Headshot of Matthew Timko
By Matt Timko

When I first began working primarily from home in March of 2020 due to COVID 19, I felt confident that this would be the start of the most efficient year of my life. I would have no commute, I would be able to schedule meetings (rather than have “drop-ins”), and I would have more comfort working from home and my personal workspace. Soon I realized, much to my chagrin, that my focus on a “lighter commute” missed the forest for the rees: working from home is working in a den of time thieves!

I have written previously about the daily distractions that come up at home (including children, home care, and a comfy couch) but in reality my phone is as much of a distraction as it ever was. We often here that removing or reducing phone and other devices usage would help us all focus; but is this actually the case?

James M. Lang presents strong evidence in his book DistractedWhy Students Can’t Focus and What you Can Do About It that it is natural for the human brain to be “distractible”; in fact it is an evolutionary trait that has become ill suited and inconvenient to our current educational (and work) environments. As is so often the case, educators pine for the mythical past, believing that the current generation is more distracted than the last due to technology: the reality is that removing all technology would not eliminate distractedness since this is an inherent human trait (I tend to believe that removing all “distractions” would not eliminate distractedness). Furthermore, technology is not the enemy or an impediment: rather, technology is just a tool that can either be used or misused to manage our time better.

Luckily, technology can guard against itself and there are several wonderful apps available to help manage time. One I particularly like is the Pomodoro method which has become quite popular these days and for good reason: it allows for mostly work and some play. The traditional time structure for 12 “blocks” of work time is 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of free time, with a larger 25 minute chunk of free time every four blocks of work (this times out to a 7 hour work day where the ratio of work to “free time” is 5:2). This may seem like quite a bit of “free time” to be spending at work, but the beauty of the method is that it takes into account the fact that we will be distracted (it is unavoidable) but it strives to channel the times of distraction into blocks, while maintaining focus during the work blocks. While there are several apps available for this, it is a technique that can easily be replicated (and modified) with a timer on your (gasp) phone or other devices.

Reading is essential in my line (and all legal lines) of work. A tool I have found not only efficient, but also helpful in all areas of life, are speed reading apps. While these vary with the type of materials you are able to speed read, all of them provide you the opportunity to take reading you had already intended to do and to learn to read faster (I personally increased my reading speed by 20% while using Spreeder). The typical program takes a particular text, and allows you to adjust the size and speed that it scrolls across the page which gives you practice at reading faster than your base level, and helps increase your reading speed over time. While these are helpful, their utility is based on (1) your desire to read faster, (2) your ability to comprehend while reading at faster than (your) normal speed, and (3) your ability to select given text to upload (i.e. pdf vs. html compatibility). But, if you have reading you need to do then this is a great way to get faster and more efficient in this fundamental task.

Finally (and most simply) I schedule everything in my calendar. While I use primarily Outlook and Google, every email product allows for calendar scheduling. For my purposes, rather than use my inbox as a “to do” list, I will make anything (email, deadline, event, etc.) I need to follow up on a scheduled event in my Outlook calendar (Tip: you can make any email message an Outlook event by using the shortcut Ctrl-Shift-1 on any PC). This provides me with two options: (1) address the email immediately OR (2) create a deadline to address the email and remove it from my inbox. The benefit of this option is you may set reminders and importance for different tasks while also eliminating the clutter from your inbox.

While these are not exhaustive of the various time saving apps that are available out there (in fact it hardly scratched the surface) it is important to know that this entire endeavor is subjective: you may find only one or none of these apps/suggestions helpful at all, and that is ok. These are the tools I have used to make my day more efficient and which have endured over time. It is important that no matter what apps you try, you give yourself the time and flexibility to find what works best for you rather than feel forced into using something with diminished returns.