An open plan office -- instead of cubicles, the well-lit room is dominated by a table lined with computer monitors, keyboards, corded phones, and containers of miscellaneous office supples on both sides of a divider. Six people (two men and four women) are each seated at a different computer. In the background, near the floor-to-ceiling windows, two men are walking toward the work area, their eyes on a magazine or pamphlet held open by one of the men.
Distractions abound in office settings and can cost employees six hours of productivity each day. — Getty Images/JohnnyGreig

A survey by SCORE found that small business owners reported having an average of just 1.5 hours of highly productive time every day. Despite working notoriously long hours, merchants are struggling to accomplish everything on their to-do lists.

The solution is to work smarter, not longer. Here’s how to get an hour or more back during your day by making a few simple adjustments to your routine.

Plan ahead

Jan Lehman, productivity expert and owner and CEO of CTC Productivity, told CO– that one of the biggest ways we lose productivity is by not planning our day effectively. Approaching the day without a plan leaves room for distractions, detours and multi-tasking. However, by mapping out a schedule that’s linked to our goals and priorities, we can structure our time more effectively.

“Everyone should make time at the end of the day to hit pause, look at what they’re being asked to do a few weeks out, and plan their top three priorities for the next day,” explains Lehman. “For instance, research shows that 85% of us are morning people. Therefore, the morning should be when you schedule focus-intensive tasks. Leave meetings for the afternoon.”

Before you clock out at the end of the day, Lehman suggests checking your emails, your calendar and your to-do list to plan your next day. Create a list of your top three priorities for the following day; one of these, ideally, is something that you work on during focus time.

Schedule focus time

A study by the University of California, Irvine, found that one of the biggest killers of productivity is constant interruption. On average, an office worker is interrupted or distracted from what they’re doing every three minutes. Returning to what they were originally working on can take an additional 23 minutes. Those interruptions cost you nearly six hours a day—an astronomical cost to productivity.

The best way to combat constant interruption is to block space on your calendar for focus time. Focus time is when you think about your most important work. Spend time thinking about bigger business priorities or planning a project start to finish. Turn off all notifications: on your phone, email, banner alerts, chats and Slack. Communicate your focus time to others, and get buy-in from the rest of the team to implement this time-blocking technique company-wide.

Jan Lehman gives her best advice on how to get back an hour of your day with her best productivity tips.

"Defining a ‘true emergency’ empowers employees to push back to people who are interrupting them."

Jan Lehman, productivity expert and owner and CEO of CTC Productivity

Determine what interruptions matter

Focus time sounds ideal, but what happens if something comes up and an employee feels it requires interrupting your workflow? Other people distract us more often than they should—sucking productivity out of our working hours.

Discuss the “emergencies” that qualify for interruption with your coworkers, employees and even those in your personal life with whom you may be sharing an office or living space. “Defining a ‘true emergency’ empowers employees to push back to people who are interrupting them,” explains Lehman. “It also ensures everyone has time to work on their most important priorities every day.”

Set clear expectations with your family and coworkers around how you plan to work throughout the day. This, in turn, helps others understand how to synchronize their priorities with your availability and plan their day for maximum productivity. Remember that what works for one person may not work for everyone: someone may not be a morning person, for instance, so respect that their focus time is in the afternoon.

[Read more: 3 Expert Strategies for Productive Meetings]

Delegate wisely

Delegating tasks to others in your company is a great way to get more time back in your day. In addition, delegating is one of the easiest ways to provide professional development and upskilling to your employees. However, it’s important to recognize what should and shouldn’t be delegated to others.

“A one-off project that you’re never going to do again is the wrong thing to delegate,” says Lehman. “Delegate time-consuming, repetitive tasks. To spot these opportunities, look at where your time goes. Take a high-level look at your email and see if you can spot emails that could be addressed by someone else if that person was given the right training or authority. Can you train someone to do a task that will give you back a half-hour of time every week?”

Another way to think about delegating effectively is to identify the strengths and skills that your team has that you do not. Does one of your managers have a good eye for design? Put them in charge of planning social media posts for the month. Is someone else great at editing? Give them the task of reviewing or writing your email newsletter.

Take advantage of technology

There are tons of time-tracking and calendar tools that help business owners work more productively. In addition to coordinating your day, find technology that allows your team to work together more efficiently.

Platforms like Microsoft 365 or Google Workspace give you time back in your day by allowing teams to collaborate live on documents. Rather than spending time downloading a document, making edits, saving a new version of that document and sending it around, your team can work on the same version simultaneously. Coauthoring saves tons of time and reduces the confusion of having multiple versions of the same document.

[Read more: 10 Apps That Will Boost Your Productivity]

Be realistic about what you can achieve

“Ten years ago, we used to get to our A, B and C priorities,” said Lehman. “Today, we’re lucky if we can get to our B priorities. The amount of information that’s coming at us doubles every 12 to 18 months. We don’t have the time, attention span and capacity to do everything that we used to. It’s important to accept this reality and not let the C priorities bog you down.”

That realization can be freeing. That newsletter you’ve been wanting to read? It can wait until vacation (or retirement!). Take the time to be realistic about what priorities are a “must-do,” versus a “nice-to-do”—e.g., things that are just going to have to wait.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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