This former CEO cut her 70-hour workweek down to 30 with 3 productivity hacks—start with ‘tossing your to-do list’

Tanya Dalton used to work 12 to 14 hour days before she realized she was barreling towards burnout.
Courtesy of Tanya Dalton.

In her early thirties, Tanya Dalton was building her first company, working 12 to 14-hour days and raising two young kids.

While struggling to manage her busy life in all of the typical ways — impossibly long to-do lists and an overflowing calendar — she soon realized something was off.

"I was wearing myself out, exhausting myself and then wondering why I was so tired but still so unsatisfied," Dalton tells CNBC Make It. "I'd go to bed at night, and I would feel like, 'Why didn't I get more done?'"

It was clear something needed to change after she became instantly heated at her husband for spending an extra five minutes in the car in their driveway after work, listening to a program on the radio.

"I was inside ready for him to come take over for the kids so I could get more stuff done," Dalton recalls.

Rather than resenting her husband for taking a few minutes for himself, she realized she was angry at the fact that she couldn't afford herself that same alone time within the chaos of her daily life: "I wouldn't give myself five minutes to laugh at the radio."

Since then, Dalton says she has been at work "tearing down and breaking down the old systems" of her workflow. Now, six years later, Dalton works until 3 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays.

The founder and former CEO of inkWELL Press, which sells planners, Dalton now advises companies on how to optimize productivity. All the while, she takes every Friday off, amounting to a 30-hour work week.

Rather than being hindered by that shorter schedule, she says it's helped her publish two books, including 2020's "The Joy of Missing Out," and become a sought-after productivity consultant and speaker.

Along the way, Dalton has learned which productivity hacks are worth implementing — and which of them are just passing fads and distractions from what truly enhances the quality of one's work.

Here are her top three strategies to boost productivity, and the ones she thinks you can ditch:

Trade your Pomodoro timer for actual breaks

The Pomodoro technique is a viral time-management hack with big names like Tom Hanks claiming it's boosted their work output.

The strategy entails setting a 25-minute timer for focused work, after which you are rewarded with a five-minute break. You repeat that four times before you reach the ultimate reward: a 20-minute break.

Today, anyone can find a range of productivity apps and websites specifically built around the Pomodoro technique. But Dalton thinks it is fundamentally flawed because most people cannot just switch their focus on and off.

"One of the big problems is that every time you're distracted, it takes about 23 minutes to get back into that state of flow," Dalton says. "So every time you get to that state where the ideas are flowing, the alarm rings and you're stopping yourself."

Instead, Dalton advises designating larger chunks of time for work — and consequently, bigger time blocks for rest. For instance, she recommends working for 60 to 90 minutes, and no more than two hours at a time, before taking a break. She says that not only allows the mind enough time to enter its "state of flow" where it can produce quality work, but it also provides adequate recovery.

To be sure, Dalton notes that there is no "magic formula" or one-size-fits-all approach to maximizing productivity. She says that everyone should pay attention to their own individual signals of when their focus wanes.

"Rest is actually a requirement for great work to happen," says Dalton.

Measure your productivity in tasks not hours

Among society's primary misconceptions about productivity, Dalton says loyalty to the 40-hour work week leads the way.

"There is nothing magical about the number 40," she says. "Stop focusing on the time our team spends in their seats and instead focus on the quality of their work and really defining what success looks like."

When fixing her approach to work, Dalton quickly realized she didn't need a jam-packed, 40-hour week to complete her most important tasks. She says that to-do lists and back-to-back scheduling may have made her feel productive — each time she checked something off her task list, she remembers the "tiny hit of dopamine" — but they were hindering her actual output.

That's because, Dalton says, "Our brain is going to choose the easiest tasks to check off."

The result: The harder, and often more important, tasks get procrastinated for days on end.

Dalton recommends "tossing your to-do list" and replacing it with what she calls a "priority list," which has just five to seven tasks, ordered by importance.

Ultimately, you may end up getting fewer tasks done with a priority list, but you will get the items that truly matter checked off — and you may even get it done in fewer hours by skipping easier, less important tasks.

"It goes back to the whole idea of moving from being time-focused back to being task-focused," says Dalton.

Check in regularly

In the chaotic pace of her 70-hour work weeks, Dalton never truly took the time to process that she was on the fast-track to burnout — an increasingly common workplace phenomenon. That's why intentionally checking in with herself has become a mainstay of her productivity routine.

Dalton sets an appointment with herself once every quarter as a time for personal reflection. She assesses where she is in her life and whether she likes it. She thinks about the pace of her schedule, the harmony of her family life and work life and what she might want to change going into the next quarter.

Ultimately, these check-ins helped highlight how her life had become imbalanced, skewing towards work and away from family. Feeling like she was not giving enough attention to her children spurred her to set clear time boundaries and construct her 30-hour work week, she says.

"It's powerful because that allows you to be more in charge of your life. It lets me feel like I'm more the driver of the bus rather than just the passenger," Dalton says.

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