In my last post, I talked about the “unmade beds” in our lives. Those messy distractions that drain our energy, keep us from focusing, and stand in the way of getting any “real work” done.
But once you’ve made the bed and sat down at your desk, where do you go from here? How do you decide how you are going to spend the next eight to ten (or more) hours of your workday?
As the management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “Time is the scarcest resource; if it is not managed, nothing else can be.” So how are you going to manage your time . . . while you try to manage to find the time to do all that you need to do?
There are a million time management and personal productivity tools, tips, and techniques out there. You can spend hours researching all of them. (But then you really wouldn’t get anything done, would you?) Or you can start with any of the seven simple tips I’m suggesting below.
While many of these techniques may at first glance appear to be just common sense, “Common sense is not always common practice,” as the saying goes. And it’s putting these ideas into practice to achieve results that really matters.
So here are seven of my favorite time management methods to help you get the most—and the best—out of your day, week, month, and year:
- The To-Do List or Checklist – So simple and obvious, and yet most people just don’t have one. You may have a collection of scraps of paper scattered about, Post-it Notes stuck to your computer, or random scribbles in a notebook, but not a single organized and detailed Master List of everything you need to do all in one place. If you do nothing else, do this. Consolidate. Life is complex enough, so anything you can do to simplify will help. It will not only help you get your life more organized, it will reduce stress and help you get your brain more organized, freeing you up to think more clearly, make better decisions, and innovate. As Atul Gawande’s bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto powerfully illustrates, a simple checklist can, literally, save lives. So why not start with your own?
- Time Management Matrix (aka the Eisenhower Matrix) – Popularized by Stephen Covey in his classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, (and discussed in even greater detail in his First Things First), this simple 4-quadrant model can help you more effectively manage your time (and your to-do list) by thinking in terms of “urgency” and “importance.” The basic premise is that if we spend all our time scrambling around, dealing with the urgent (e.g., crises, interruptions, and distractions), then when and how do we ever find the time to do the big things that really matter?
- Time-Cost-Quality Triangle – Every decision we make involves these three factors. It’s up to you to determine what matters, as there are always trade-offs involved — and a change in any one factor will impact the others. (In project management terminology, we may talk in terms of Scope, Schedule, and Budget.) Do you want it done right . . . or do you want it done right now? Usually you can’t have it both ways.For example, delivering high quality tends to take more time, and often costs more. Everyone wants everything “better, faster, and cheaper,” but is that realistically possible? Even when deciding whether to walk, take the subway, or take a cab, we’re playing these three variables off each other! This simple, triangular model won’t make the decision for you, but it will help you prioritize and to make more confident decisions.
- SMART Goals – A big part of New Year’s resolutions is setting our goals or objectives for the year. So why do we so often fail to achieve them? Because the goals we set were most likely not “SMART”! A “SMART” goal is
- Specific (as opposed to broad, vague, or general)
- Measurable (that is, quantifiable—as Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”)
- Achievable (that is, a challenge and a stretch, but realistically doable)
- Relevant (the goal must be meaningful and significant)
- Time-oriented (there needs to be a deadline to be met, because what you can do “anytime” will, most likely, be done at no time).
Saying “I’d like to lose some weight this year” is a good intention; but it’s not a SMART goal that will increase your odds of getting you there. Saying (or, better yet, writing it down and saying out loud to others who will hold you accountable): “I am committed to only eating X number of calories per day, and working out five days a week, with the realistic and tangible goal of losing 2 pounds a month for the next six months” is more likely to get you closer to achieving your ultimate objective than just hoping it will somehow magically happen by itself.
- The Three B’s of Effective Calendaring: Bookending, Blocking, and Batching – Very simply, these three B’s are easy to remember and not that difficult to do…if you make the time and take the time to actually do them.
- Bookending: Reserve the first and last hour of your workday (e.g., 8:00am-9:00am and 5:00pm-6:00pm, depending on your schedule) for solo, silent, undistracted planning time. You could also “bookend” your week, month, and year. Not taking the time – with yourself and for yourself — to plan and strategize is a good way to spend day after day just spinning your wheels, burning out, and never getting any of the most important things done.
- Blocking: If you don’t control your calendar, everyone else will. Block out a few hours a week to “meet” with yourself (even if it’s just a half hour or an hour at lunchtime) so you can recharge and refresh, and/or to actually get some real work done…rather than just running from one meeting to the next.
- Batching: Instead of stopping and starting as things pop up, group similar things together (e.g., responding to non-urgent emails and phone calls, doing paperwork, filing, bill paying, etc.) and knock them out all at one time when you can give these low-priority (but highly important) things your undivided attention.
- 18 Minutes – Author Peter Bregman, in his thought-provoking and highly entertaining book of the same name, recommends something similar to bookending, with an added twist: He says that you should dedicate five minutes at the start of each day for planning and five minutes at the end of the day for assessing how things went (that’s ten of the eighteen minutes. He also suggests you spend one minute of every hour in between (set the alarm on your watch or phone to go off each hour) to STOP… and ask yourself: Is what I’m doing right now what I SHOULD be spending my time on right now?
In this day and age, it’s way too easy to go online to check Facebook “for a minute,” only to look up and realize that it’s lunchtime already and you’ve gotten absolutely nothing done. So you come back from lunch, log back in, and then go off on a “Google Field Trip” – you know…when you go online to look something up, only to find that it’s now five hours later and you can’t even remember what “that” was. And it’s now time to go home.
- The Two-Minute Rule – If something will take less than two minutes (or even less than five minutes) to do, just get it done right NOW. Rather than adding it to your To-Do list, or taking ten times as long to delegate it to someone else, just knock it off now and move on to the next thing. You’ll feel good about making progress as you check things off your to-do list, and, again, it will allow you to focus on the big things. This and other great tips can be found in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is probably the most popular personal productivity book out there today.
As mentioned previously, there are tons of other related tools, tips, and techniques around, but I’ll stop there.
You’re probably thinking: I barely have time to keep up with my email and all my meetings. How am I supposed to find the time to do everything on this list? The answer is, don’t try to. Just pick one or two—the ones you think will have the biggest immediate impact—and focus on making a few small adjustments and improvements . . . one day at a time.
Doing so is an investment. And like any long-term investment, you may not see the payoff right away, but you will see the return on investment—yes—over time. You know, the whole “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that.
The key is to just get started.
And now is as good a time as any.
For an additional personal productivity boost, you might enjoy some of my previous related posts, which will help you rethink how you are going to invest your valuable time this year: