Productivity / Business Productivity

How to get all your work done in 5 hours a day

Tired of working nights? Struggling to fit all your work into the short school day? These nine tips will help you own your to-do list and get more work done in less time.

12 October 2015 by

We soloists all know the secret to running a successful business right?

It’s hard work.

And that’s something few of us shy away from; most of us acknowledge that these days we work more hours than we ever did working ‘for the man’ … but we’re happy to do so because the harder we work, the more it pays off (for us).

Source: Work your way Flying Solo’s step-by-step course. View more.

This has certainly always been the case for my husband and me. We’ve owned two businesses for nine years now and we’ve always been happy to do whatever amount of work was required to make those businesses a success. But in the last year, however, our priorities have had to shift.

We have two young kids (aged two and six) and when our (now) six-year-old started school last year, it changed everything.

Gone were the long daycare days where we could drop both kids off at 8am and pick them up at 5pm. Now, not only did one of us (me) suddenly have to try and fit work in around school dropoffs, pickups and the ridiculously short day in between, there was also an incredible amount of school-related admin to deal with. I won’t lie, that first year of school was a real struggle. Most days I found myself working the 5am to 7am shift, the 9.30am to 2.30pm shift and the 7.30pm to 10.30pm shift at night in order to get everything done.

Not. Very. Sustainable.

"I was tired and stressed all the time, cranky with the kids, and my husband and I weren't getting any quality time together. So this year I decided things had to change. "

I was tired and stressed all the time, cranky with the kids, and my husband and I weren’t getting any quality time together. So this year I decided things had to change. I mandated to myself that all my work had to be done in 5 hours a day during the hours of 9.30am to 2.30pm (as much as possible). No jumping on the computer after school pick up. No jumping on the computer at night.

And for the most part, I’ve achieved this goal. How did I do it?

  • First I got realistic about what I could achieve in any given day.
  • Then I got ruthless about how I went about achieving those things.

Here are the nine things I do now to get all my work done in 5 hours a day:

1. ‘Have to do’ vs ‘nice to do’

Each afternoon before I turn off my computer for the day, I make my to do list for the next day. This list always kicks off with my ‘have to dos’ before veering into the ‘nice to dos’. Doing my to do list this way means three things:

  1. I never sit down at my desk and wonder to myself ‘what should I do first?’.
  2. I’m always tackling the hardest things on my list (the ‘have to dos’) as the first jobs of the day when I have the most energy .
  3. My afternoons are usually filled with stuff I like doing as the ‘nice to dos’ are generally the more fun jobs.

2. I exercise every morning

This is hugely important to my productivity. When I don’t exercise in the morning I find it hard to get going and my brain tends to be sluggish when I sit down at my desk. This means I am not tackling my ‘have to dos’ with any kind of fervour and they take me five hours to do instead of two. I also don’t get to do anything ‘fun’ from my to do list on those days and that’s very frustrating. So it’s easier to make sure I exercise!

3. I have a rock solid morning routine

I not only exercise every morning, but I have a ‘carved in stone’ morning routine. I am a firm believer that the way you start your day directly correlates to how the rest of your day pans out. So if you start your day by pressing snooze three times, only to jump out of bed with just enough time to have a quick shower and run out the door, then it’s likely the rest of your day will feel pressured and rushed too. Conversely, if you get up at the same time every morning with plenty of time to get ready for the day, are able to eat breakfast in a leisurely fashion and then head out the door with plenty of time to get where you’re going, by the time you sit down at your desk for the first time on a given day, you’ll be calm and ready to take on that day (as opposed to being on edge and overstimulated).

4. I’m an email ninja

I have a long list of things I do to keep my inbox under control and those things are a post for another day but here’s my number one email tip: five sentences or less. Just because someone has sent you an essay doesn’t mean you need to reply with an essay. Where practical (and it almost always is), answer their email in five sentences or less. If you’re worried people will find your replies too brusque, drop this line and link into your email signature:

Why is this email 5 sentences or less? Find out here.

