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The Best Time-Saving Tips That Actually Work (Part 1)

A woman focusing

We’ve all been there. We’re rushing around, trying to do a million things at once, and we feel like we’re not getting anywhere.

Sound familiar? If you’re looking for ways to save time and be more productive, you’ve come to the right place.

In this blog post series, we will discuss some of the best time-saving tips that actually work. So let’s dive right in!

Tip 1: Think Outcomes, Not Time

Let me tell you about the one study​1​ that’s helped me the most when it comes to time management.

It was conducted by Meng Zhu (Johns Hopkins University) and her colleagues.

The research question was seemingly simple: Why is it that people prioritize urgent tasks over important tasks?

In a series of experiments, they tested different hypotheses:

  • People prioritize urgent tasks because they’re faster to complete
  • People prioritize urgent tasks because they’re easier
  • People prioritize urgent tasks first so they can focus on more important ones later

What the authors found was very surprising: when you control for all these hypotheses, people still pick urgent tasks over important ones.

In other words, we simply choose to focus on what’s urgent no matter what.

Why?

According to the study, urgency really means “you have a limited time window to get the job done.”

Your brain interprets that limit as a constraint on its freedom (e.g., “if I can’t do this in time, I never will!”).

And of course, our brains are hardwired to break free from constraints. That’s why we pay so much attention to urgent tasks.

Urgency hijacks our brains’ ability to appreciate the difference between an urgent but unimportant task (e.g., I have 12 hours to redeem this 20% off coupon) and an important but not urgent one (e.g., I need to write that book or start that business).

The solution? Focus on outcomes, not time.

What does that mean? Next time you’re torn between task A and task B, don’t ask yourself “How much time do I have left to complete each one?” but, rather, “What would happen if I completed task A vs. task B?”

Framed that way, decisions become a lot more self-evident: start working on that dream of yours and forget about the coupon.

This way, you’ll stop wasting your time on unimportant tasks and focus on what really matters.

This mindset shift is simple, but it’ll help you identify which tasks are truly important and save you massive amounts of time in the long run.

Tip 2: Simplify Your Life with Automation

What if I told you that one single device saved me 2 hours of work every week last year. Work that, according to research, people consistently hate doing​2​.

I’m talking about Robbie, my robot vacuum cleaner that also mops. Twice a week, it zooms around the house, tidying up while I’m busy with something else or out for a walk.

Before purchasing Robbie, I was worried about the cost. Hundreds of dollars for something that’s going to do the same job as a broom and a mop?

But two things changed my mind.

First, the economics of it. Hiring a cleaner would cost significantly more. Also, I value my time more than money, and this device gives me two hours of free time every week. (If you want to figure out what your time is really worth to you, check out this quick questionnaire.)

Second, research consistently shows that using your money to buy time is consistently associated with happiness and greater social connection​3–6​.

(Think about it: less time spent cleaning = more time spent with friends and family.)

The point here is that automation may cost money, but a better way of thinking about it is to ask yourself, What are the time and psychological costs of not automating?

Very often, the answer is that they are far greater than the upfront cost of automating.

Robbie is a clear example, but automation can work for all sorts of tasks:

  • Zapier helps you automate workflows between apps (e.g., when an email is received, add it to your spreadsheet)
  • Axiom.ai lets you automate any browser task that you would normally do manually (e.g., scrape a website)
  • Calendly helps you automate appointment scheduling (e.g., no more back-and-forth emails to figure out when everyone’s available)

Here again, it’s less about actual technology and more about mindset.

Next time you find yourself doing a task over and over, ask yourself: Is there a way I can automate this? The answer might just save you hundreds of hours a year.

Before we move on, let’s talk about two important issues we know from time management research.

Issue #1: Studies show that some people worry that automation tools and products will make them look lazy.

Solution: Focus on the time-saving and happiness-boosting benefits of automation​7​. That is infinitely more important than how others perceive you.

Issue #2: Research shows that while people believe that only the rich and educated might benefit from time-saving automation, it is in fact the poor who stand to benefit the most​8,9​.

Solution: No matter your income, there is always something you can automate. The trick is to figure out how much your time is really worth to you and invest accordingly.

And with that, let’s dive into the last tip for this first part of the series…

Tip 3: Pre-Commit to Reduce Decision Fatigue

If you want to use your time wisely, it’s essential to focus and get in the zone.

But the challenge is that it’s easy to get distracted and lose momentum. And that often happens because of the mundane day-to-day decisions we make.

Do I wear the blue shirt or the green one? Do I go to Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts for my coffee today?

Let’s start with a basic example.

Imagine it’s mid-morning and you’ve finally settled into your workday. You’re making progress and feeling focused.

You head to the kitchen, but you’re not sure what to make. Should you scramble some eggs? Make a smoothie? You feel like those options would take too much time so you settle for some sugar-filled cereal.

The experience leaves you feeling sluggish and unfocused.

This is decision fatigue: the more decisions we have to make, the more our energy and focus get depleted​10,11​.

Even worse: the more depleted we are, the more we make decisions that make us even more depleted (like choosing cereal over healthier alternatives).

The solution? Precommitment.

In psychology, the concept of precommitment essentially means restricting the set of options available to us at a given point in time, so that we don’t have to waste mental energy on making decisions​12–14​.

And you can use that to your advantage because when we make decisions about future choices, we’re more likely to choose wisely compared to when we need to make a decision immediately​15,16​.

