What is the one thing you have in common with all of the most successful CEOs and business owners? You have 24 hours per day to achieve as much as humanly possible. Yet we all struggle with time management.
We can spend hours on something insignificant yet not get around to that huge important project until we are staring the deadline in the eyes! The small stuff can build up and cause a lot of mental crowding and press down on us in ways that make us snappy and difficult to be around.
So how do you get on top of it? Here are 10 tips to get you moving:
1. The art of multi-tasking, properly
In terms of cognitive loading, multi-tasking is really the act of dividing your resources between one or more tasks simultaneously. If you are trying to multi-task you need to be aware that you are not superhuman and your performance in the two tasks you are trying to do will degrade somewhat.
Multi-tasking is best done when one task is very low involvement e.g. filing while you are on a call, drafting an outline whilst waiting for someone who steps out of a meeting, rather than when both tasks are high involvement such as reading emails and trying to complete a report. Multi-tasking is about grouping logical tasks in a logical order and a strategy to reduce stress and feeling good by knocking over clumps of items.
2. Setting competitions for yourself every day
Most people think this is a joke at first, but when you see the data on how well we respond to games and point systems as rewards for effort then you can’t help but be impressed. By setting competitions for yourself (you don’t have to share it with anyone, and perhaps it is better if you don’t) you give yourself the opportunity to have little positive boosts during the day or week. This is a way of giving yourself a neurochemical pat on the back every time you achieve something. It is reinforcing and motivating. And it is extremely easy.
3. Spring clean files and desk
Piles of papers, unopened envelopes, sticky notes and clutter have a way of haunting us without us knowing. The saying ‘a cluttered desk is a cluttered mind’ holds true in many ways. When your desk is clear you tend to be a lot more focused on the task at hand. It is calming. You will also find that you are not as irritable or frustrated with the work you are doing. It gives you room to think and work through problems rather than be suffocated by them.
The same is true in the digital space. How many applications do you have open right now? If the answer is more than three then you are the owner of a cluttered desktop. When you use a computer that has all of those applications running you, like your computer, allocate a small part of your attention to those tasks that are opened and unfinished. This reduces your performance on the task you are actually working on, so clean up, feel fresh and free up some of that head space!
4. Visible handwritten list or task list
Although the digital age has brought with it so many benefits, there are a few things a tablet or computer screen don’t do as well as the old-fashioned method. Apps that provide to-do lists are invisible most of the time, and we have to actively seek them out in order for them to be useful. A handwritten (or printed) to-do list that sits at our desk next to our computer is an ever-present scorecard of how we are performing each day. Especially when we want to cross off items, and see them crossed of.
5. Audit what you have achieved at end of each day – and what was not done and why
The sad thing about most to-do lists is that they manage to grow constantly, robbing us of those satisfying feelings of completion. Adding to the theme of creating competitions for yourself, it is extremely useful to create your own feedback loop at the end of each day. The skill you are trying to hone here is your ability to estimate the amount of work you can achieve within a day.
So many people put themselves under duress by promising and offering to complete work by the end of the day or week because they want to please people. It often goes hand-in-hand with poor time assessment skills and the result is a massive overload of stress and a lot of semi-completed or uncompleted work. If you can accurately assess how long your tasks will take to complete then you can start to offer rock-solid promises to your colleagues and clients.
This is a task that could be done together with someone at work once in a while – it improves your accountability and you are likely to gain fresh insights.
6. Prepare a to-do list at the end of each day for tomorrow
Don’t lie awake at night tormenting yourself with things you might have forgotten to do. Or are you someone who drives to work with no real plan of how the day will pan out? Perhaps your workplace is rather chaotic and the idea that you can control your working day seems foreign to you.
Either way, if you lay down your list of key to-dos at the end of each day, it clears your head for the night and then you will go to work with a framework for how you approach the day. It also helps prevent you from falling victim to time distractions that seem to attack you as soon as you walk into the office.
7. Stand up the first 10 minutes and do as many tasks as possible that are small
Most people start their day by sitting down at their desk, opening their email application and scanning through for any that might be particularly important. Meanwhile, all of the little tasks that cloud our thinking are still piling up in the background. For 10 minutes, especially if you are standing, you can whiz through those irritating tasks: scheduling payments, tidying your desk, etc.
8. Close the door for at least two hours
As much as I encourage people to provide an open door policy, there comes a time when you really need to just knuckle down and shut out all distractions. Close the door, turn off the phone and close down your email for two hours per day. This is the time for you to get deeply into a project that requires your highest level of thought, problem-solving, creativity and concentration.
This level of focus is rare in a busy office environment, but it is priceless in terms of the output achieved. Unfortunately, if we are in this deep thought state a phone call or email can drag us out of the zone and it will take us 3-5 minutes post-interruption to return to the level of concentration prior to the call.
9. Schedule calls back to back
Although it is difficult to completely segment your working day in the way that I’ve prescribed, it should be an aim whenever possible. Making calls, for example, is a very different skill to working through reports, spread sheets and profit-loss statements. For this reason it is a good idea to schedule all of your calls back to back. Ideally you would do this at a time of day that you usually plateau a little – straight after lunch for example might be a good time to get all of your ‘talking work’ done. Use it to energise yourself and try doing as many as possible standing for at least part of the call.
10. Walk away and refresh
Go for a walk. Take a few minutes at least for quiet time by yourself. If you can step outside yourself and examine the ways in which you are trying to solve problems or deal with difficult situations you can often find that you are being totally inefficient and sometimes unreasonable. One of the cornerstones of meditation is to become acutely aware of the way you are thinking and breathing.
Let’s think about today – if someone had been sitting there watching you work and taking notes, what would they have written? Would they approve of the decisions you have made? Would they be impressed by how you have spent your time? Looking at yourself from this perspective of mindfulness can completely change the way you approach time challenges at work.
Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.