Ho-hum. Sigh. Yawn. Another time management article, you say? Yes, I say. Why, you say? Because managing your time effectively is one of the most valuable skills you can master, I say, so let’s stop chatting while I write this article! Okaaaay, you say, but reading it had better be worth my time. Very funny, I say…
“Time management” has definitely been bandied about since, well, perhaps since the beginning of time. We’ve heard that we must “manage” our time, as if time is a small child or a new employee, but in reality, time isn’t actually manageable. It’s simply time. It exists. It’s the “thing” that you live in the middle of, as you read this article, walk your dog, grow your garden, or drive to work. So when we speak of time management, what we really mean is “self management.” We’re not in control of time, per se, but we’re definitely in control of ourselves, and of what we do with our time as we travel through it. So read on, try out a few of these time management techniques, and watch your productivity grow.
- Know thyself. In order to manage your time, you must first know how you spend it. So, for the next week, without changing anything, observe your current time management practices—simply stated, watch how you spend your time. Not just your phone calls, emails, report writing, and meetings, but also your driving, eating, sleeping, and goofing around on StumbleUpon (my personal favorite site for “wasting” time!). And be sure to write it all down. In order for this exercise to be truly effective, you must keep an honest-to-goodness time log or journal. It doesn’t have to be complicated or fancy, but if you don’t actually record your activities, you won’t be able to accurately identify your current baseline behaviors, and more importantly, to track your progress as you make positive changes. (And you want to have something to celebrate, don’t you?)
- Do a post-mortem. Now that you’ve kept a log for a week, dig down and begin to “become one” with your time management habits. What are your observations? Do you see some patterns? Can you identify any “black holes” in your life that suck away all your precious time? When are you feeling energetic, and when would you rather be napping? Look for anything obvious that could be tweaked without much bother or disruption. But most importantly, identify your “prime time.” Some people work well first thing in the morning (I’m one of those people), while others tend to “wake up” later in the day. (My father was a verifiable “night owl,” who was at his most creative around midnight.) Identify your best time—it’s usually when you have the most energy, but that’s not necessarily true for everyone—and use it to carry out your most important or difficult tasks.
- Plan tomorrow today (or tonight). This simple technique allows you to start off working first thing the next morning, without having to decide what to do first. You’ll have already identified your high payoff items (those things on your to-do list that bring you the biggest bang for your time-buck), and you’ll be able to prioritize your schedule according to your “prime time.” But that’s not the only benefit—I finally realized, only a few years ago, that by planning my day the night before, I can actually sleep better! Here’s why. If I happen to wake up in the middle of the night (which I often do), my mind will jerk into wide-awake mode, and I’ll start to ask myself whether I’m prepared for the next day. But if I’ve already worked out my schedule and I know what I’m doing, I can tell my overly excitable brain, “It’s okay. Everything’s under control. You can go back to sleep.” And off I go. It works for me, so give it a try!
- Practice “batching.” This is, hands down, my favorite time management tool. (And it’s simultaneously an organizational technique, to boot!) I’m always amazed by how well it works, and by how much time I save when I employ this method. Here’s what batching is: it’s putting together “like items” on your to-do list, and then doing them all at once. For instance, rather than returning phone calls, helter-skelter, throughout the day, collect them over a reasonable time period, and then return all phone calls at once. Or, rather than holding random meetings throughout the week, schedule your employee check-ins, one after another, throughout an entire morning. Or, instead of reading and responding to each email as it comes in (a common “bad habit” for many of us), set aside a specific time to read all your emails at once. Answer the ones that need immediate attention, all at once, and then save the others to answer later—again, all at once. That’s batching!
(Hugely giant word of caution: if you work for someone who requires an immediate response to his or her phone calls, texts, or emails, answer them! Hanging onto your job is definitely more important than being a time management pro.)
- Keep asking questions. Lots of them. Have little conversations with yourself in order to determine whether you’re on track. Here’s my favorite one to ask, because I believe it gets right to the heart of the matter: “Why am I doing what I’m doing right now?” While this question may seem a bit silly, it’s actually quite valid and reasonable. We all know how easy it is to get sidetracked on less vital issues, and asking yourself this question can help you refocus your attention where it is most beneficial and productive.
Here are a few other questions to ask: What can I delegate? Am I doing anything that’s completely pointless, and if so, what should I be doing instead? Is there anything can I simply stop doing altogether? What tasks can I batch? When do I feel most productive and what am I doing when I feel that way? Asking questions like these will help you know whether you’re truly accomplishing your goals and objectives, or merely spinning your wheels. Looking busy—and even feeling busy—isn’t necessarily being productive. It’s important to know the difference.
Realistically, you might not immediately incorporate all of these time management tips into your life, but if you begin with even just one, you’ll start “banking” time every day. And once you get the first one down, be sure and celebrate your victory, and then add another one. Keep at it, tip by tip, and you will eventually become a time master, which isn’t really a thing, but it sounds cool—and you want to be cool, don’t you?