Don’t you just hate it when you have too much to do and you’re running out of time? I can help you boost your productivity. These time management tips will accelerate your performance, and you can start right now.
Whether you are a student, professional or home-maker, these tips will help you manage your time effectively.
1. Measure your use of time
Look back at yesterday. How much time did you spend doing key tasks? Where did the rest of the day go?
How many hours did you you spend travelling? Doing your emails? Attending meetings? Taking breaks? Dealing with interruptions? Doing key tasks? Or doing stuff that keeps you busy but is just a chore?
Type the information into a table in Excel or Numbers, and draw a pie chart. Look back at the other days in the past week and see how the profile changes.
If less than half your time is going on key tasks, you have room for improvement. The tips in this blog post are easy to do and they will make a big difference.
Make a more detailed log for the coming days and weeks and try to do better.
2. Set goals
We all have lots of goals in our lives. To be healthy. To be wealthy. To be wise. We don’t always admit them to others, or even to ourselves! But researchers have found that if you write a goal down, you are much more likely to achieve it.
We are all different. Your goals are different from mine. But there might be some similarities. Here are mine, as an example:
- Support my family
- Build my business
- Be healthy
- Get 100,000 readers for my blog
- Have fun every day
Some goals are fuzzy and others are specific and measurable. That’s OK. Whatever works for you. It’s what you do with them that matters. Write your goals down and work towards them every day.
3. Make one to-do list
Do you have lots of post-it notes with reminders of things to do? An Outlook task list? An inbox with loads of unanswered emails? A pile of paper waiting for attention? Is your voice mail full? If so, you’re normal. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Now it’s time to take control. Make one list.
And make it a new list. Don’t just add to a list that’s already out of control. Start by listing what is on your mind. Drain everything out of your brain. Trust it to know what really matters. Then look at your post it notes and so on. Add them to your list – but only the vital ones.
Be honest with yourself. If you’re never going to get around to doing a task, throw it away.
To manage your to-do list, use a good app like TaskAngel. It’s a great to-do list organiser and task manager, for iPad, iPhone and Windows.
4. Break up your hard tasks
Some tasks are small and easy – like ‘Buy AA batteries’ – and some are much bigger and more complicated – like ‘organize Fiona’s birthday party’. Some tasks are so big, it’s really hard to get your head round them.
When you are faced with a big task, break it down into manageable steps. Or if you can’t see all the way to the end, just write down the first step, to get you started.
5. Face your fears
Do you keep putting off an unpleasant task? Some tasks can be really stressful. Maybe you need to complain about a teacher who has treated your child unfairly. Or perhaps you have to correct a team member who has done a poor job.
It’s tempting to put things like this off until tomorrow, particularly if you’re busy today. But delay never makes a hard problem easier. Take a deep breath and do it now.
6. Plan your day
Time is your most precious resource. As you start your day, there are 8 hours or more of unused time ahead of you, like untrodden snow. You can do what you like with it. Take a few minutes to think about how best to use it.
Review your calendar and your to-do list. Think about your goals. What are today’s key achievements going to be?
I like to sketch out a quick mind-map, on a blank sheet of paper. Don’t use yesterday’s, even if today’s is quite similar. Learn from it and move on.
Stefan James has an excellent blog post on how to plan your day for optimal productivity.
7. Review your routine
Do you do some things regularly? Every day, or every week? Can you do them in a better way? Or to a better schedule?
In my time as a programme director, progress reports were a constant source of frustration. I had to write one for my superiors, and my project managers had to write theirs for me. And in turn they had to gather the progress data we all needed to keep track. It took time for all this information to filter through, and yet everyone wanted the most up to date status reports. And often senior directors insisted on seeing information in their own special format, which made it even more of a nightmare for everyone.
My solution was to draw up a progress reporting calendar, and agree it with all the participants – contributors and reviewers. And I created a simple one-page progress reporting format, that was easy to read at a glance and much less burdensome to put together.
8. Protect your time
These days we can all share our calendars. That’s great for efficiency. But it also means everyone can see when you are free. Before you know it they’ve arranged a meeting and invited you to it.
Make appointments with yourself. Block out the time you need to do your key tasks. Make them private so nobody can see what you’re up to. But do still leave some free time so that people who need you can get to you.
9. Allocate half your time to key tasks
When you’re working on something important, the pressure from everything else continues to build. Keep an eye on your schedule and make sure you are giving at least half your time to your key tasks of the day.
Squeeze all the other activities into the other half. Don’t let them run away with the day.
