How often do you think: Where did the last two hours go? What am I supposed to be working on right now? Oh no, I forgot to do that report! There’s not enough hours in a day…Well, even if there may not be enough hours in a day, there’s not going to be more, so we need to learn to work with what we have!
One of my own strengths is in organization and time management, and people often ask me how I do it? So I’ve decided to use this blog to share some of my tricks and tools.
On one hand, I’m naturally an organized, neat, timely, and focused person. But, on the other hand, I’ve built skills, acquired tricks and learned habits that have helped me deal with all the parts of my work in a timely and organized way. I think everyone is capable of building those skills, habits and tricks.
I break time management down into three categories: Organization & Prioritization, Dead time & Focus, and Knowing Yourself.
Planning & Organization
This is all about what you should be working on when. What are your priorities and how should you schedule your time?
1. Plan > It’s a mistake to show up on Monday morning and just start working on the first thing that pops into your head. Instead, you should be working on what needs to be done for Monday morning. You need to know what are your outcomes and outputs for the week and the longer term.
Tool: Workplan. Having a detailed work plan and referring to it each week will help you situate your work that week in your broader goals.
Tool: To do Lists: Yup, lists might be basic, but they keep you on track. And nothing feels better than checking something off the list! Try categorizing your list by the different outcome areas of your work (e.g. XX Project, People Management, XX Partner Management, Professional Development), which will help you see how all the pieces fit together in a week.
Tip: Put even the little things on your list! Even that 2 minute email or that quick conversation. It’ll remind you it needs to happen, allow you to schedule it into your week and it feels great to check off!
Tip: Be realistic with your lists and workplans. Don’t put more than you can handle. For example, having 3 meetings booked at once is setting yourself up for failure at 2 out of 3, if not all 3 meetings.
Tip: Use short and long term lists (e.g. weekly lists and quarterly workplans). It will help you concentrate on this week’s priorities while not losing sight of longer term goals and outcomes.
2. Prioritization> Don’t just have a list with everything on it together, but understand what the level of importance and time required for each item. Understand which are the most important items and which items need your attention urgently. We can often pay attention to the Urgent and Noisy things on our list, to the detriment of those quieter, longer term priorities that are also important.
Tool: Try using a Urgent/Important matrix to categorize your to do list. It will help you see where there are timely items and where there are important items that might otherwise have been forgotten.
Try it – This week, try putting your to do list into this matrix and see if it helps you prioritize your time!
Tool: In your to do lists, try prioritizing those outcomes that you are actually able to work on, achieve or see progress with. Think of three spheres: the middle is your area of control (where you have full responsibility), the second is your area of influence (where you have some influence but not control) and the last is a sphere with no control or influence. Don’t spend your time in that outside sphere, but rather prioritize things inside your sphere of control and influence.
Dead Time & Focus
There are so many parts of the day where we lose time and are unproductive, what I call dead time. It’s also easy to lose focus and forget your plan and prioritization.
1. Focus - When I ask people why they don’t use lists, the answer is often because they don’t ever implement them. Workplans are only useful if you use them! If you have a list for the week and didn’t check anything off, well either your list didn’t include the important things or you didn’t focus during the week!
Tip: (This is my favourite tip!) Don’t start your day with email. Email is a time eater. If you start your day at 9am, before you know it, lunch is here and all you have done is email. Although communication is important, it’s not the whole of your job. Try starting with a content-heavy outcome and then booking in thirty minutes or an hour of email before lunch.
Tip: Yes, not now, no. A lot of things come up during the day that take you away from your priorities and plan. It’s important to learn to say “yes, not now or no” to these things that come up. If the matter can wait, schedule a time for it in your week later. If the matter is actually the responsibility of someone else, direct it there. For example, if you have a weekly scheduled meeting with one of your colleagues and they come up to do during the week to talk about something, first ask “is this something that can wait until our meeting on Thursday?” – if it is not, deal with it earlier (now or later) and if it is not urgent, put it on the agenda for Thursday.
Tip: Blocking 2 hour slots in the morning and afternoon for more content heavy pieces is a great way to concentrate on something but not let is take over your day.
2. Losing time - If you counted all the hours in a week that you spend in transportation, waiting for your computer to boot up, waiting on something from someone else, etc. I think we would be surprised. Why not use that ‘dead’ time to do something productive? Like check your emails or read interesting articles. Or, if you need a breather, get up and walk or stretch or take some reflection time.
Tool: Pocket – I love reading articles on long taxi/trotro rides with the Pocket App. With this app you save interesting articles to read later and they are stored on your phone. This has saved me from having thirty tabs always open on my browser because I don’t want to exit that article – just save it for later!
Finally, everyone is different. Everyone works in different ways and is motivated by different things. It’s important that you know how, when, where and why you work best.
- Where do you have the most productive meetings?
- When do you like working on content-heavy outputs, or things that require a lot of concentration?
- How do you like working on reports?
Tool: Rewards – One way to motivate yourself is to give yourself rewards when you reach an objective. For example, if I need to work on a briefing paper and I’m really not feeling motivated, I will tell myself, if you work on this for 2 hours, you can update our organization’s twitter page (something I find fun to work on). Some ideas of rewards: a walk, stretching, getting a coffee, eating a snack, checking your phone, checking your twitter/facebook, reading that article, etc.
Try it – Write out some rewards that you think would work to get you motivated and try them out this week!
What is your carrot? What motivates you?
Where to go from here?
Today is Sunday, tomorrow starts a new week and a new month is around the corner. Why not pick one of the tools above and commit to really trying it this month. Not starting and then stopping, but allowing yourself to use the month to build the skill, learn and adapt that tool to you. Make your time management commitment today!