You may have heard the saying "time is money" -- maybe it's even your mantra. But your time can be much more valuable than money. Sure, getting a handle on time can boost your productivity. But it can also go a long way toward putting your life in balance, and open up opportunities for those things that really fulfill you. Additionally, time management can help you reduce stress, which often stems from disorganization, procrastination and an avalanche of distractions.
It might help to begin by realizing some misconceptions about time management. Most people talk about managing time, but the truth is that time flows by no matter what. Time management is really self-management. In most cases, each person is his or her own worst time waster. You may think it's interruptions and other intrusions that eat into your time. Yet every day, you probably find yourself spending idle time on the Internet, chatting with colleagues and putting off important tasks.
Time management does not mean doing more; it means doing the right things. It should help you accomplish more by working less [source: Taylor]. In some cases, time management software or gadgets might be helpful, but you don't really have to use them to get a handle on your time. What you really need is the commitment to establish good time-management habits.
Keep reading to learn more about 10 of the most effective time-management strategies.
Focusing on priorities is a big part of good time management. First, you need to define what those priorities are. Start with the big picture: Where do you want to go in your life and your career? Also consider your values. What's important and meaningful to you? Next, think about what you can do this month, this week, and even as soon as tomorrow, to make progress toward those goals.
However, setting priorities requires more than just applying an A, B or C rating to a given task. It means regularly reviewing your mission and long-term goals. To this end, management guru Stephen R. Covey points out that time management requires both a clock and a compass. The clock is how we use our time. The compass represents the sense of mission that should be pointing us toward where we want to go [source: Covey]. Will the things you are doing or planning to do pay off by moving you closer to your goals?
To stay focused, write down your priorities. Keep the list with you. And always be selective -- don't make everything a priority.
The reason to set priorities is that you can't do everything. That's why good time management also involves deciding what not to do. Too often, we obsess over how to fit every task and project into our schedule, when we would benefit by simply dropping some unnecessary duties.
Just saying "no" means protecting your time from interruptions. For example, if colleague wants to chat, an inessential phone call comes in, or a bill lands on your desk, politely beg off, let voice mail answer, or defer action till later, respectively.
And remember that your most flagrant interrupter may be yourself. You probably don't need to sharpen your pencil, check your e-mail or see what the weather forecast is before you get down to really working. Avoiding procrastination means saying "no" to yourself, too.
Delegating is one way to say no. When you delegate, you're leveraging your efforts by enlisting others. Don't get hung up on the "I-can-do-it-better" syndrome. Maybe you can, but someone else may be able to do what's necessary, and delegating frees up your time for higher priorities. When you delegate a job, let go of as much of it as possible -- don't look over the shoulder of the person who's doing it. Also, consider hiring a virtual assistant to do things like Internet research, or a handyman for a household chore you would waste time on.
The first step in getting organized is to write down the things you need to do. This is an ongoing process and a key to effective time management. The goal is to get it off your mind but make sure you deal with it. It doesn't matter whether you do it with fancy computer software, a personal digital assistant, a smartphone or a simple pad and pen. Use what works.
Next, set up an effective filing system. Again, arrange it in a way that works for you. Whether it's organized by time or project, this will give you a place where you can store the material you'll need -- and find it later.
Organize your work flow. Some of us are naturally neater than others, but a desk piled with random heaps of paper and festooned with sticky notes almost guarantees wasted time. Clutter is an enemy of efficiency.
One way to begin the organization process is to keep a time log for three days. A realistic look at how you are currently using -- and misusing -- your time can be both a guide and a catalyst for organization.
Breaking large projects and unpleasant tasks into smaller action-items can be a great stress reliever. It's easy to feel overwhelmed when you have six major commitments looming. Your goal should be to take each project and divide it into manageable components. Then pick out the ones you can do today -- and actually do them.
One of the bonuses of this approach is that you can reward yourself for making progress. Accomplishing a small step is gratifying and helps keep up your morale during a major undertaking.
Breaking tasks into increments is important when you're faced with a chore you hate but need to get done. You can fight your tendency to procrastinate by taking a baby step -- devote 10 minutes to it, for example. That way, you've at least made a start, and you may find yourself continuing on to finish it.
This approach doesn't apply just at work. A goal like "I will improve my relationship with my brother" is vague and unlikely to yield results. "We'll get together for pick-up basketball on Saturday," on the other hand, is something you can put on your schedule and accomplish.
You've set priorities, broken your project into tasks, now what? Set aside time to do it. Too often, we put an item on our to-do list, fail to get around to it, and move it over to tomorrow's list. Why? Meetings, interruptions, phone calls, crises, more interruptions.
Continually shifting gears seriously diminishes productivity, especially for tasks that require generating new ideas. You need to get control of your time by creating dedicated blocks that you can devote to a specific task.
Begin by literally drawing a line around blocks of time on your calendar. Turn these into appointments with yourself. Keep these appointments as faithfully you as would any other.
The time shouldn't be less than 15 minutes or more than an hour. If you can, retreat from distractions -- maybe to a conference room. Don't take phone calls. Sit down with a goal in mind and work steadily toward it.
