Time management is one of the most important aspects of being successful today.
The scale of the information overload is steadily growing, and unless you take proactive measures against the everyday distractions, you’ll soon be buried under the information processing. The number of daily tasks we need to cope with growth year by year as well, which means the pressure is always on to reach higher goals and deliver more results. The average productivity expectations constantly grow. If you were successful and managed your time effectively 10 years ago, it could be not only due to the skill, but also because there wasn’t nearly as much happening around you and expected from you.
The challenges of time management
I can’t say that I’m working in the busiest environment possible, but there are all the classic time management challenges present: urgent tasks, regular interruptions, unplanned events – you name it.
I work in a technical support role with a multinational company. Being among the seniors in my technical team, I only get to look into really challenging problems which are specific to my responsibilities and roles within the organization.
When the phone is ringing, most usually it needs to be picked up. The emails are dropping into my inbox every other minute, and some of them are pretty important and urgent.
Colleagues and customers walk in to ask questions, and it takes time to help them as well.
All these are rather typical challenges most of us experience every working day. It’s very easy to give up and admit that you can’t manage your time, and that you don’t have the physical ability to neither manage the time, nor cope with the load. However, I never considered this as an option. Below you will find my answers as to why.
Know what needs to be done
I think I’ve brought this one up a few times across my other posts. Knowing what your situation is and where you are with all your tasks and projects is vital. Without this knowledge, you cannot be comfortable with managing neither your time nor your responsibilities.
Here’s what I consider to be a comfortable setup:
1. A project and task tracking system – this contains tasks and projects, categorized by areas of my activity. I’ve proved it before – it doesn’t matter what system you use – a paper based or an online one, as long as you have it and use it for tracking all the tasks. You get into the habit of collecting all the tasks in your system, and soon enough you work out a certain feeling of security – if you need to do something, it’s there in your tracking system – which means you’ll get to doing it when the time is right.
2. Priorities – it’s very important to understand how important and/or urgent everything on your list is. People are easily caught in doing one task after another without taking the time to consider the relevance or importance of a particular task. While it is true that many things just have to be done and there is no easy way around them, you’ve got to train yourself to assess every single task before you start working on it. GTD followers would know, that this doesn’t mean you have to consider the importance of a task right before you start working on it. You’ll be much more successful if you go through the whole list of your tasks and set priorities in one go – making decisions about what and when to do next for each task, but not starting any real work just yet.
3. Regular review – this is the most neglected part of many beginners in time management. It’s very easy to start with a tiny to-do list and populate another fancy spreadsheet or update some software with your daily routine, but as your tracking system grows bigger and bigger, you tend to review the whole big list of things less and less, and eventually end up with something wihch isn’t manageable at all. It is therefore vital for your success to regularly (at least weekly) do a full review of all the projects and tasks of yours.
Once these systems and processes are in place, I can be comfortable with taking on new tasks and adding them to the system. At any given time, I know that all the activities and all the actions are covered. They all are collected in one system, so there’s only one place for me to check and review, compare against the calendar and act upon. Once you train yourself to use the same set of tools for managing your time, you will be surprised how it will feel easier and easier to stay productive without any stress.
Most important tasks
It is important to know what to do and when. But there’s more to this than just making progress on something form your to-do list. It’s crucial to ensure that you’re working on the most useful and most important task or project.
I find that identifying my most important tasks for each day helps a lot here. Each morning, I take time to review the list of things for the day. I consider different scenarios and end up with the 3 most important tasks for the day. These are the tasks that will make my day even if I don’t get a chance to accomplish anything else.
In fact, these tasks are so important that even if it takes me a whole day to complete one of them, I will happily work away knowing that’s the best use of my time anyway. Since I use the same system for tracking my personal and work-related tasks, on most days it’s made of work-related stuff, but personal plans make it to the top as well – you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
The bottom line is that every morning, before I start working, I decide what will be the most valuable outcome of the day, and agree with myself to fully concentrate on these 3 things before doing anything else. Usually this means that by 10-11 o’clock I’m done with my most important tasks. This is a tremendous boost in motivation – I feel like I’ve already made my day, and it’s only the early hours, which means I’ve got plenty of time to work on other things – according to their urgency and importance, of course.