(That’s why people would typically choose salad over cheeseburgers if they were asked which they’d prefer to eat in a month, yet would most likely pick a cheeseburger if they were asked in the moment.)

For example, I like making overnight oats for breakfast the day before. This healthy and delicious meal takes me less than 2 minutes to prepare, and I don’t have to worry about what I’m going to eat in the morning.

Same thing for coffee: I schedule my coffee maker to turn on at 10 a.m. every morning so I don’t have to think about it.

This way, my morning breaks are not rushed, frustrating, or energy-draining, and I’m able to use the time for a relaxing, restorative break instead.

How can you adopt precommitment?

Simply make a note of the decisions you find yourself making on a daily basis. If some of them are of little importance to you, eliminate them from the equation by making pre-commitments.

Of course, personal preferences are key. Some people do enjoy spending time deciding what to have for breakfast or what to wear.

Others, like me, don’t care much for clothing variety, which is why I wear the same outfit every day.

At the end of the day, there’s no such thing as saving time for the sake of it. What really matters is creating time for the things that matter most to you.

I care more about spending time with my friends and partner than about what I wear, so precommiting to a wardrobe makes sense for me.

The key is to pay attention to how you feel and make sure that the decisions you’re making align with your values.

By using precommitment, you can save mental energy and use your time more efficiently so that it’s spent on the things that matter most to you.

Conclusion

Saving time isn’t about just cramming more tasks into your day. It’s about understanding the decisions you make and finding ways to optimize them so that you can prioritize the things that matter most to you.

With these three strategies, you can take back control of your time and make sure that your precious time is spent on the things that truly matter.

With a little practice, you’ll soon experience greater control over your time in your daily life and more energy for the things that bring you joy.

Research cited (click to expand)

  1. 1.
    Zhu M, Yang Y, Hsee CK. The Mere Urgency Effect. Johar G, Lee L, eds. Journal of Consumer Research. Published online February 9, 2018. doi:10.1093/jcr/ucy008
  2. 2.
    Marut M, Hedge A. Ergonomic Survey of Household Tasks and Products. Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting. Published online September 1999:506-510. doi:10.1177/154193129904300608
  3. 3.
    Whillans AV, Dunn EW, Smeets P, Bekkers R, Norton MI. Buying time promotes happiness. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. Published online July 24, 2017:8523-8527. doi:10.1073/pnas.1706541114
  4. 4.
    Lee-Yoon A, Whillans AV. Making seconds count: when valuing time promotes subjective well-being. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online April 2019:54-57. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.05.002
  5. 5.
    Whillans AV, Weidman AC, Dunn EW. Valuing Time Over Money Is Associated With Greater Happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Published online January 7, 2016:213-222. doi:10.1177/1948550615623842
  6. 6.
    Whillans AV, Dunn EW. Valuing time over money is associated with greater social connection. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published online August 2, 2018:2549-2565. doi:10.1177/0265407518791322
  7. 7.
    Whillans AV, Dunn EW, Norton MI. Overcoming barriers to time-saving: reminders of future busyness encourage consumers to buy time. Social Influence. Published online March 29, 2018:117-124. doi:10.1080/15534510.2018.1453866
  8. 8.
    Giurge LM, Whillans AV, West C. Why time poverty matters for individuals, organisations and nations. Nat Hum Behav. Published online August 3, 2020:993-1003. doi:10.1038/s41562-020-0920-z
  9. 9.
    Whillans A, West C. Alleviating time poverty among the working poor: a pre-registered longitudinal field experiment. Sci Rep. Published online January 14, 2022. doi:10.1038/s41598-021-04352-y
  10. 10.
    Pignatiello GA, Martin RJ, Hickman RL Jr. Decision fatigue: A conceptual analysis. J Health Psychol. Published online March 23, 2018:123-135. doi:10.1177/1359105318763510
  11. 11.
    Olsen SB, Meyerhoff J, Mørkbak MR, Bonnichsen O. The influence of time of day on decision fatigue in online food choice experiments. BFJ. Published online March 6, 2017:497-510. doi:10.1108/bfj-05-2016-0227
  12. 12.
    Kurth-Nelson Z, Redish AD. Don’t Let Me Do That! – Models of Precommitment. Front Neurosci. Published online 2012. doi:10.3389/fnins.2012.00138
  13. 13.
    Ariely D, Wertenbroch K. Procrastination, Deadlines, and Performance: Self-Control by Precommitment. Psychol Sci. Published online May 2002:219-224. doi:10.1111/1467-9280.00441
  14. 14.
    Crockett MJ, Braams BR, Clark L, Tobler PN, Robbins TW, Kalenscher T. Restricting Temptations: Neural Mechanisms of Precommitment. Neuron. Published online July 2013:391-401. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.05.028
  15. 15.
    Studer B, Koch C, Knecht S, Kalenscher T. Conquering the inner couch potato: precommitment is an effective strategy to enhance motivation for effortful actions. Phil Trans R Soc B. Published online December 31, 2018:20180131. doi:10.1098/rstb.2018.0131
  16. 16.
    Rogers T, Bazerman MH. Future lock-in: Future implementation increases selection of ‘should’ choices. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Published online May 2008:1-20. doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2007.08.001
Brad Aeon
Brad Aeon

Brad Aeon is a researcher and time management expert. He conducts research on the sociology, history, and philosophy of time management. His studies focus on how people can achieve what matters to them while reducing stress and living more meaningful lives.