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The Efficiency Expert: Getting More Done in Less Time

By Marty Nemko

My friend Michael Edelstein always asks me, "How do you get so much done? "I'd love to be a fly on your wall." That made me decide to write this. You'll be a fly on my wall.

In addition to my full-time career counseling practice, producing and hosting a weekly radio show, responding to 50 non-spam emails a day, helping my aging mom, and making time for my marriage and friends, I've found the time to write five well-published books, and more than 1,000 columns, articles, and blog posts.

I care to be that productive because, by my definition, a life is well-led to the extent it makes a positive difference. All of our activities, indeed all the minutes of our life, could be scored on a meter from -100 (selling crack to kids) to +100 (trying to cure cancer), with 0 being neutral activities such as watching TV. I want my life's average score to be as high as possible.

Most people won't want to be as efficiency-oriented as I am. That's fine. Just think of this book as a buffet of tips and tricks. Sample some and then come back for what you want more of.

But do know that the efficiencies I'll describe are pretty painless. Indeed many are fun and/or money-saving. None require adrenalized rushing, which may well be bad for your health, unproductive, and draining pleasure from your life.

Also, do not misinterpret this focus on efficiency as implying I don't indulge in inefficient pleasures. For example, throughout the day, I might take a break to shop for an unnecessary item on the Internet, hand-water some plants even though I have an automatic irrigation system, or simply get on the floor for a minute to play with my doggie, Einstein.

But I do generally keep those breaks brief: I watch little TV, don't play video games, and am likely to resist going to an aunt's funeral in Topeka. Time is our most valuable possession and I hope that my presenting myriad ways we can painlessly, often pleasurably, save time will enable us to make more of our days. How sad that many people often say, "I don't know where the day went!" or even "I don't know where the years went!" I hope this is an antidote to that.

And now, lest I be accused of writing a time-ineffective introduction, fly, welcome to my wall.

A Day in the Life

Often, I play a game of how to save time, even if it's just a few seconds. I find that game fun, and you'll see that it saves me a lot of time.

From waking to mid-morning

When I wake, I needn't walk my dog because I've installed a doggie door. I walk to my desk---note the 0-minute commute--between 8:00 and 8:30 am, whenever I get up naturally.

I stopped subscribing to a newspaper. Not only is it expensive and time-consuming, I can get my news far more efficiently by taking the literally few seconds it takes to scan my default homepage: google/ig: It contains a few headlines from each of the New York Times, Fox News, CNN, and GoogleNews. If a headline tantalizes me, I click on it and scan rather than read the article. I end up scanning an average of two per day. That plus the many press releases tied to news stories, and The Economist headlines that get emailed to me, plus often watching CNN, Fox, or C-Span while preparing meals, results in my feeling reasonably up on current events. Total time expended per day in reading the news: three minutes, total cost: 0.

After that quick scan of Google/ig, I start my day by processing email. I'm always eager to see my email because much good can be awaiting me. True, it would be more efficient to, while fresh, start my day with my most intellectually demanding work--writing whatever article or proposal I'm working on, but I'm like a little kid--I can't delay gratification. That's an example of how I can be reasonably efficient yet feel like I'm getting away with something, doing what I prefer. But I hardly ever start my day with something that's only minimally productive like chat with a friend, watch TV, or spend more than a few minutes on breakfast.

While of course, there's a time for getting together in person or by phone, I generally encourage people to email rather than phone me. It's time-saving and asynchronous: I can respond whenever I want--unlike, for example, when someone phones me. Also, email gives me a permanent record of the exchange, plus it's keyword searchable with Windows 7's search feature. I use the phone or in-person meetings mainly when interaction and/or interpersonal chemistry is important. That's less often than you might think. For example, most of my between-session interactions with clients and exchanges with prospective clients are by email, and both my clients and I find that works well.

Usually after a half hour or so, I've had enough of email and so I usually turn to writing an article, blog post, tweet, or work on the book I'm writing. People ask how I find the time to write so much? Key is that I choose to write on topics I know a lot about, that require no more research I can conduct with just some smart googling and a few requests for information from an expert.

"How do you write so much?"

Accelerating my writing, I defer perfectionism. I crank out a draft quickly. Then I review it, usually multiple times. It's easier to revise your way to excellence than to come up with it out of thin air.

Blogging is time-effective because I needn't convince an editor to let me write about a topic. I also like blogging because as soon as I've written it, it's instantly available to the world, unlike a magazine article, where months transpire between idea and publication. Too, a blog post remains keyword-searchable and forever available to anyone in the world with Internet access. And unlike a book, a blog post never goes out of print--it ensures you leave a bit of a legacy.

