Time management is all about making the most effective use of your time and working smarter, not longer. It requires planning, and then sticking to the plan – and that takes discipline.
According to the 80/20 rule, 80 per cent of results come from 20 per cent of effort. That means that of all the things you do, 20 per cent are vital and 80 per cent don’t contribute much. Just think of how much you would achieve if you focused more effort on the 20 per cent that really matters! This is where effective time management comes in.
It’s important that you know what your short-term and long-term goals are – this will enable you to differentiate between what’s important and what’s not. It’s only when you know where you want to go and what you want to achieve that you can figure out exactly what needs to be done, and in what order. Once you are clear about your goals, you can plan and prepare a sequence of action steps to achieve them.
To-do lists are your best friend. They can increase your productivity by 20 per cent, help to clear your mind, and save you energy and stress.
Start your day by spending five to ten minutes planning your activities for the day – or, better still, prepare your list the evening before. Write out your tasks either on paper or on your computer. Break down large or complex tasks into smaller pieces – chunk them down into do-able, manageable units that don’t feel too big or daunting, and focus on one at a time. As you complete your tasks, cross them off – it’s a very satisfying feeling!
There’s a good chance you won’t get everything on your to-do list done, but make sure you get the most important things done. That means you have to prioritise the tasks on your list and figure out what is actually most important, as well as most urgent (not necessarily the same thing). It’s helpful to number your tasks or assign them ABC status by giving the most important tasks an ‘A’, the next most important ones a ‘B’, and so on.
Using your to-do list and prioritisation as a base, make a schedule for the day and for the week, including time for breaks and contingencies. The schedule needs to be realistic, with padding for interruptions and unscheduled events. How much contingency time you need to build in will depend on the nature of your work.
Having a schedule means you won’t have to waste time and energy thinking about what you have to do next – just follow your schedule.
Everyone is guilty of procrastinating, but for some it’s a chronic problem that is a major obstacle to success. You know that looming report or assignment isn’t going to go away, so you just have to bite the bullet and get stuck in.
It’s important to look at the causes of your procrastination – is it because you’re waiting for the ‘right’ time or mood, underestimating the time required or difficulty of the task, fear failure (or success), or have just developed a very bad habit? The only way to break a habit is to consistently act in other ways – so stop putting things off and just do it.
For many, emails and phone calls constitute the single biggest obstacle to effective time management. Unless you need to be constantly available and accessible, avoid continuous email notification and let your phone go to voice mail – these things can suck up untold minutes and hours, and make you repeatedly lose focus.
You need to give yourself solid chunks of time to concentrate on your work. Read and respond to emails in blocks only a few times a day so you’re not constantly chopping and changing what you’re doing. This may necessitate reconditioning others and their expectations of you, so they won’t expect immediate responses but will know that you will respond at specified times.
It’s useful to track your daily activities and how much time each takes. This will give you a realistic view of how you spend your time, as well as what interruptions there are, and you might be surprised by how much time certain tasks actually take or how much time is wasted in ways you don’t even realise.
Also note what your energy levels and focus are like at different times of the day. This will enable you to figure out which activities you should be doing at what time of day – you should schedule your most challenging tasks for when your energy level is greatest. For example, if you’re most focused and creative in the morning, then use that time to do your writing or brainstorming, and don’t waste that time responding to emails.
Breaks will keep your mind fresh and you will be able to return to your work with better focus. If you work straight through, you will put in more hours but work less productively.
Stick to allotted break times. You might want to try the Pomodoro technique to see if this works for you. In this time management technique, you work in 25-minute segments (Pomodoros) with 5-minute breaks between each period, and a longer break every four Pomodoros. Some people swear by this technique as a way of increasing their focus and efficiency.
Being organised and having good systems for filing emails, computer documents and papers will save you many valuable hours in the long run – so spend some time initially setting up your systems, then you won’t have to worry about it.
You probably don’t have time to do everything yourself, so if you can, delegate less important tasks, or tasks that would be better performed by someone else.
This is extremely important; your time and resources are limited, so you can’t say yes to everything and accede to every request. You have to stick to what’s important and know when to just say, ‘No’.