“Time is at once the most valuable and the most perishable of all our possessions.”
In today’s fast paced society and global business culture, it becomes increasingly important to manage one’s time. We all seem to have increasingly more demands on our time and attention as well as the expectation that we are constantly accessible (e.g., social media, email, cell phones). However, we all have the same 24 hours in a day and we do not control the speed of time. So, time management is really about self-management. If you struggle with managing yourself with regards to time, you are not alone. This is a common complaint of many of my clients as well as friends. Improving your time management can free up additional free time for relaxation or anxiety management or help one feel more confident and accomplished in their day. Good time management can help you focus on your most important priorities. If you’re interested in ways to improve your time (self) management skills, here are my tips:
1. Plan ahead.
Begin with the end in mind. Sounds simple and straightforward, but ask yourself how many times you set out to focus on your main priorities only to make little to no progress because you get side-tracked by less important matters. When we plan ahead and focus on our top 1-3 priorities, we tend to make more room in our schedule for what is important. This helps keep the distractions and unimportant matters at bay. Successful people spend the first few minutes of each day thinking about what they want to get accomplished and making sure detours are minimal.
2. Keep a schedule.
Once you know your priorities you can begin to map out a weekly schedule. Start with the most important tasks and meetings and include the less flexible, recurring time commitments. As you add to your schedule, add the things that are decreasingly important or more flexible until you have the least prioritized and most ‘movable’ or ‘cancel-able’ plans at the end. Make sure you include some down-time for you to relax and some flexible time where unexpected things could get done. Do not forget about sleep and don’t scrimp on getting at least 7-8 hours per night.
Also, schedule in time to eat, exercise, and generally take care of your physical needs.
3. Use a task list.
After you have a weekly schedule and know approximately when things will happen it is time to keep track of what needs to get done. Using a task list can help with efficiency and it is so gratifying to cross completed tasks off the list as you watch the number of things needing to get done shrink. There are two good options for the order of your task list and one bad option. Some people find it helpful to list the most important tasks up top to keep them focused on their priorities. Others seem to benefit from ordering their task list by time urgency, so they put what is ‘due’ first at the top and move towards what is ‘due’ last or later towards the bottom. Either of these methods are fine so you might try both to see which one is a better fit for you. The order you want to avoid is random order or placing tasks on the list as you think of them. Once you have a task list written down or in electronic format, you free up some mental energy in not having to remember to remember to do something.
4. Know what time it is.
“Better three hours too soon, than one minute too late.”
How can you manage your time if you do not know what time it is? Keeping track of the time is an important though often overlooked aspect of good time management. This can be done in a number of ways with technology and is more than looking at the clock or a watch. Reminder alarms and timers on smart phones are really helpful to some people, especially those with attention difficulties or passionate people who tend to get ‘lost’ in what they are doing. Also, knowing your bio-rhythms is important. Do you know what part of the day you have the most energy and focus? When do you slump? Organizing your schedule and task plans around the daily changes in your body and energy level is helpful to maximize your productivity.
5. Do the hard or unpleasant stuff first.
If you are anything like me, you would rather do the fun or more interesting stuff first. The only problem with this for me is that I put off the boring or less interesting tasks over and over again until it causes problems because I never get them done. I have found that doing the unpleasant things initially and rewarding my work with the more interesting or fun tasks can be a way to manage my time more effectively. This is also known as the Premack Principle or Grandmother’s Rule. You must finish your homework before you can go out and play. Grandmother was wise.
6. Reduce distractions.
“What distracts us will eventually define us.”
One of the reasons we struggle with time management these days is because there are so many ways we can be distracted. Some of the biggest culprits are cell phones, email, and social media. I jokingly tell my clients that mobile phones have off buttons for when they are working or studying. If you keep your phone on or have a tablet, laptop, or desktop open with windows or applications running, you might consider turning the alert features off to prevent distractions while working on something that takes more focus. Some of the best managers of their times will only check email once or twice per day (at the beginning and possibly end of the work day). This may or may not be feasible depending on your situation, but you might be able to check email less often. Social distractions can be reduced by closing office doors or working on a project away from your usual places. Whatever your distractions are, think about a plan to reduce their interference on your work.
7. Set deadlines for yourself.
We all know those people that wait until the last possible moment to get things done. Even with large projects. Maybe you are one of them. There are many reasons for procrastination, but one of the more common explanations is that people get stressed and overwhelmed when there is too much to do. For any large scale projects, it can be stress relieving and reduce overwhelm by breaking the process into steps (and sub-steps as needed) and setting soft deadlines for these steps. Then, simply focus on one step at a time within your set schedule. If your current step still feels overwhelming to you, then break that down smaller to sub-steps until you no longer feel overwhelmed and are ready to take action.
8. Have your materials organized.
It can save a lot of time when you do not have to go looking for stuff. Knowing where your materials are and keeping them nearby means that you do not have to spend time gathering them. Also, having something to work on at all times can be helpful if plans get unexpectedly cancelled. For example, working with college students, I will often recommend they have something to read or study in case a class is cancelled and they have unexpected free time while on-campus. When working from office or home, try to have most of the things you need within arm’s reach. If you are traveling, put some extra time into packing your bag with the things you definitely need as well as things you might need. That way you can take advantage of potential time opportunities.
9. Focus on one thing at a time.
“If you want to make good use of your time, you’ve got to know what’s most important
and then give it all you’ve got.”
When our attention is divided, we are less efficient at any one task. Also, we end up spending a lot of our time trying to re-focus or re-orient on a task. “Now where were we?” “What was I working on again?” The book The One Thing by Gary Keller with Jay Papasan is an excellent and not very time consuming read on this topic. Checking email or returning phone calls only once or twice a day can really help you focus on one thing at a time. Plus, you get to choose the timing rather than being at the mercy of other’s schedules for communication.
10. Slow down.
This last one may seem counter-intuitive at first. If you are like me, then you hate being in a rush. When time is tight, you make mistakes. This causes you to spend more time ‘cleaning up’ those mistakes. In the long run, it is best to take most things slowly, which helps you be more focused and efficient on the task at hand and reduces mistakes (and time spent fixing those mistakes).
If you or someone you know is struggling with time management, feel free to give me a call to schedule an appointment or for a quick telephone consultation.