For two years I was basically in survival mode. I was in a fog of not enjoying anything at all and having no energy and just being really unwell generally. Because I’m a natural pessimist (working on it!), I see it as losing two years of my life.

A lot of people who’ve had challenges to face are all kinds of, ‘It made me the person I am today!’ gushy. I’m in the, ‘Imagine how much better I could be by now’ camp. But I’m using that thought in a positive way now: to make the most of my time and be conscious of what I’m doing with it.

Save time - a guide for busy people

Part of that has involved me becoming (consciously) less busy, and it’s taken me a while to figure out strategies for that. So here are some of the things I’ve been trying out to free up some time. Lots of them can be adapted to work for your needs and lifestyle, and every little bit adds up!

01. Reduce unimportant decisions

I read an interesting article a couple of weeks ago that said Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs wear/wore the same types and styles of clothes to reduce time spent on unimportant decisions. While I draw the line at black polonecks, my day-to-day wear generally consists of jeans, a casual top of some kind, cotton cardigan, and a hoodie. It’s fairly streamlined already.

When I applied this idea to other areas of my life though, I saw a lot of ways to gain time, particularly as I’m not great at making small decisions. Instead of trying to decide on a song or film, have a playlist you can just hit ‘Play’ on. Instead of trying to decide where to eat, use an app that will suggest options for you (like Urbanspoon), or batch cook in advance and grab a box as you leave the house. Have dice or coins to hand to truly randomise decisions. It won’t work for everything but it’s pretty liberating – and it shows you just how unimportant a lot of decisions are.

(This is also a good strategy if you ever feel paralysed with anxiety about small decisions. Sometimes just getting out of the house is more important than where you actually go or what you do).

02. Be as organised as possible

This is still a work in progress for me, but the steps I’ve taken so far have already made a huge difference. (This kind of links in with the first point, because organisation techniques like creating meal plans also help you cut back on unimportant decisions).

The first step is to identify systems in your living space that aren’t working. For example, in our living room alone we had shelves overflowing with mismatched shoes and boots, an overflowing in-tray of all kinds of different post and paperwork, and dresser drawers filled with a million odds and ends. I went through each area separately to see what was there, chucked/recycled/donated/moved stuff accordingly, and then consciously thought about what wasn’t working in each place. For the drawers, I bought some organiser boxes. For the shoes, I paired everything up, bundled them together according to type/seasonal (e.g. all sandals are grouped together, all sports shoes are grouped together), and got rid of ones that were totally worn out or never worn. For post and paperwork, I cleared a big box for non-urgent paper, keeping a little basket free for things that need to be dealt with fairly soon. I then kept an eye on the area to check it was working better.

Identifying gaps in a system helps; catch yourself at ‘I wish I had…’ moments and do something to bridge the gap before the event reoccurs.

03. Figure out when to say no

I used to feel so guilty about saying no to anyone for anything, and then I ended up having a conversation with someone who told me that I couldn’t be my best for anyone else if I wasn’t looking after myself first. It made a lot of sense – it’s the same principle airlines have regarding putting your own oxygen mask on before helping other people.

Letting people down is inevitable sometimes. As long as it’s done in a respectful way then no one should have a problem with it. I still try really hard to say yes, and I say yes a lot more than no, but I don’t need to feel bad about saying no after – especially when I’m doing it for a very good reason!

Learn how to say no to yourself too. Identify three important tasks for the day (these can be fun things!) and have anything else as optional.

04. Delegate

My own personal rule is don’t do things you don’t care about. I just don’t do them well or spend enough time on them. Obviously everyone has to do things they don’t like, but delegating where possible works well, and can benefit both parties. Joe prefers to cook, I prefer to do the washing up. I prefer to pay my cleaner to clean, she prefers to earn money cleaning. It doesn’t always work as easily as that, but swapping tasks around with someone else means you can both make the most of your time even if you still aren’t doing anything massively fun after you’ve traded.

05. Streamline essential tasks

Most of my life is in ToDoist, including recurring tasks like grocery shopping. My shopping list system is insane (read about it here – Organsation experiments: food edition), but if you regularly buy the same things, have a recurring list. Or if you shop online, keep a ‘Favourites’ list if possible.

Subscribe to things so you don’t have to remember to visit the websites or buy them. I have a flower subscription to Bloom & Wild, so 1) I don’t have to remember to buy flowers and 2) they arrive through the letterbox so I don’t have the hassle of picking them up from somewhere or waiting in for the post.

Cut down on snail mail by selecting online options for bills. I don’t think we’ll ever be a fully paperless household but it’s a step in the right direction and it has multiple benefits.

Create a meal plan at the same time every week to cut down on thinking about what to have and then realising you’re lacking an essential ingredient. We rarely stick to our meal plan exactly, but at the very least it means we have a number of practical meal ideas stuck to our fridge at any one time.

Reduce the number of steps in each task and keep organised effortlessly by having the ‘touch it once’ rule. For example, once you’ve finished eating, do the dishes instead of leaving them on the side or in the sink. Once you’ve opened your mail, deal with it or shred it or recycle it instead of leaving it in an open envelope. Keep clothes that match near to each other in your wardrobe to reduce thinking and searching time.

06. Be conscious of proximity

This is a really simple thing, but once I figured it out I started applying it everywhere: Don’t have things in your immediate space that you rarely use. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you have throat sweets that expired two years ago in your bedside table, and have to pull five things out of a cupboard to get to the thing you actually need. Keep things you use often near, easy to access, and at eye level if possible. Push things away that are used rarely or seasonally, for example in your garage, cellar, loft, or under your bed. This rule had a huge impact on the amount of time we spent looking for things in kitchen cupboards, and also gives us a better idea of how much space we can devote to things or what we can get rid of.

07. Prioritise your future self

This sounds a little crazy, but it basically comes down to this: don’t create more work for yourself at a later date. These tend to end up being half-finished tasks you’ll ‘get around to’ or ‘do later’. Do it all in one go, even if you feel like you really can’t be bothered or you’re too tired (this works really well with the ‘touch it once’ idea). Ignoring this idea is why I have a million blog post drafts without photos, why I find myself scrubbing at plates with glued-on food the next day, and why I come back to a messy house. Do all of the task at hand before moving on. Consciously thinking about making life easier for your future self is a really good motivator.

08. Identify genuinely wasted time

Being aware of your distraction weaknesses can help you claw back a lot of your time. This largely falls into two categories:

  • Dead time – Those little gaps of time where you aren’t really doing anything. Do you have a commute you could read on? Meditation you can do while waiting for an appointment?
  • Badly-used time – Social media is a huge weakness for me. I’ll catch myself scrolling down the same feed for the third time and think, ‘Why am I still doing this? I’m not seeing anything new!’

Being conscious of these dead/bad spots is the first step. Then just replace with a new habit to make the most of that time. For example, I’m trying to create a new habit to put down my phone after a certain time and pick up an interesting book instead. (I’m also trying to train myself not to get involved in arguments on the internet, because really, that’s my whole life gone).

09. Multi-task (but productively)

You want to maximise the use of your time, not leave a load of half-finished tasks in your wake or take longer to do things because your mind is jumping between different things. Be selective about your multi-tasking, and try to combine a physical action with a mental one. For example, reading in the bath, listening to a podcast while doing dishes, thinking about blog ideas at the gym etc.

Whew! This post ended up a lot longer than I thought it would be, but hopefully it’s given you a few ideas about making more of your time. If you’ve got any tips for me, please leave a comment below – I’m always looking for new ideas to save time