5. I keep a notepad next to my desk

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’re busy working away on a document when you remember you haven’t paid the lawnmower man yet. You figure while you remember, it’s best to login to your internet banking and pay him. While you’re in there you remember you have to call the bank about that extra payment they took out and again, you figure it’s best to do it now because you’ll have forgotten about it by this afternoon.

Remembering you have to do something while you’re in the middle of something else happens all the time, but deciding to do that something ‘now while you remember’ will derail your productivity for the day.

What do I do when I remember these things that need to be done? I write them down on the notepad I keep next to my desk. And then get back to the task I was working on. Those things I’ve written down on my notepad can ALWAYS be done later.

6. I never ever multitask

It’s so tempting when you’re waiting for a file to download, an image to upload, or a big email to send, to open another program or browser window and start working on something different. Don’t do it. Trust me, don’t do it. Countless studies have proven that multitasking is hugely inefficient and no matter how good you reckon your brain is at swapping back and forth between tasks, there’s no denying your brain will always operate better when working on one thing at a time.

7. I turn off all notifications

In other words, I turn off all distractions.

Do I need to know someone mentioned me on Twitter at the exact moment it happened? Do I need to know every single time someone likes my latest post on Instagram? I get 50-100 emails each day – do I need to know the exact instant every single one of those emails drops into my inbox?

No, I don’t. I can wait till I go on Twitter, Instagram or into my inbox to find out these things. There’s nothing life-threateningly urgent happening in any of those places. If there WAS something life-threateningly urgent that involved me, then it’s safe to assume I’d get a phone call about it!

8. I always take a lunch break

Yeah I know – crazy. If you’re trying to fit all your work into a five hour period of the day, who’s got time for lunch? Well … I do. And you do. 15 minutes people. That’s all the time you need to move away from your desk, grab something to eat … and then actually eat it. Another radical thought: go screen free at lunch. Want to read? Read the paper, a book or a magazine. Give your brain a break. I guarantee if you do this every single today, your afternoons will double in productivity and thus more than make up for that ‘lost’ 15-30 minutes you spend having lunch.

9. I avoid meetings at all costs

When your working day is five hours long, your presence at a meeting should be the exception not the rule. And you certainly shouldn’t be travelling to meet someone somewhere. Given Skype is free and works well for those situations where you need to meet ‘face-to-face’ there should seldom be any need for you to get in your car and attend a meeting in real life. If you DO have to meet with someone, make sure they understand that the meeting has to end at X time and there is no time to go off tangent or away from the meeting agenda (you’re not ever taking part in a meeting where there is no agenda right?).

So there you go. As I mentioned at the top of this piece, a certain level of ruthlessness is required to fit a full-time amount of work into a five hour work day … but we all have it in us to do so. If you ARE already being ruthlessly productive and yet you’re still finding yourself on the computer every night, that means you have far too much to do. And there’s a cure for that too. But that’s a post for another day 🙂

Are you currently working the ‘night shift’? Do you think any of the above might help you stop doing that?

Kelly Exeter

is the Editor of Flying Solo and owner of Swish Design. She’s also an author and her most recent book 20 Simple Shortcuts to Small Business Success was written with fellow soloists and small business owners in mind. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.


  • Sarah Rosborg

    so many great tips.. thanks Kellyx

  • Great list Kelly!! Wherever possible, I put meetings under the “nice to do” list and have them after lunch so they don’t interfere with a productive morning 🙂

  • Some great tips. I have been working the hours of an indentured slave in an attempt to get it all done around school hours, and started to wonder whether it was in fact possible to run a business in this amount of time. Your article has given me hope !

    • It definitely is Sandy – you just have to be absolutely ruthless with those 5 hours. No housework, no appointments, no meetings (where possible). 9.30am-2.30pm is for work … the hours outside of that can be used for pretty much everything else!

