According to US management guru Brian Tracy, your greatest resource is your time. But it’s often the most poorly managed and underutilised resource of all.
Think how often you’ve uttered the words ‘what a waste of time’. We recognise the importance of time, we value and we’re protective of our time, yet all too often we don’t manage it effectively. Inefficient time management can negatively impact your career, your personal life and your relationships, and be an ongoing source of stress and tension.
So what can you do to boost your time management skills and make the most of every day? A good start is to commit to an action plan to better manage your time – and watch your productivity improve in the process.
Here are five time management steps to get you started.
1. Create a task list and prioritise the tasks.
The late business and leadership guru Stephen R Covey coined the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Perhaps the most relevant of Covey’s habits for the purpose of this article is Habit 3: Put Things First. “Prioritise, plan, and execute your week’s tasks based on importance rather than urgency,” Covey said. “Evaluate whether your efforts exemplify your desired character values [and] propel you toward goals…”
At the start of each day, create a task list. Rank the top three most important things you need to do in terms of urgency. If you have a seemingly insurmountable task list, consider dividing your day into two-hour blocks for each particular task. Then move onto the next project. Chipping away at tasks in blocks will help keep your mind fresh and engaged, and ensure you’re not letting things fall onto your ‘too hard’ list.
2. Do a time sheet for one week.
Tracking your time is essential in order to identify where it’s being wasted. A time sheet is an effective way to do this. Create a table with five columns, and include the following headings:
1. Time: in this column, record the time you started the project.
2. Activity description: give a brief description in the column of the type of work undertaken.
3. Duration: give an approximate time spent working on the project in this column.
4. Category: write down the type of work whether it be administration, email, budgets, etc.
5. Client/project: and finally in this column give the title of the project or client on whose behalf you’re working on.
At the end of the week, review your time sheet and rate yourself. Look at where time is being wasted, or not being spent effectively. How many minutes/hours in the day are you spending working on things that are actually bringing value to the business?
3. Get control of your emails.
Schedule email time rather than intermittent checking (and avoid hitting send/receive!).
While email is a great resource, it’s easy to let it take over your day, often without you even realising. You might be in the middle of a task, see your email icon flash and before you know it, you’ve interrupted that task to focus on the email.
“Email pours in with no break to its flow,” writes Peter Bregman on Harvard Business Review. “And like addicts, we check it incessantly, drawing ourselves away from meetings, conversations, personal time, or whatever is right in front of us.”
Bregman says it’s not just the abundance of emails that’s our problem, it’s the inefficiency with how we deal with them.
To tame the email beast, consider designating three set times during the day to check and respond to emails – for example, 8.30am, 12pm and 4pm. Allow 20 minutes to do this, equating to one hour per day – rather than allowing yourself to be constantly interrupted by incoming emails, which makes it harder to get back into the task you were working on. File or delete your emails as soon as they have been addressed, to avoid having an overflowing inbox that can be the source of stress.
4. Consider procrastination your enemy.
Putting things that you are reluctant to do off until later is a trap that many people fall into. And it’s not just in a work sense – it can be putting off that dentist appointment, returning that friend’s phone call, or paying the electricity bill. But procrastinating creates chaos in your life, where you feel like you’re constantly chasing your tail. The to-do list doesn’t go away. It just builds up until you feel stressed and overwhelmed as it continues to grow.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin: “Never leave till tomorrow that which you can do today.”
Instead, put those dreaded tasks at the top of your task list, and try to knock them over at the start of the day. If you find this daunting, remember the words of the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu (604 BC - 531 BC) that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Yes, even in those times, people procrastinated! You’re the one in the driver’s seat – learn to lead yourself. Try to focus on the feeling you’ll have after completing the task, so you can approach it positively, rather than holding onto the fear or the negativity that surrounds these tasks.
Otherwise, in the words of Tracy, procrastinate on the small tasks. “It’s a good idea to make a separate list of tasks that are not important but have to get done at some point. Whenever you feel like procrastinating, look over this list and see what you can knock off without much effort. You still get work done even when you feel like you are procrastinating.”
5. Minimise distractions.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn … we live in a digital world, and it can be easy to let time fly while using social media. Remember, time is money! Whether you have key performance indicators or not, every employee is judged on their effectiveness, attitude and ability to get the job done. Don’t let social media take over your life. Consider checking it just once a day, and preferably at home in order to allow you to concentrate on what really matters in your work day – getting your work done!
Lastly, make it your goal to improve your time management, and therefore your effectiveness. In the words of US-based sales trainer Michael Altshuler, “the bad news is time flies. The good news is that you’re the pilot”.