Ah, the New Year. That wonderful time of year that promises great life changes. No matter your goal – weight loss, increased income, or decreased road rage at those who dare drive the speed limit in the fast lane – one we should all have is better time management. After all, we’re concocting all those new cussword combinations at the slow driver because we’re running late. I’ve cited “Lack of time” as my golden ticket excuse for cancelling gym memberships, refusing volunteer opportunities, and devouring takeout rather than cooking a healthy meal.
But, what could I achieve if I became a master of time management? How would I even begin my noble quest? How can we crack the code?
1) Start by identifying your skill level.
Assess your time management ability to identify problems and areas in need of improvement. One master of time management, Tim Hindle, in his book “Manage Your Time,” includes a time management skills-assessment. The questions in the assessment pose specific situations that highlight time drains I had not considered before taking the 32-question test.
From this assessment I detected my own unsuspected time drains: a desk cluttered with paper, an email inbox too large for even an IT superhero, allowing unscheduled interruptions, and waiting too long before performing housekeeping on computer files. If I am to be efficient, I must learn to protect my work time from distractions. My cluttered desk, inbox, and computer all lead to time wasted while searching through outdated and irrelevant documents to find current project files.
Another assessment (15 questions and free online) revealed that I must focus on goal setting, prioritization, scheduling, and managing interruptions in order to achieve my time management goals.
2) Make more than a to-do list.
I have always made to-do lists. I probably take far too much pleasure in crossing completed tasks off my list. I have even been known to add a completed task to my list in order to experience the elation of crossing that glorious black line through it.
What I don’t do consistently is prioritize the individual tasks on my list. I typically write out my list, and then randomly choose a task to tackle. Instead, I should assign each task a value – high, medium or low, or urgent, important or routine. As I categorize each task, I must consider the strategic value of each task. Low-hanging fruit may be appealing and easy to complete, but will they assist in future endeavors? A task’s strategic value may change the overall value of an endeavor.
3) Planning your time is never a waste of time.
Start your day with the breakfast of tasks: the daily plan. Ten to fifteen minutes of creating, updating, and prioritizing your to-do list for the day will pay dividends at the end of the day. Once you’ve assigned values to each task, you will know which tasks are urgent, which tasks are important but not urgent, and which tasks are routine. Also, note which tasks you can complete on your own and which tasks require input from team members. Then, you can design a plan that will guide you through the day.
Do not dismiss low-hanging fruit and routine tasks as invaluable. Plan your day to include a mix of tasks with differing values. A less difficult task of low importance may recharge your brain. So, sandwich that routine task in between two urgent tasks in order to flex your brain at different levels throughout the day, much like taking those walk breaks in an interval running workout. The running counts more if you rest your muscles between bursts.
4) Take a break.
The CDC encourages school systems to include regular physical activity throughout the academic day not only to improve physical health of students but also to improve cognitive functioning. Concentration, behavior, attitude, and attention all improve with adequate physical activity. As adults, why should we assume our brains need less attention than when we were waiting for the recess bell to ring?
Build breaks into your daily plan. These breaks should range from walking from your desk to the kitchen for a cup of coffee or glass of water to a longer break reserved for taking a walk around the neighborhood. Reserve time for food. Even fifteen minutes of eating a sound lunch away from your computer will help recharge your brain and fend off fatigue or burnout.
5) Use technology to battle distractions and meet deadlines.
Digital applications can improve productivity. We all know this, but are we using technology to drive our focus? Using the “Do not disturb” function on computers, email, and messaging apps will protect your time and concentration when powering through complicated and urgent tasks.
Calendar reminders of individual tasks within a complex project will help keep you on track and avoid procrastination when faced with a critical deadline. Notating routine tasks and personal responsibilities such as your six-month dental cleaning will prohibit you from double-booking your time. A cell phone alarm set for noon will remind you to eat before the “hangries” flare.
Free applications such as Wunderlist make organizing and updating a to-do list easy. Routine tasks can be removed and re-added to your list with a simple click. Your master list can be categorized in sub-lists, so planning a long, multifaceted project can be organized into smaller tasks within the same application, which will remove that crazy post-it mural on your bulletin board from your sightline.
6) Spend a little time on time.
So, as you begin this New Year, plan to spend a little time on time management. Assess your abilities. Identify areas to improve. Then, choose a strategy or tactics that will best serve you. Good luck, time travelers. May your resolve be strong and your days less harried.