      • Thanks Kelly !

      • PS. How do you change your routine during the dreaded school holidays ?

        • I wake up at 4.15am every morning normally (the morning time is my ‘me time’ for exercise and writing). In school holidays I do my ‘must dos’ between 4.15am and 7am … and then have the rest of the day for my ‘nice to dos’. Not many ‘nice to dos’ get done in the school holidays!

          • Wow, that’s really helpful. My husband (who has a job) said I was crazy because I was getting up at 5am in the school holidays to have productive time before the kids got up. I can reassure him now that I’m not the only one !

          • Definitely not the only one!

  • Great tips. I would add in to remember to ask for an embarrassing amount of help (in the words of Tad Hargrave). Trying to do it alone is a recipe for days where you end up rocking in the corner while you sob into your 15th coffee for the day.

  • Super article. It’s the exercise one I’m really needing to work on right now. 🙂

  • Brilliant list, Kel. I do most of these things, and yes, definitely have the notepad near the desk otherwise it’s so easy to jump to another task in fear of forgetting to do it. I don’t complete everything between school hours though, but this is a conscious choice. My most productive part of the day is first thing in the morning before everyone is awake.

    • I too am most productive first thing in the morning … but I’ve had to stop myself using that time as work time because it meant I wasn’t getting any of my own writing done!

  • Great reminders and tips. I am especially taken on the no meetings!

  • Great suggestions and a good reminder to get consistent exercise back into the morning routine.

    • Consistent exercise makes such a huge difference to productivity. My brain just doesn’t work without it!

  • Great article, we all so need to cut down on those tasks that distract us every day – like flippen Facebook – my one really bad addiction. I’ve always exercised every morning and usually get up at the same time (three cats wanting food are good little alarm clocks)

    It is so easy to get distracted and lose focus, also, I used to be proud of my multi tasking skills, not any more. One task at a time for me now.

  • The 5-sentence email thing is genius!! Much to implement here, thank you

  • Jo (down to earth mother)

    Thanks Kelly, best post ever! Wish I’d read it three years ago 🙂 I can’t wait to read your advice on getting my email dragon under control, hint hint.

  • Interesting article Kelly, and thanks for it. I have long had a notepad (or digital equivalent) so as to keep focused on the task at hand. Having said that, I still find I can run off at tangents because I also try to deal with things in one session which has led to “interesting” diversions. For example, I started off checking my email but because of that I am now on a Flying Solo forum because I want to deal with the Flying Solo email once and once only! I have just had to realise that even the best rules have exceptions – just don’t break the principle behind the rule.

    • Oh yes – of course! All the best rules are made to be broken. As long as we are being intentional and mindful with our rule breaking (as opposed to being reactive) 🙂

  • Awesome article, Kelly. In the same boat with two kids as well (a bit older though). I do find myself feeling like there are not enough hours in the day! Will try to implement these tips in my workflow. Cheers.

  • In case it helps someone else, another thing I do to save working time is to allow ideas to marinate. Work on something for a while – then change to something radically different. While you are doing something else your subconscious is still working on the problems, and when you come back to it things work out a lot quicker.The downside of this approach is that you do need more elapsed time, even though you are putting in less effort.

    • I love marination! All my best problem solving occurs when I let something marinate … and then the solution pops into my head in the shower or while out running x

      • Having a shower to break up my work day can be the single most beneficial thing I do in a day – the number of lightbulb moments I’ve had and problems I’ve solved in the shower is kind of hilarious!

        • InterestIng… Is having a shower emerging as a new problem solving technique?