Multitasking "implies that we are focusing on two things at once," psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell said in an article in Management Today. "That is cognitively impossible" [source: Kirwan-Taylor]. Multitasking is not necessarily a way to increase productivity. In fact, experts now think that the distractions and bursts of attention involved can lead to a mild form of attention deficit disorder [source: Kirwan-Taylor].
Technology is always offering people new ways to multitask -- from tablet computers to smartphones. These can be great ways to save time and work more efficiently. But if not used wisely, they can also become time-wasting distractions. A survey by America Online and Salary.com found that 44.7 percent of employees consider "surfing the Web" to be their biggest time waster [source: Leland/Bailey].
When you're multitasking, make sure that trivial tasks do not drown out important ones. If you check your e-mail during an important staff meeting, for example, you might miss an important point in the meeting while you're distracted.
Also, keep in mind how others view your multitasking. Talking on your cell phone at your child's ball game shows you're not really interested in watching him play. Similarly, glancing at an incoming text message while holding a conversation with a colleague may appear rude.
The best use of multitasking is to fill in dead time. You can answer e-mails in your doctor's waiting room. During a long commute, listen to recorded books or make calls using a headset. Catch up on your reading while exercising on a treadmill. Pay your bills as you watch television.
Any time wasted in a meeting is multiplied by the number of people involved. That's why it's essential to make meeting times as efficient as possible. Begin by keeping the number of people who are invited to a minimum, and don't attend a meeting yourself unless your participation is really needed. When you call a meeting, make sure everyone knows the purpose and the agenda. Each time an item is discussed, end with a decision of some kind -- even if it's just to talk about it again later -- and move on. Don't get bogged down.
Also, send out information that participants need in advance -- handouts in meetings can be distractions. You might even suggest pre-meeting actions such as investigating prices or feasibility. Go into every meeting with a goal. What are you trying to accomplish there?
Try to start every meeting on time. It may help to schedule the gathering for an odd starting point, like 10:35, to emphasize the time to participants. When the meeting begins, announce when it will end. No meeting should have an indefinite length.
E-mail seems like an ideal time-management tool, right? Instead of a series of interrupting phone calls, you can deal at your leisure with a succinct group of messages. Unfortunately, that's not the reality for most people. Instead, many find themselves continually checking e-mails and end up putting aside other work to read and answer them. You may be deluged with irrelevant messages. E-mail can quickly become a time waster.
One solution is to check your e-mail only two or three times a day. You might let your colleagues know you only look at e-mail at certain times so they don't bug you for a reply. Set aside a time to return both e-mails and phone calls. Don't break up blocks of work time.
Also, you may be able to organize your e-mail inbox by category so that you don't have to wade through a long list of miscellaneous messages. When you are out of the office, try setting up an auto-reply that lets e-mailers know who to get in touch with in your absence. Otherwise, you'll return to a bulging in-box.
The irony of time management is that many of us just can't find the time to manage our time. Habits and pressing duties keep us from setting priorities, breaking down tasks and getting organized.
The simplest step you can take is to plan for tomorrow. Make a written to-do list of the things you want to accomplish. Keep your goals realistic -- relate them to larger goals if you can. Assign particular time slots for when you plan to do a task. You might want to include some facet of time management on the list. In other words, set aside an hour or so to get organized.
Planning your day gives you two immediate payoffs. First, it can ease stress. Without a dozen things to juggle in your mind, you can get a good night sleep. Second, it helps you hit the ground running. You know what you need to do, and your first task is ready and waiting.
Time management is not an end in itself. Yes, it can make you more productive. But it should also give you more time to enjoy life, more time for family and friends, and more time to have fun and get healthy. So when you set priorities, don't limit them to work. Look at all the things that give life meaning for you. Make sure you are devoting time to what's really important.
Time management does not mean rushing from one task to the next -- just the opposite. If you're hurrying, chances are you've lost control of your time and are probably operating inefficiently. Here are some ways to make sure time management doesn't become yet another source of stress.
- Always take a lunch break. You'll be more productive by coming back refreshed for the afternoon.
- Schedule exercise breaks to tone up your body and your mind.
- Determine a cut-off time for work. After that, put it completely out of your mind.
- Disconnect regularly. Turn off your cell phone and computer for a period every day.
- Set aside time to do nothing. You need to recharge your batteries now and then.
- Take a real vacation, during which you can unplug and break your habits.
For more information on managing your time and organizing your life, follow the links on the next page.
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More Great Links
- Anonymous. "Your Route to the Top: Cope With Overload." Management Today, Page 19. May 2009.
- Covey, Stephen R. "First Things First." Simon & Schuster, 1994.
- Herzlich, Jamie. "Feeling Stressed." Chicago Tribune. Page 5. May 5, 2008.
- Leland, Karen, and Bailey, Keith. "Time Management in an Instant." Career Press, 2008.
- Kirwan-Taylor, Helen. "The Myth of Multitasking." Management Today. Page 48. November 2009.
- McGregor, Jena. "Getting Serious about Getting Things Done." Business Week, Issue 4097. Page 69. August 25, 2008.
- National Health Servicehttp://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Stressmanagement/Pages/Timemanagement.aspx
- Taylor, Harold. "10 Time Management Myths"https://www.taylorintime.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=15&Itemid=105