One of the most commonly asked questions in my personal development workshops is: how can I manage my time more effectively? Well, in this article, I have some absolutely top time management tips for you. As always, do remember that it is taking action that makes the crucial difference, so don’t just read these tips, but actually make a solid commitment to giving them all a try, especially those that you think won’t make any difference. You might be amazed at the huge positive effect that can ensue when you incorporate them into your game plan.
Make a List
When you are feeling overwhelmed, the idea of taking the time out of your busy schedule just to make a list might seem to be inefficient use of your time. After all, it takes time to make a list and it progresses none of the things that you already know need to be done. After making the list, you might reason, things would be actually worse because time will have passed and progress will have been temporarily halted. That’s all true of course, but making that list enables you to get a proper handle on things. It can often enable you to see more clearly where your priorities lay and what needs to be done immediately. More importantly, it affects your attitude because it can help you to feel more in control of the situation. So, as Brian Tracy once said, “Feeling listless? Make a list!”
Red Time/Green Time
When you are fire-fighting, you have to just get on with it. It happens to us all from time to time. Just decide on that top priority and give it your all until you put the fire out. Tell the people around you that you have a situation that you are dealing with that needs to be attended to and that you will therefore be temporarily unavailable (red time); perhaps even put a sign above you desk or on the office door. If you do this, make sure you reserve the tactic for real fire-fighting (panics). People will begin to respect the fact that you occasionally need to engage in fire-fighting and will avoid interrupting you during red time if you do this well. When you are available again (green time) turn the sign around. You could make a little sign, with a ‘please do not interrupt’ message printed in red on the front (recto) and a ‘normal service is in operation’ message in green on the opposite (verso) side. Give it a try – it can work very well indeed.
Tackle Underlying Causes
Following any period of fire-fighting, find some time to ask yourself the question: why did that panic occur and what could we do to prevent it from occurring again in the future? You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this, but a few minutes reflection immediately after each major panic has been resolved can prove to be very beneficial. At that time, you will have all the relevant facts to hand and your brain will be fully engaged in the detail that is pertinent to the situation. So you might find that you will be able to answer that question very easily at this precise moment. If you cannot prevent a situation from recurring, ask yourself: if it were to happen again, what could we do to respond better next time? Again, the answers will come quickly because your mind is effectively already on the case. Acting on these insights can significantly improve things for you in the future if you get into the habit of fire-prevention and do this consistently.
Don’t Waste Your Valuable Thinking Time
When you are driving to and from work, try turning the radio off for a prolonged period of time – I mean a period of a few weeks or months. Also try not listening to radio or TV before you get into the car in the mornings during that same period. We get so very little time away from such distractions these days that the solutions to your problems often cannot find their way into your conscious mind simply because the opportunity to do so has been crowded out by constant background noise. That is, noise, as distinct to signal, in the sense of unwanted background perturbation. If you are in the habit of listening to morning radio, you will definitely miss it at first. But once you get into the new habit of using your valuable thinking time productively rather than squandering it listening to inconsequential nonsense that you don’t need to give your attention, you will be amazed at how this method produces incredible results.
Take a Break
When you are very busy, you need to ensure that you take a proper lunch break so, whenever possible, get out of the office at lunchtime even if it is only for a few minutes: go for a walk, get some fresh air, get away from the hubbub of the office. Again this sounds counter-intuitive because working through lunch gives you more working time, potentially. However, a change of scenery can do wonders for your ability to stay focused when you are on the job so you will be much more efficient when you subsequently return to your work. If you remain in the office, trying to eat your sandwiches whilst continuing your work, you will find it almost impossible to eat properly as the phone is almost guaranteed to ring after you have taken a mouthful. That kind of eating is just plain bad for you, so even don’t go there – get out of the office at lunchtime.
Visibility Helps Others to Understand Your Situation
If you find that you seem to be constantly fighting your boss about your priorities and therefore feel as if you cannot complete the things you know are most important, the answer is visibility. Get a whiteboard or find some other way that you can display your current task list and whenever you get a new request, there and then, add it to the public list whilst your boss is present. Do it pleasantly and smilingly and then remind him or her of your current priorities and ask for input into where this new task should fit. Once you have his/her view on the matter, you can then draw an arrow on the board, again, whilst he/she is there, effectively representing where it fits into your priorities according to your boss. As you do that, your boss should already be seeing what the effect of giving you this new work is going to do to your existing commitments. However, at this point you have the ideal opportunity to explain that, obviously, any previous commitments you made to all of those activities below the line will now need to be rethought. If your boss is a reasonable person, you can then discuss rescheduling those commitments.
What if the Boss is Unreasonable?
Sometimes, it happens. Logical thinking sometimes does not go down too well with intuitive decision-makers for example. Despite your best efforts, you just don’t see eye to eye with the person you to whom you report. Often, these difficulties can be traced to differences in perception and decision-making processes that have become a part of our personalities. In these situations, they key to improving your relationship is to really learn to listen and empathise with the other person’s view point. Again, this is completely counter-intuitive. We are inclined to think that the fault, if there is one, is with the other person, when the truth of the matter is that it is often the combination of personalities that produces the difficulty. Remember that you don’t have to agree; just really try to understand the other person. For reasons we have previously discussed, over the course of time, this attitude will have the effect of helping to open the other person’s mind to your own views about how things might be best tackled.
Stay Committed to Your Goals
Remember that those around you and those to whom you report will inevitably lose sight of your goals. But you will never do that. If appropriate, write your mission and your top goals on that whiteboard. Again, it helps to remind others of what you are fundamentally trying to achieve. When circumstances conspire to draw you away from important activity that inhibits progress towards those goals, remember that you do sometimes need to fire-fight. That’s ok. Suspend what you are doing, deal with the situation, reflect on how you can stop it occurring again or cope better next time, action anything that seems sensible in the light of the experience and then – get back to work on those goals.