Effective time management is a very powerful skill. It is likely you can think of more tasks to do today than you have time to complete. Many people go as far as writing a “to do” list, which often fills a page and is impossible to complete. No matter how hard you work, how late you stay, or how short you make your lunch hour; the list is never complete.
The first rule of time management is, therefore, to recognise that no matter how hard you work and how many hours you commit, your “to-do” list will never be complete, so do not see that as the goal as you will only ever end up disappointed.
If you don’t have a “to do” list, then that is your first job. In fact, at the end of every day, you should write the “to do” list for the next day and prepare your work environment so that you can start straight away in the morning. There are many suggested ways of managing a “to do” list.
Set your Priorities Straight
Make no mistake: a day has the same 24 hours for everyone, so don’t think you are busier than anyone else and stop complaining about how you never have enough time in your calendar. At the end of the day, it’s not about the lack of time, it’s about a lack of established priorities.
Priorities should set the tone: depending on the priority of your request or project, I may or may not be busy.
The first priority should always be your clients. It’s your clients who provide your paycheque, so the least you can do for them is give them all the love and attention they deserve. After your client, the next priority should be your boss. Only, after the needs of your clients and manager are satisfied, you should reply to any emails from your colleagues.
There’s nothing against helping out your colleagues (I’m always in favour of collaboration!), as long as that doesn’t mean letting your clients and boss waiting in line.
Work Smarter, not Harder
Let’s be honest here: some people like to pretend they are busy just to impress others and show how indispensable they are to the business. They are always running from one meeting room to the other, like to constantly advertise on how busy they are, and invariably are the last ones to leave the office, even if they don’t actually need to. Sound too familiar?
Or maybe they are just workaholics. At some point in time, we started to equalise workaholics with hard workers, almost forgetting that being a workaholic is also a sort of addiction and that addictions are, well, bad stuff. As a workaholic in recovery, please take my word: a proper work-life balance is essential and leads to happy people who others like to work with.
The trick is to work smarter, not harder: organise your day the moment you sit at your desk, define what are the things that you really need to focus on that day and make a wise and productive use of time spent at meetings. Start with the simple things.
A favourite time management technique
I’m going to highlight the techniques discussed in Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. This small book is based on a metaphor and suggests that if you had to eat a live frog every day that you should get it out of the way first thing in the morning, so the rest of your day can only get better.
Tracy suggests you prioritise your to-do list for today’s tasks as follows:
A = Significant impact if not complete
B = Some impact if not complete
C = No impact / like to do
D = Delegate
E = Eliminate
If you have multiple tasks identified as an ‘A’, then prioritise them; ‘A1, A2, A3…’ and so on. The key to success is discipline. You should stick with task A1 and not move on until that task is complete, i.e. eat your biggest, most important frog first. Do not move onto any ‘B’ tasks until all ‘A’ tasks are complete and so on. This ensures that you make the most effective use of your time. Checking all the printers are fully stocked with paper is helpful, but finishing the end of month report is far more useful, so let’s get on with the report.
Often people suggest this is too simplistic and that they have to respond to emails, phone calls and even instant messages. All of these interruptions are a distraction. It takes several minutes to read an email, decide if it’s important, possibly respond and then remember where you were with your A1 task and get back to it. Where possible, shut down emails to give yourself time to focus on your most important task.
Say you’re going to give task A1 40 minutes and see how much you can achieve just by focusing for that time period. Take time mid-morning to review emails and respond quickly or add them to your prioritised list but don’t let them continually distract you from your important work. If you do, within 30 minutes you will find yourself sucked into a C task, reviewing recommended books on Amazon or watching a YouTube video of a skateboarding cat, what are you doing?
Remember, prepare a to-do list, prioritise it, then stick to the prioritisation. As you complete the most important tasks you will achieve a sense of accomplishment that will increase your motivation for the rest of the day.
“I’ve eaten my largest frog…phew, I’m glad I got that out of the way”.
Tackle your to-do list with the Eisenhower Box
There’s a terrific little time management tool. The important vs urgent matrix, aka the Eisenhower Box, coined after the USA’s President.
Using this simple tool, which separates tasks into four quadrants, you can start identifying what needs to be done now, what can be postponed, what can be delegated, and what can be wiped out from your diary.
Everyone will say that their tasks are the most important and the most urgent, that’s simply how things work. Nevertheless, if you want to get organised, check your agenda for the day and double-check: are they really urgent or can they wait until tomorrow? Are they actually important?
As President Eisenhower once said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”.
We hope these time management techniques can help you to work more productively in your job.