10. Start with something easy
When you start a new day’s work, it takes time for your mind to get into harness. It’s full of other thoughts – the motorist that nearly ran into you, or the latest crisis at home, or last night’s football game.
Warm your brain up. Knock off a couple of quick tasks before you get onto a more meaty one. Now is a good time to make a couple of calls, or go and chat to a couple of people about how things are going.
11. Schedule interruptions
Time management is an art, not a science. No matter how organized you are, unexpected things are bound to happen. And those emails and calls can’t be ignored forever.
Take account of them in your daily plan. The time you need for your key tasks will take longer than you think. You need lots of white space in your day.
12. Take breaks
Your brain is an athlete. It can’t keep running at top speed for ever. After delivering at peak performance for an hour it starts to flag. You start to lose concentration. Take a short break to recharge your batteries.
If you need to concentrate for an extended period, try the Pomodoro Technique. Use the tomato timer from your kitchen to force yourself to take a break. Simple but effective, particularly if you’re writing a blog post 😏
13. Allow time for learning
You will work smarter if you know what you are doing, and you’ll waste less time on correcting mistakes.
We all know this, but it’s not so easy to find time for learning. The UK government recently surveyed 91,000 employers and found that 48% of their people lacked specialist skills or knowledge, and 59% needed to improve their ability to manage time and prioritize tasks.
We all learn on the job, but you need dedicated learning time too. Try to set aside at least half a day per month to learn something new.
14. Set priorities
You can’t do everything. Set priorities to decide how important your tasks are, to you and the people who are waiting for you to complete them.
You use priorities to help you make choices – what to do, and what not to do. You exercise these choices when you make your daily plan. It’s your decision – what am I going to do today?
What about the things you aren’t going to do. Will you ever do them? If not, kill them now.
Don’t get too complicated when setting priorities. You are just trying to make a decision. I just use High, Medium and Low, and try to put a third in each.
If everything is high priority, it’s the same as if everything was low priority. Nothing gets done.
Benjamin at Process Street has some good advice on how to prioritize tasks.
15. Don’t multi-task
You can only concentrate on one thing at a time. Your stream of consciousness is a bit like a TV channel. Hopping from one channel to the next is inefficient and disruptive. Yes you can walk and chew gum, but you can’t play the violin and beat a drum at the same time.
And don’t sit in a meeting doing your emails. Lots of people do it, but you can’t be present in both places at the same time. Close down your laptop, or step out of the meeting.
16. Turn off unwanted emails
Emails can waste a lot of time. If you receive emails you don’t want, turn them off at source.
If you are repeatedly receiving unwanted emails from the same source, add them to your Spam filter if you have one. If they have an Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the email, use that. (But beware of spammers who exploit ‘unsubscribe’ to get you onto their web site.)
Some email sources have messages you want to see and others you might not. For example, Amazon sends you a receipt if you buy something, but they also send you lots of marketing stuff you might not want. I contacted their help desk and got them to unsubscribe me from all their marketing emails. They still send me the emails I do want to see, like receipts and information about my orders.
All good email providers can block unwanted emails automatically for you. Here’s a good article on how to block unwanted emails on Gmail
17. Empty your inbox
If you get behind on your emails, you are giving yourself less time to do any actions that come from them. Discipline yourself to get your inbox to zero every day.
Inbox is for new email you haven’t read yet. When you have read an email, move it out of your inbox. Otherwise you will find yourself reading the same emails over and over again. Not good!
Sort your emails by received date & time, with the most recent ones at the top. Then even if you have a huge backlog in your inbox, you will still see the most recent – possibly urgent – ones first.
Most emails have a limited shelf life, so as you move backwards in time less and less of them are relevant. After you have gone back a few weeks, most people will have given up on you, so you might as well move all old emails to Archive or delete them.
18. Don’t look at emails while you are working
Don’t be an email addict. While you are concentrating, put your emails away.
Some people seem to spend every spare minute doing their emails. That’s no way to live. Allocate some time for looking at your inbox. Perhaps 30 minutes at the beginning of the day, 15 minutes after lunch, and 30 minutes at the end of the day. Go through your emails as quickly as you can, remembering that most email is trash. But just occasionally something vital will arrive. Concentrate so you don’t miss it!
19. Turn your phone to silent
Don’t let people break your concentration while you are working on a key task. Put a sticker on your phone to remind you to turn it back on again.
20. Use alarms
When your phone isn’t on silent, use its alarm. It’s a perfect tool for reminding you to do things on time.