Unless a client really needs to see me earlier, I don't schedule my first client until 10:45. That allows me about an hour and a half of answering email and writing. At that point, ready for a break, I have breakfast, take care of morning ablutions, and if it's an in-person client, get dressed. Here are the details. Plenty of time-saving here.

Saving time at breakfast and in morning ablutions

They following paragraphs may be TMI (too much information,) but I have decided that sufficient readers will benefit--it will only take a few minutes to read yet provide a window into the way I save lots of bits of time without diminishing my quality of life.

Every morning I eat the same thing: oatmeal with berries, walnuts, and brown sugar. Why? It's healthy, low-calorie, filling, I like it, don't seem to tire of it, and yes, it's fast. I pour some Quick Oats into a bowl, add water, and put it in the microwave for 1 minute. During the minute, I take a bag of frozen mixed berries (frozen and canned fruit are actually more nutritious than fresh) from the freezer and put some in small dish and set it aside. I take my vitamins, and if there's time, sweep the kitchen floor, empty some dishes from the dishwasher, etc. As soon as the microwave bell rings, I replace the oatmeal bowl with the berry dish and microwave it for 30 seconds. During that time, I add the walnuts and a teaspoon of brown sugar to the oatmeal. When the bell rings, I add the berries. So in two minutes, I have done a bit of home maintenance, taken my vitamins, and prepared a delicious, home-cooked, healthy breakfast. I carry it upstairs and return to answering my email while eating the oatmeal. So the time spent eating without doing something productive is zero. You might ask, "Doesn't that deprive you of the pleasure of eating?" Not at all. I'm focused on enjoying my food while deleting spam emails doesn't distract me from the pleasure of eating.

On to ablutions. No surprise, I usually read on the pot. I always keep the book or magazine I'm reading near the toilet. Other times I think about some issue, or yes, occasionally just veg out.

While brushing my teeth, I take off my night clothes and pick the clothes I'm going to wear. I then hop into the shower, only shampooing/conditioning my hair every other day unless I sweated a lot the day before. A Google search revealed that's often enough unless your hair is an oil slick.

I shave in the shower. The aforementioned Edelstein says it takes him seven minutes to shave; it takes me 30 seconds. Perhaps he is just an anomaly--I've not asked anyone else how long it takes them to shave but I figure it doesn't hurt to take a few sentences to explain to you how I shave in 93% less time than Edelstein. Because I've already been in the shower for a minute (shampooing or just enjoying), my skin is softened. I take a bit of Edge shave gel--it's far easier to see your skin through gel than through a shave cream. That enables me to shave more confidently, faster. I find the Schick disposable Xtreme3 razor to be the fastest and nick-proof. I generally shave over an area just once or twice. If all the stubble isn't removed, it means it's time to change razors. I'm usually showered and shaved, including a minute at the beginning and a minute at the end just to enjoy the shower, in around five minutes.

Within reach of the shower, I keep a memo pad and pencil. We're likely to get good ideas in the shower (and when exercising) because the warm water increases oxygenation to the brain and because we're not otherwise distracted. Knowing that, I usually go into the shower with something I want to think about, and on average, reach out of the shower to write something on that memo pad once or twice per shower.

Here's how I save time with clothing. I wear timeless designs so I needn't worry about being out of style and thus would have to shop all the time to stay "fashion forward." I buy no-iron shirts and pants because they go longer without getting wrinkled. To avoid having to take the time to iron, I take most dirty pants and shirts to the dry cleaner. Since I use a lot of dry cleaning, I took the time to find a deep-discount place that does a good job and is conveniently located. To save time, I only go to the dry cleaner's about once a month--I wait until I'm almost out of clean, appropriate clothes.

I even use time-savers while getting dressed. I keep my lace-up shoes always tied and can easily don them with a shoehorn. And on those rare occasions I have to wear a tie, they're also pre-tied. That is, when I first buy a tie, I tie it, and when I take it off, I loosen it only enough to pull it over my head. The knot remains tied, thereby saving me a minute every time I put on a tie.

A hot shower sometimes makes me a bit phlegmatic so, after, I sometimes have a cup of coffee. I use a four-cup Mr. Coffee, which makes great coffee quickly and costs just $15. I like my coffee hotter than the Mr. Coffee brews it, so I put it in the microwave for a minute, during which time I fill the dirty carafe with water and water a plant with it.

