7 things you can do in 15 minutes to be more productive

Kristin Tyndall, editorKristin Tyndall, editor

The start of the academic year is the busiest time of year for many people on campus.

When you're in the middle of the crunch, you don't have time to overhaul your entire workflow. Today probably isn't the day you're going to achieve inbox zero for the first time (though if you do, tell us and we'll celebrate with you!).

But you can make small changes to give yourself a little breathing room and feel back in control. Here are a few of my favorite little tweaks that can have a big effect on productivity.

1: Write down everything you have to do.

Yes, everything. Trying to keep your to-do list in your head takes up mental energy that you could be spending on more strategic tasks—think of the way your computer slows down if it's downloading updates in the background. The trick here is choosing a good place to write your list. Personally, I'm not one of those people who's always on my phone, so writing my to-do list in an app won't work for me. Instead, I stick to analog methods like a sticky note. But if you're rarely at your desk, a list app for your phone might be better than a list on paper. Find what works for you. 

2: If it takes less than five minutes, do it now.

Don't let the little, annoying things pile up. They're not worth the space on your to-do list or the frustration they can cause you later. Some people like to set aside a 30-minute daily block to knock out all the little things at once. This reduces multi-tasking and task-shifting, both of which can slow you down. Another approach, which I use, is to do a few small things as breaks in between bigger projects.

3: Clean off your desk.

You may not have time for a full KonMari, but you can set a timer for 15 minutes and spot-clean as much as you can. Pick up those empty coffee cups, throw out old sticky notes, shepherd stray pens back to your pen cup. Productivity experts say clutter is a major distraction, and it does feel nice to reclaim a little elbow room and have your most important files or books more accessible.

4: Find one task to delegate.

One person's hum-drum routine task is another person's exciting stretch role. Don't feel guilty about giving your team more work. "Delegation is not a dirty word," says Butch Ward, the former managing director of the Poynter Institute. It can free you up to do something that only you are capable of doing and can prepare your team member to take on more responsibility in the future.

5: Cancel a meeting.

Some meetings are a necessary and valuable use of every attendee's time. Others are... not. Here are seven types of meetings you can cancel now.

6: Take 15 minutes for yourself.

Scheduling blocks of quiet time is Melinda Gates' favorite way to avoid burnout during stressful periods at work. The key here is protecting and honoring your calendar block. It would be tempting to cancel this meeting with yourself if something else comes up—but a few minutes of rest will help you tackle the next crisis with a cooler head.

7: Chip away at your inbox.

You may not be able to achieve inbox zero in 15 minutes, but you can make a dent in the pile of emails. Try setting guidelines for marking incoming emails as "delete, delegate, or do." Create rapid-response templates if you find yourself sending similar replies over and over again. Review strategies for dealing with awkward or inappropriate emails from students. Or declare "email bankruptcy" and delete everything more than a few days old (if that feels too extreme, move them to a dedicated folder instead).

8 more tips to help you get the academic year started right

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