Call me crazy, but I’ve always preferred sleep to caffeine. But with erratic schedules and tight deadlines, getting six or more hours of sleep per night is no easy task for a consultant—just ask any of my diet soda and coffee-addicted colleagues. Between a demanding job and an even more demanding home life, I’ve spent a lot of time trying various productivity hacks to squeeze as much as I can out of each day.
My favorite tool for getting things done? The 10-minute timer on my phone.
My “10-minute rule” is pretty straightforward: Every task on your to-do list should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. If it takes longer than 10 minutes, then you should have broken it down into smaller tasks or delegated it to someone else. The key to this rule is in enforcing it, which means setting the timer on your phone to go off at the 10-minute mark. The level of speed and focus that this brings to your day is nothing short of astounding.
When I first challenge my teams to put the 10-minute rule into action, I am typically met with skepticism. Questions like, “That’s crazy—can I really build this big Excel model in 10-minute increments?” and “Are you telling me that you do this in your home life too, taking 10-minute showers and doing 10-minute workouts?” abound. (The answer to both of these questions, by the way, is “yes!”)
Want to give it a try? Here are three tips for making the 10-minute rule work for you.
By far, the most effective means of finding additional time in your day is to outsource the things on your to-do list that someone else can easily do in 10 minutes or less. For example, I have a very successful and revered colleague who claims that a linchpin of his success is that he “says ‘yes’ to everything, but only actually performs the tasks that only he can do best.” Everything else, he delegates.
Delegating is not as easy as it sounds. It can be difficult to let go of a task when you fear that another person’s work won’t be as good as your own. It’s helpful to remember that “done is better than perfect,” and the only way you are going to move ahead in your career is if you let go of the things you’ve mastered and take on new challenges. Another mindset shift that helped me was realizing that delegating creates opportunities for others. Now I actively think about what tasks and projects I can create for my team that will help them learn, grow, and advance their careers (which conveniently helps clear up my plate as well). (Here are a few more delegating tips.)
One of the challenges I see most with people who have trouble delegating—especially those in entry-level positions—is that they forget that they can and should delegate up. If you feel uncomfortable asking a supervisor or superior to do something, try this: Start by pointing out what you are doing, and position your “ask” as a request for help. For example, instead of, “I need you to call the team leads,” you could say “I’m working on pulling the data for this analysis—would it be possible for you to help me by calling the other team leads?”
As a manager, I can tell you that I too often find myself begging my teams to delegate something up to me, and I love it when they create opportunities for me to help.
2. Find the Easy, 10-Minute Task
You may be skeptical at first, but by simply changing how you frame your tasks, you will see that just about everything can be broken down into 10-minute tasks. Do you need to research a new topic? Start with 10 minutes on Google scanning news articles, followed by 10 minutes of jotting down everything you know and the top few questions you still need to answer, and then 10 minutes each calling people to get advice on answering your open questions (bonus points if you were savvy enough to notice that the phone call is a form of delegation!).
Voilà! You have just squeezed a task that may have otherwise lingered on into hours into 30 minutes.
This approach works after hours, too. I have a colleague who was so intrigued by the 10-minute rule and how it helped her during work hours that she decided to try it at home. She took out her timer for a few mornings to time her pre-work routine, and with a 10-minute shower, 10-minute breakfast, etc., she found that she was able to cut her standard “getting ready” time, trading it in for coveted sleep instead. She had never thought it was possible to shower in 10 minutes—until she tried it and realized it was actually pretty easy!
3. Use That Timer
Using your timer is a critical part of the rule, so don’t forget it. As everyone in the business world knows, “we do what we measure.”
This is true of the 10-minute rule as well—you must use a timer or clock to keep track of how long you are spending on things. Smartphones make this easier with their built-in timer apps, but any clock with a minute hand will do. Whatever you do, don’t guess—because if your approximately 10 minutes always becomes 20, you’re not maximizing your productivity.
Sometimes, you’ll spend less than 10 minutes on a task (more time back—yay!), and sometimes that alarm will ring and you’ll still be on the phone (no, I’m not suggesting that you just hang up when the alarm goes off). Don’t feel badly about running over—just make note of it for next time.
For example, if one co-worker tends to ramble, preface your next conversation by telling her you have 10 minutes to brainstorm. What if you really need more time? That’s fine too: Tracking your time spent will provide insight into how you work, so you can plan your day better next time.
The 10-Minute Rule in Action
One of my favorite examples of this rule in action occurred a few years ago when a team I was working on received the dreaded 4 PM phone call from a client redirecting the work that we would be presenting the following morning. Ugh, so much for a relaxing evening!
There were two big pieces of work involved, so we split our team of four in half. Each of our two sub-teams had about the same number of PowerPoint slides to revamp, with similar amounts of analysis, so it should have taken us about the same amount of time to complete.
I said to my teammate that I really wanted to finish by 6 PM so we could go get dinner, and he agreed but was doubtful about our ability to get it done. So, we tallied up the pages, divided by the two hours left in the day, and found that if we could achieve a rate of 10 minutes per page, we would have enough time to complete it—plus a buffer for anything that proved to be particularly tricky. Reenergized, we split up the pages, set the timer, and started cranking. To make a game out of it, we kept a tally on the whiteboard of how many pages each of us completed under or over the 10-minute mark.
By 6 PM, we were finished—and feeling really good about it. The other team who didn’t use the 10-minute rule? They finished around 9.
The challenge is on. For your next task today, get out your timer and try it for yourself. The clock is ticking!
Photo of timer courtesy of Shutterstock.
Michelle Bryant is a management consultant in the Aerospace & Defense sector, helping people plan and execute cost and performance transformations across engineering, production, and business functions. Prior to this, she led product development studies while working as an engineer in Commercial Aerospace. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Aerospace Engineering from The Ohio State University, and a J.D. of Law from the University of Virginia.More from this Author