This is a great application for voice recognition on your phone. I can say “Hey Siri, set an alarm for 11 o’clock”, or “Hey Siri, wake me up in half an hour”, and it does it! I have to say “Hey Siri”, otherwise my boss thinks I’m talking to her, and tells me to get back to work.😒
21. Decline unwanted meetings
Meetings can really get in your way. Don’t attend any that aren’t absolutely essential.
If someone invites you to a meeting, your first instinct should be to question it. What’s its purpose? Does it have an agenda? What happens if I don’t attend it?
If it’s a long meeting, see if you can get away with attending just part of it. Or phone in.
22. Leave gaps between meetings
Back-to-back meetings are the worst of all. You need space to think. Deal with the outcome of one meeting before you plunge into the next.
After a meeting is over, review any actions on you and add them to your to-do list, or do them right away if they are quick.
Before you go to the next meeting, think about its purpose, and your inputs, and the outcomes you want. Then take time to prepare yourself, and make sure you have everything you need before you go in.
23. Arrive at meetings on time
Waiting for people to arrive late for a meeting wastes everyone’s time. It soon becomes a habit for everybody.
I’ve worked in companies where it almost seems to be considered rude to turn up on time to a meeting. It’s as if you turned up early for a party, and surprised the hosts still hoovering.
If you are running a meeting, always start it on time and end it on time, no matter who is late. Get sufficient allies to turn up on time with you. It’s hard to start a meeting on your own.
24. Use remote meeting tools
If you can’t avoid a meeting, call in. That will minimize your lost time and help with meeting discipline.
Years ago big companies used to spend a fortune on elaborate video conferencing suites. These days most just use telephone conferencing systems. Personally I find Skype works just as well as anything.
PC Mag has an excellent review of the best video conferencing software of 2016.
25. Avoid traveling
It’s easy to get into the habit of repetitive traveling, when your company has more than one site, or when you keep having to drive to see a client or supplier.
Think about who you need to see face to face most often. Can you relocate yourself to be near them? And deal with less frequent contacts over the phone?
When you need to talk to someone nearby, go to see them. When you need to see someone far away, call them. Or get them to come to you.
26. Work from home
Commuting is the most wasteful form of traveling. According to a report by the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 128 million Americans are commuting every day, and 3 million of them drive at least 50 miles each way. Three quarters drive alone.
If your work pattern permits, working from home can save you hours of traveling every day, and it will do wonders for your concentration.
27. Work remotely
When you must go into work, try to make it a short journey. If your company works across several sites, use the site closest to your home. If one of your clients or suppliers has a convenient site, they might be delighted to lend you a desk.
When I ran the Westminster Wireless City project, I often worked from a park bench near Buckingham Palace, when the weather was fine. On cold and wet days, I used Starbucks.
28. Organize your work space
Make sure the things you need most often are always to hand. These days we don’t need as much as we used to. In my last assignment as a programme director I was able to bring in my iPad and use it on the corporate network (subject to security policies and tools). This meant I didn’t need to bring my laptop. And I didn’t need a briefcase. Just a little man-bag.
And I didn’t need a desk! Most people just use their desk as somewhere to park their laptop while they do their emails. And finding a hot desk can be a pain. So I gave mine up and took to management by wandering around. And management by sharing coffee. And in every meeting, I had everything with me.
29. Get rid of paper clutter
Piles of paper on your desk may contain all your key information, but you spend too much time hunting through it. Throw away what you don’t need, and scan the rest.
Use the TRAF system – Trash, Refer, Action, File. Trash is anything you can toss away now. Refer is anything you need to pass on to someone else. Action is something you must act on. File is something you need to keep.
Pick up your pieces of paper one handful at a time, and deal them into four piles for Trash, Refer, Action and File. Do it quickly, as if you were the dealer in a card game.
Throw away Trash and pass on Refer. Add actions to your to-do list and put them onto the File pile. Then file them into folders or box files, or even better scan them and trash the paper.
If your box files are getting over-full, pick one of them each week, and TRAF it.
30. Measure your improvement
Did you find these tips useful? You don’t have to all of them at once. Maybe try one of them each week, and see if you can build permanent efficiencies into your life.
Every one of these tips will help you get more done in less time. Go back to tip 1 and measure how much you’ve improved. And tell your friends!
Take a look at the WorkWise web site. It’s a great guide to smarter ways of working.
To manage your to-do list, use TaskAngel. It’s the best to-do list organiser and task manager. Get it for free at taskangel.com.
And download our magnificent infographic, illustrating all 30 ways to get more done in less time.