Identifying most important tasks is one of the best habits I’ve acquired in my whole life. It helps me identify the real value and reasoning behind daily tasks, and ensures I work on the most valuable projects. It’s the biggest return of my time investment – I know that I’ll reach the necessary goals no matter what, and only then will move on.
The decision making process for picking the MITs (I’ve learned about this abbreviation from the Most Important Tasks article at Zen Habits) is simple, but the scope for it isn’t really one particular day. As you grow more and more comfortable with the idea of identifying such tasks daily, you need to train yourself to look at a bigger picture.
Instead of deciding what’s important for the day, you look a few days (weeks) back and a few ahead, and see how this is aligned with your overall projects and strategies. This helps you ensure that globally important things are getting higher priorities. Also, if a particular task is taking longer than an hour, and sometimes even longer than a day, it will still be on your list of MITs the following day.
Basically, if it’s urgent and important, you stay at it until its done. It doesn’t mean you can’t switch from it if you have to wait on someone – so don’t be confused by it. When I’m talking about staying on a particular task, I refer to the actual productivity time – when you’re working on the task, fully concentrated and committed. If you’re waiting on someone else – put this task in to a later time slot of the very same day, and get started immediately on the next MIT.
Such an approach works really well. I can’t stress it enough how important it is to identify your most important tasks to constantly feel the sense of accomplishment, and not just making some things done, but completing the tasks that really matter both to you and to others.
Planning and blocking time
In addition to regular planning of tasks, plan for the time you need to work on them. Quite often, we accept a task of working on something because we know it will literally take us only 5 minutes, but we forget to plan the research or preparation time for such a task, which could be hours. We always assume we’ll have this time found and ready before we make the task happen, but that’s the wrong assumption. Plan everything!
Blocking time really helps. I block my time for research and for all the important meetings. I even plan my time for the gym session during my lunch hour. I actually put it in my Outlook calendar, so that everyone looking at my calendar can realize that the chances of meeting with me during these hours are pretty slim. I’m not refusing any meetings automatically, but the blocked time shows everyone that I already have plans for this part of my day, and so I might not necessarily accept their invitation.
I also block out the time to go home. My working day finishes at 5pm, and so I’ve put an hour-long appointment with myself for every day at 17:30pm. I call it @No meetings, please@ – which is there to suggest to my colleagues from Colorado and San Jose that I’m not generally available after this time. I’m prepared to stay a bit later, that’s why it’s half-five and not five, but unless it’s something really important or pre-arranged (I attend a number of weekly/bi-weekly meetings which run into 17:30pm or 6pm), I’m not going to entertain a meeting request this late in the day.
Plan everything, but once the plan is ready, don’t forget to block your time for it.
Make these time blocks as visible as possible. Try and be protective of your time. If it’s for a research, then leave everything else and do the research. Even if you’re working on the MIT, drop it – because it should be aligned with your other priorities like the planned events and research. If someone walks up to you, delegate the task or promise to follow up.
It may be hard for others to understand your seeming unwillingness to help, so please explain your position – if you’re working on something because it’s a planned event – tell so, and promise to get back to the person as soon as you’re finished. Don’t spend your time on anything else but the activity it’s been blocked for. Once your block of time is up, you can follow up with all the calls, emails and other requests, and move on to the next time block.
The idea of blocking time in your calendar might seem aggressive, especially when some people overdo it – you look at a calendar, and there isn’t a single half-an-hour window of spare time in a whole day. But it is important to realize that without blocking your time, you won’t always have this time ready to work on things. If you plan to be working on an important project in the afternoon, block the time for it – cause if you don’t, people will look at your calendar and will thingk you’re free for a chat or for a quick session of problem solving.
Always work on improving your skills
That’s it. I believe these are the time management secrets that make me as successful as I am. Day by day, I work on projects and bring value, I manage my own tasks and help others progress with their activities, I share knowledge and process new information.
The time I have to do all these things is always the same. The only thing that improves constantly is my ability to manage it.