Time-effectiveness in my career

One key to the efficient life is to pick a career in which you'll make a particularly positive impact. I chose to be a career counselor because, per hour of my time, it has large potential to make a difference: I help each client to make a bigger difference than they otherwise might have made.

I choose to work for myself rather than be a career counselor at a university or corporation. That way, I can spend my time on what I think matters, not on activities that many people who work for corporations, non-profits, and government complain are insufficiently beneficial. Another way to be efficient.

Here's how I make my career counseling sessions efficient. My clients ring themselves into the waiting room, my living room. That way, if I'm in the middle of something, for example, finishing up a blog post, I may have time to complete it without having to jump up and then lose time trying to get back into the swing of writing the post.

I intuit how much pre-session chatting with a client is wise. I can sense when a client wants to get right down to business or would prefer a minute or three of chatting. If the client doesn't initiate, I try to pick a topic I sense will help a nervous client relax or a topic the person might want to talk about. For example, if they walk in and say, "I really like the architecture in your neighborhood," I might ask, "Interested in architecture?" Note the conciseness of my question. Indeed, I always try to be concise--that is critical to efficient interaction and to not being seen as a blowhard.

Another example of a session efficiency: I send an extensive questionnaire for all my new career counseling clients to complete in advance of our session. We use it as the springboard for our first session. That enables me to help a client far more quickly and less expensively than the traditional career counselor who devotes the first session or two to asking and hearing the answers to those questions. Also, during sessions, I'm often asking myself, "Would doing this activity be an efficient use of our time?"

Under-the-radar time-saving at lunch

That session is usually over between noon and one. Today, as it happens, after taking Einstein for a walk around the block, I took myself out to lunch. I chose a buffet place because I can get in and out more quickly. I asked for the check in the middle of the meal so when I was ready to leave, I could do so without having to wait for the check and for the waitperson to return the credit card slip to me for signature. During lunch, when I wanted to take a break from eating, I took notes for The Efficiency Expert in a memo pad. I happened to be parked so that by backing up 10 feet into a quiet intersection (that's illegal of course) I could save the two minutes it would take to drive around the block. I looked around to see if it was safe (including no cops around) and did it. Those activities, in total saved me at least a half hour and the process of trying to save time was fun.

Time-efficiently processing the U.S. Mail

The U.S. Mail typically arrives between the time I finish lunch and my 2:00 client. Here's how I time-effectively process it. I keep the recycling bin and a small trash can near the intersection of my bedroom and the stairs going up to my home-office. Every day when the mail comes in, I sort it as I'm walking to the recycling bin and trash can. Usually, in the 15 seconds it takes to walk there, it's almost sorted. I dump the recyclables, put the plastic-wrapped junk mail in the trash can, and toss the mail-order catalogs and other bedtime reading the 10 feet onto my bed--tossing/scaling items is another fun way to save bits of time. Finally, I carry upstairs the stuff that requires more time or my computer.

Getting what you need quickly from books

I receive about 200 books a year in the mail from publishers hoping I'll promote it on my radio show or blog about it. I use only about 10 of the 200. Here's how I quickly sort and dispose of the other 190. This is a good way for anyone to glean information quickly from books, for example, when you're in a bookstore, library, or evaluating what book to buy on Amazon. If the title and subtitle appeal, I glance at the back cover. If it still is a contender, I scan the table of contents. If it still appeals, I put it on the stairs to take to my desk, where, when I have time, using the table of contents, I pick out the most intriguing chapter title or two, then scan it/them as follows: Read the headings skimming any intriguing ones, and skimming the summary at the back of the chapter. The whole process takes just a few minutes per book. If I decide I want the guest on my show, I, right then, email a template note to the publicist: "I'd like to book (insert author's name) on my NPR-San Francisco show. I include a link to the page on my website describing the show, including the luminaries that have appeared--that motivates even most tough-to-book guests to say yes. First available dates: (I list three.) Thanks." That's followed by my signature line, which automatically appears on the bottom of my emails. That signature line includes my website, email address, and phone number, but with recipients I want to email me and not call me, I delete the phone number. I put the rejected books in a box, which when full, I stick in the back of my car and donate to the public library.

After my 2:00 client, I usually have an hour or two of writing time before my final client of the day, which starts at 5:00.

At some point during the week, I have to prepare for my radio show. Some of that preparation is ongoing--every time I see an article or press release that contains a nugget, I print out it, the tweet, or blog post I write about it. I stick that in a manila folder that I take with me to the studio. If I'll be interviewing a guest, I write the six to 10 questions I'm curious to ask that I think would also be of great interest to my listeners. If she has written a book, I also see if good questions emerge from the press release, the front or back cover, the flap, the summary chapter (which sometimes is the first chapter, sometimes the last), and from a few sections of the book that most intrigue me. I rarely read the entire book--as usual, I try to stop work at the point of diminishing returns--the point at which, additional time is likely to produce too little of value.

You can even save lots of time exercising

After my 5:00 client is done, usually between 6 and 7 pm, Einstein and I go out to exercise. A Google search revealed that the current expert consensus is that 45 minutes of brisk walking six days a week is, for most healthy people, a good choice for good health. So Einstein and I take the 10-minute drive to the beautiful lake that we briskly walk around six days a week.

Before leaving for the lake, I ask myself, "What is the topic or two I want to think about as we go around the lake?" It's usually a topic requiring extended thought and maximum brainpower--As I said, along with in the shower, you get maximum oxygenation to the brain when exercising.

Right next to where I keep my wallet and keys, I keep a standard 3x5 memo pad. I always keep them in the same spot so I never waste time looking for them.

Right before I pull out of the driveway for that drive, I cell-phone my 86-year old mom who lives 3,000 miles away. Ritualizing it that way ensures that every day, my mom gets ten minutes of my time without my having to take additional time out of my day. My mom doesn't need me to call every day. I could call every two or three days and all would be fine. I call daily just because I know she appreciates it. I mention that to point out that even though I'm productivity-focused, I sometimes decides to be unproductive--but I try to make such decisions consciously. No matter how productivity-focused you decide to be, consciously decide how to spend your next chunk of time rather than finding yourself asking, as so many people do, "Where did the day go?" or even, "Where did the years go?"

If I miss the traffic light on the way to the lake, on sunny days except in the winter, I put on sunscreen, which I keep in the glove compartment. 30 seconds saved. Lest you think that's trivial, that one time-saver alone saves me two hours a year, 20 hours over 10 years. Multiply that by the countless time-savers in this book and I think you see how you indeed can painlessly find a couple of extra hours every day of your life.

For the first few minutes of walking the lake, I simply enjoy the lake's beauties. After about five minutes, refreshed, I turn to the topic, jotting down notes on my memo pad. But I don't force it. I recognize that that is time to relax. Whenever I feel like a break, I simply enjoy the scenery: the trees, the sky between the branches, the sound of the birds, the other people and doggies. I will stop to say hi to a friendly person, especially if they have a cute doggie in tow. Thus my 45 minutes at the lake not only gets me good exercise, I do some of my most productive thinking, and experience the stress-free pleasure that comes from seeing nature's wonders and sharing it with the many nice people who share my fondness for the lake and doggies.

On the drive back, I usually call a friend or listen to a Great Course ( on CD or download. Those are 10 to 20-hour courses taught by top-quality instructors. For example, I just finished listening to The Wisdom of History, taught by Harvard Ph.D. Rufus Fears who has won many awards for outstanding teaching.

Managing to stay productive in the evening

On returning, my brain still nearly maximally oxygenated and me still energized from the exercise, I do an hour of the most demanding work I have left for the day--usually writing.

After that, it's usually about 8:45 and I take my dinner break. I try to eat lightly so I don't have the food coma that would make me want to call it a night. I typically eat a big salad, while a piece of frozen salmon or chicken and some broccoli or string beans are heating in the microwave. I put curry powder, garlic, parmesan cheese, and/or some mayo on it, and voila, instant, healthy, filling, non-soporific dinner.

It's back to my desk, typically answering the rest of my email. Throughout the day, I'm answering email that can responded to in a minute or less. The emails I'm doing at night usually require more time. I usually pack it in for the night at around midnight.


I am aware that most of you won't want to be as time-effectiveness conscious as I am. That's fine. If you use those examples just to remind of you of the following principle, you'll probably accomplish much more of what you want to accomplish. After all, it's hard for most people to merely stay on top of life's basics.

Remember that time is our most precious possession. Be more conscious about how you spend it. As you're deciding whether and how to do a task, make a point of asking yourself, "Is this a good use of my time?" During the task, ask yourself, "Do I want to do this in a more time-effective way?"

You don't want to be one of those people who's always asking, "Where did the day go?" or worse, "Where did the years go?" You want to be one of those people who feel, "I'm making good use of my time on this earth. I'm living a life well-led."

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