Where Does Time Go?
If you often find yourself saying "I don't have time for this" or postponing tasks because your day is too short, stop for a second and begin taking control of your time. Here are a few valuable tips for effective time management.
1. Find out where your time goes
If you want to make better use of your time, begin by learning exactly how you're spending it now. Think of all the activities that make up your typical work day: keeping appointments, supervising people, attending meetings, reviewing or writing proposals, making decisions, completing projects, making and taking phone calls, preparing reports, traveling, reading trade magazines, etc. Think also of the time that goes to waste every day because of unscheduled developments, frequent interruptions, tardiness, bad planning, crisis management.
A good way to pinpoint and stop time leaks is to keep a detailed diary of your daily activities for a week or two. Next, analyze your log and discover what patterns emerge. Keep track of all the details involved with executing a task or project, and of every interruption. Do this every few months and study your record for repeat patterns, such as recurrent interruptions or unproductive habits. Then find ways to eliminate them.
Once you compare the record of what you have done, as revealed in your diary, with what you planned to do, as outlined by your appointments and to-do entries, this system will be a real eye opener. It will reveal how much you are letting situations, events and other people control your time instead of you being in command of your schedule.
2. Establish goals
A key point to effective time management is to have clearly defined goals. Write them down and keep them visible. Once you set your goals and have prioritized them, assign them a specific time duration and list all those activities leading toward accomplishing these goals. To help you set the appropriate time aside for them, divide your goals into three classifications:
- Daily goals, that is, time management goals that become part of your daily routine. These may include setting aside time for planning your day, establishing deadlines for every task, and getting to appointments on time.
- Company goals, or your long-range goals that have been established by you and management. A good way to keep tabs on these is to describe what your job requires of you and list your work activities under main categories, like marketing, sales, financial, or administration.
- Personal goals or activities and commitments you have outside your work activities. It is important to set time aside for these things. Having time to play contributes to a healthy and balanced life. Spending time with your family and friends, daily exercise, personal interests or hobbies can all fit in your schedule if you plan for them properly.
3. Learn how to plan your activities
Goal setting and planning go hand in hand. Convert your goals into actions by listing all the necessary steps to accomplish your goals and putting yourself on a definite time schedule.
Start with following one important rule: plan in advance. If you spend fifteen minutes in planning at the end of each day you'll save an hour the next day, and an hour spent in planning a project will save you four in execution. Planning will help you keep focused and help you stick to the task at hand. Remember to be realistic when planning. Don't take on more than you can handle, and allow for contingencies.
4. Prioritize your activities
When you prioritize, consider your personal life goals as well as your business aims. Some matters are urgent, but relatively unimportant (for example, returning a phone call from your alumni club president). Others are highly important, but not urgent (starting work on a presentation you have to give next month). Others are extremely important and urgent (buying a present for your significant other's birthday).
When you have an important project, block out time for an appointment with yourself. Treat it as "quality time" and give it at least as much weight as your other appointments. Remember though, one golden rule is not to take on more than you can handle. When you have a large project, cut it into bite-size accomplishable tasks. This will prevent you from procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed.
By listing all those tasks on a definite time schedule you have converted your goals into a plan of action. If you find you listed too many to-dos in one day, spread the work over several days, or ask yourself if it shouldn't be delegated. Impose deadlines on every task you list, and make a note to follow up regularly on the ones you delegate. Whenever possible, group similar activities together, a surprisingly big time saver.
Once you have created a to-do list, it is often helpful to use some kind of system to prioritize your tasks (1,2,3 or A,B,C).
5. Keep interruptions to a minimum
If crisis management is using up too much of your time, take control and prevent "fires" by thinking through projects, especially the ones you assign to others. Work out a plan together with all the involved parties. If all you do is respond to people who need help with problems or have questions on tasks you've assigned them, you'll never wind up with any of your own time left.
It is estimated that managers are interrupted an average of six times per hour. Every time your concentration is broken, you spend a certain amount of time reorienting yourself. Isn't this a waste of time? You can prevent interruptions when your realize their causes and how much time they consume.
Not all interruptions are time wasters. You can turn interruptions into productive meetings. When co-workers interrupt with a matter you know will need attention, ask them to see you later or bring the matter up at one of your regular meetings. Or, instead of co-workers bringing you problems, have them bring you solutions. If you have a voice mailbox full of messages write them all down and prioritize calls according to their order of importance, just like regular tasks.
6. Take control of time at meetings
Much valuable time is spent attending meetings that are not always productive for every attendee. Before confirming your attendance at the next meeting ask yourself if you really have to attend.
If you are hosting the meeting you can use several techniques to turn your time into a productive session for everyone involved. First and foremost, have a defined agenda. Know what the meeting is supposed to accomplish and list steps to guide you through. If you issue the agenda ahead of time, everyone involved should be better prepared and make their contribution at the right moment. Decide how long the meeting should last, not just the starting time. This will help everyone stick to an agenda. If you have limited time, hold stand-up meetings. You'll be surprised how fast these meetings are wrapped up.
7. Improve your communication skills
Keep the people who work with you informed. If you don't, people will interrupt you more often and turn to you for decisions, information, or help. When giving information, sending or receiving messages, take 100% of the responsibility to be sure that the communication is understood.
8. Keep your work area organized
A messy desk is a big time waster. It seems trite, but many people still waste a considerable amount of time rummaging through the paper on their desks looking for some piece of vital information. Even more time is wasted reshuffling and rearranging files and sheets of paper totally unrelated to the current project. Keep the clutter away from your desk and you'll focus on your work more easily.
Clean your desk at the end of each day. This way you'll have a fresh start in the morning and use the time you have saved for planning your day.
9. Be selective with your reading
Most vital information comes from reading correspondence, memos, trade publications and reports. Even if it's an essential part of keeping up with the world, reading can take up a considerable amount of time. Often reading ranks low in your priority list and high on your "to be postponed" list. As with many other things, consider delegating a portion of your reading material to people who work with you and can also benefit from the information. Have most material highlighted or summarized for you and spend time assimilating only the vital information.
You can also benefit from speed-reading. This time-saving technique helps you read more rapidly and increases your comprehension.
You can cut down on the time you spend reading by approaching it more systematically. Assign priorities to your reading material. Schedule a specific time for it and tackle it in one session.
10. Consider using a planner
If you are committed to bridging the gap between your potential and your performance, better time management should become your lifestyle choice. It's important to find a system that helps you channel your energy toward a more effective use of your time. Most likely it will be either a paper-based or a software-based time planner --or a combination. If you use it regularly, your planner will be your most valuable tool. It will make scheduling easier, help you prioritize and accomplish important tasks, record everything you want to remember and guide you toward your goals.