          • Yes! I remember once being completely stuck on something and in desperation, I had a shower. And it worked! They reckon something about the warm water on the back of one’s neck does it

  • Thanks for sharing your tips. Two tweaks: 1. sometimes, for some, it might be better to not take a lunch break – just work through with a little foraging; 2. while I agree with focus, compressing work hours, filtering interruptions, seeking efficiencies and making time for reflection, fun and family, the more I read about the birth of great companies the more I feel, to my disappointment, that fixed, short work hours may not be a reliable path to success. Most founders of great companies worked long and hard – to their very limits, for what it’s worth. So is that relevant for Soloists? Maybe one’s approach depends on what one wants.

    @flyingsolo-65c4558240c6d4a68bee536aa6bca958:disqus +1 for marination

    • The above definitely needs to be tempered to a person’s situation. But many, many soloists I know have been doing their biz for 5+ years and are still working ridiculous hours. If you’re in startup phase – then ok. But if you’ve been at it for 5+ years and you’re still in startup mode … that kind of work rate is unsustainable and unhealthy (IMHO!)

      • +1 to both of you! There’s a time to push and a time to be sustainable.

  • Good advice… I’d probably add a couple more to the list:

    1) Have a rock solid evening routine – This will also help your mornings run smoother.

    This would include:
    – preparing your clothes and shoes for the next day (and your kids clothes, depending on the age of your kids)
    – preparing your kids school bag for the next day (or reminding them to do it if they are older 🙂 e.g. sign diaries/forms, pack homework books, library books/bag, swimming gear

    If I’d had followed my own advice, my daughter’s prob wouldn’t have forgotten her swimming gear today! 🙁

    2) Get to bed at a decent time – so you aren’t exhausted to get up early for the other stuff.

    This one I constantly fail at… it’s like my inner child refuses to sleep and insists on staying awake for just a bit longer.

    • Oh yeah – 100% agree with these! Truthfully – I had about 15 points I could have shared in the article above, but I didn’t want to freak people out!

  • I’ve never had notifications turned on – so I never miss them!

    • Yeah – I only ever really have Instagram on my phone and email on my computer. But those are off during the day now!

  • I must start exercising regularly in the mornings, I must!! All these points are so obvious, but I rarely do them!! Argh!!

    • Yes Shan – you must! And isn’t everything in life so obvious? We all know what we need to do … we just need to do it!

  • Great article Kelly, as always with our parallel lives I appreciate your insight!

  • Clearly a hot topic – awesome article Kelly. Well done.

  • I really need to get my morning routine sorted. I loved being up early and walking in the park with you when you were here. Wish I could do that every day!

    • You can!! I do! Such a great way to start the day … but does require going to bed early 🙂

  • Awesome and topical as ever Kelly. Absolutely on the nail.

  • Love your work Kelly 🙂 Great tips…might even try adding these to my to-do list!

  • Printing this out to pin by desk!!

  • Great Kelly – multitasking can be a problem for me – I will commit to not multi-tasking. I will.

  • This is pure gold Kelly. Thank you x

  • Luca bianco prevot

    Nice article, nice site, and nice community. You people feel very nice, really. I’m saying it not cheesily, it’s just that my family and I are soon moving to Au (SA) from Italy and this thread matches what we’ve been reading about australians – welcoming and easy-going ppl.

    Ok, having done my presentation, I’ll give my five cents. I have 3 kids, 4,6,8, we spend alot of time with them and we’re always drained. So another tip comes from Eisenhower (US president) who used to bring a pyjamas at office (the white house!) and took a 20 mins nap after lunch. He said this way he had 2 mornings a day, which means 2 days in a day! I love it. So I would put it together with the essential tip of doing exercise regularly (unavoidable to be sane, really) and with the great idea of a mid-day shower (hot and then freezing – try it!).

    • Ha! Well we hope you enjoy it here in Australia when you arrive … and have you seen those new desks that convert to a bed? Perfect for your theory above!

  • Hi Kelly, I feel so identified with what you wrote! I was able to achieve a 5 to 6 hour work day too, if it wasn´t for the circumstances pushing me to do so (young children, other activities) I don´t know if I would have been able to do that. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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