We’ve all heard the expression “Time is money”. In fact, many of us would argue that time is more precious, maybe even our most valuable resource. Like managing money, learning to spend your time wisely can lead to success, health and even increased happiness.
We work in an environment where we struggle for time to get things done. Think about a typical day — bombarded with emails and pings from social media, drifting from one ineffective meeting to the next, and helping out others who may (or may not) require our immediate assistance. It can be overwhelmingly difficult to get past all the distractions. In fact, we’re interrupted on average every 11 minutes. And guess what? It takes us 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task at hand.
Time management is crucial to our professional well-being and success. It also plays a key role in the success of our colleagues, who rely on us as industry experts and leaders. Without time on our side, achieving something worthy can be pretty difficult.
So, where does effective time management begin? Well, the first step is learning to focus on time as our most valuable resource. This doesn’t only mean your own time, but the time of others as well. After all, time gives us all the chance to focus and put our expertise to work.
Years ago, multitasking was a considered a critical skill: no resume was complete without an example of how well we could manage multiple tasks at once. Tell a potential employer you couldn’t multitask effectively, and you could kiss that job goodbye. Fortunately, we now know multitasking can be very disruptive to our health and productivity. Recent research in neuroscience reveals how humans are actually wired to focus on one task at a time; multiple distractions can impede our ability to learn and focus. No one argues about the potentially fatal outcomes of distracted driving or “smombies” (German for smartphone-distracted pedestrians), yet many of us fail to appreciate the negative impacts of listening to music or tweeting while at work. These seemingly harmless distractions affect our productivity and ability to accomplish a task effectively.
So how do we eliminate distractions? First, identify the various distractions that get in the way of you doing your work.
- Silence all that noise. This means everything from music on your computer or iPod, video streaming, office gossip, phone calls, ringtones, and social media or email alerts. Nothing is more disruptive in today’s open-concept office than this fuzzy noise all around us.
- Now-you-see-me. You know that person hovering beside your desk, walking by your cubicle, tapping you on the shoulder, or virtually flashing in your taskbar? How long must they linger before we acknowledge them or they walk away?
- Avoid clutter. This one is so bad that even Microsoft came up with a designated inbox for the less-urgent email. And while electronic clutter can eat away at our productivity, clutter around our office or desks can be just as disruptive. So, maintain a clean, organized workspace, and others will notice.
- Breaks, breaks, and more breaks. We all need to get away from our screens and our chairs. It’s important to get up and walk around or stretch to avoid physical and mental fatigue. But keep a check on that urge to have one too many breaks, to grab another sweet snack or one more venti Frappuccino. That may just be your mind walking away from the responsibility of getting work done.
- No multitasking! We already know multitasking is a myth. Focus isn’t about getting many tasks done at once, but making sure you accurately complete one job at a time.
Manage Time Effectively
Learning to manage our time more effectively can yield many benefits, including healthier lifestyles, more productivity at work and happier relationships at home. Develop some time-saving habits and learn how to make positive change stick.
Start with structure. Try some apps for keeping to-do lists, and get to know Office 365’s wealth of productivity tools. These tools help you stay on track and let others know when you’re available to collaborate or when you’re hunkering down for some serious alone time to get things done.
- Schedule your week. Look ahead each Monday and plan your week. Have a mid-week touchpoint with your calendar, and on Fridays reflect on what you’ve accomplished. Consider what you might have missed and what may need rescheduling. Effective time management means never missing an important meeting; it also means you’re spending a lot less time rescheduling things. Own your time, and you become your own master.
- Block Time. Whenever possible, set aside designated days for meetings, and try to schedule at least one “Focus Day” each week. Focus days let you remove yourself, if only mentally, from the busy office scene so you can go deep into the trenches to define and review your strategy, accomplish time-sensitive assignments, or deal with work that requires serious concentration.
- No Trespassing. We can’t all draw an impassable line across the office or put up “Do Not Enter” signs on our doors, but we can learn to communicate our availability to others. If you have an office, close the door. If you use instant-messaging, update the status feature to let people know what you’re working on and whether you’re available to chat. For example, Skype’s “Do Not Disturb” function sends chats to your inbox for review at a later time. Remember, it’s good practice to let others know you’re busy, but it’s equally important to let them know when you’re available as well.
- Prioritize. Identify your tasks and prioritize them using Steven Covey’s matrix. Follow these simple guidelines of urgency:
- Quadrant 1 (top left). List the most important and urgent items; these are issues that require your immediate attention.
- Quadrant 2 (top right). Identify what is important, but not urgent. Think of your goals, things you want to identify, or milestones you want to set.
- Quadrant 3 (bottom left). Identify the urgent but unimportant items. These are things that drain your time and energy and should be minimized or eliminated completely.
- Quadrant 4 (bottom right). List the unimportant and non-urgent items. Include trivial issues of minimal value that could be minimized or eliminated.
- Choose wisely. How many things do you do in a given day? From our morning ritual until the moment we call it a day, we likely perform over 150 different actions. Make a list. Identify the dozen or more tasks you must do every day. Now, choose wisely: which 6-8 things on this list provide the greatest return on the investment of your time and resources?
Reap the Benefits
When we manage our tasks effectively, we avoid surprises and limit dealing with unknowns. This can reduce stress levels as well as workload, help us identify ways to delegate and share responsibility with others, and let us feel a sense of accomplishment, rather than just a notion we’re getting things done.
Long-term goals start to make sense when we set clear objectives. Think of goals and objectives like this: you want to climb 20 flights of stairs, but you’re going to take it one step at a time. By setting objectives, we benefit by making fewer mistakes, and in turn we become more organized. We can’t reclaim lost time, but we can spend far less of it on unfocused tasks. So, set some objectives and keep yourself on track.
What happens next? Suddenly we find ourselves meeting our deadlines. Using foresight and tools to help us plan and stay focused, we avoid potential problems. Ultimately, our professional relationships will benefit by yielding more positive results and less friction. And, since time is more precious than money, we’re also being more cost-effective and productivity.