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

We 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).

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.

“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.”

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 drop-offs, 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 mandated to myself that all my work had to be done in five 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 to get all my work done in five 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:

I never sit down at my desk and wonder to myself ‘what should I do first?’. 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.

My afternoons are usually filled with stuff I like doing as the ‘nice to dos’ are generally the more fun jobs.

2. 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. 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.

5. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

For more from Kelly Exeter, go to flyingsolo.com.au, Australia’s solo and micro business community.