. Better still, unsubscribe from irrelevant newsletters and marketing emails to slim down your inbox.
💡 “Scan through all your emails for unwanted emails. I usually delete half or more of my emails without opening them. I’m especially brutal when I return from vacation and have to go through a backlog of emails.” – Wan How, project management coach
Aside from email, there are other ways you use the “delete” element of the 4 Ds. If people ask for a favor but you don’t have time, just say “no”. It’s nice to help out, but you shouldn't put other people’s work ahead of your own – and management should really be the one reallocating resources according to company priorities. By saying “no”, you’re deleting work before it even has a chance to materialize – so say “no” to unsuitable job offers or requests, and renegotiate duties that don’t align with your values. By giving yourself room to breathe, you’re giving yourself the headspace to do a good job on the work that really matters: your own.
If you have an outstanding task that you don’t have time to tackle now – but you will have time soon – considering deferring it. While some people may view deferment in a negative light, sometimes it just makes sense. If a coworker asks for your considered opinion on something they’re working on, or you want to have time to think about a task before actioning it, there’s no harm in deferring it. As long as the work you defer can be put on the backburner without adverse issues arising – and as long as you feel in control – deferring things can be a smart quick fix.
The key to successful deferment is to make a note of the tasks you’ve decided to do later, and be clear about when you’re going to get around to them. Setting a reminder for when you’re going to action deferred tasks can help you feel on top of things, and reduce the risk of feeling stressed about putting work off. It’s a good idea to review all deferred tasks and decisions at the end of each day, as part of a “work shutdown ritual”, so they don’t create an unhealthy stress that follows you home.
When something’s important to you, it’s understandable that you want to do the best job you can – but if you put too much in, you’re at risk of running out of time, feeling dissatisfied, and becoming stressed and anxious. So it’s a good idea to look for ways to diminish certain tasks. That means shortening or reducing tasks that don’t have much value, reducing the frequency of excessive meetings or video calls (or eliminating them altogether, if possible!), and reprioritizing the most meaningful work.
If you’re a perfectionist, or feel like you always need to be in the driving seat, taking steps to diminish work can seem scary, but there are many ways you can still feel in the loop. For example, if you want to sit out a meeting you don’t need to be in, ask a coworker to give you their notes afterwards, or quickly sum up anything that might have been important. If you have a big project looming over you, focus on the 20% of that work that delivers the biggest results, and diminish the non-essential details that make up the 80%. If you can reduce the scope of that work in any way without affecting the quality of output, do it.
Delegating work doesn’t come easily to everyone – but it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your time management. If you have a bunch of outstanding tasks, consider if there is anyone in your team you can hand it over to you. “If someone else can perform a task at least two-thirds as well as you, delegate it,” is the advice from Wan How. Try to avoid delegating only the dry, boring bits of a task to a coworker; if you hand over responsibility of the entire task, your coworker will feel ownership of the project, will be more invested, and will do a better job.
Of course, delegating isn’t just about passing work onto your coworkers. One of the easiest and most productive ways to delegate tasks is to automate them. Most of us have low-value, essential daily admin – things like logging timesheets, scheduling meetings, reporting on budgets or documenting expenses. These tasks are often disproportionately time-consuming and frustratingly repetitive. But the latter makes them perfect candidates for automation. Delegating admin to intelligent apps doesn’t just free up more time for productive work, it often improves the quality of that work by removing expensive human error.