Struggling with time management? You don’t have to. Review these ten easy steps to improve time management and once you’ve applied them, you should experience a significant reduction in stress. You’ll also be one step ahead on the path to personal and professional excellence!
1. Set goals
Set goals, both at work and at home, to determine exactly what it is that you want to achieve. You will use these goals later to help prioritise and decide what tasks and activities you should work on, and in which order.
One of the most important steps to improving both personal and professional time management is planning.
When planning your schedule, be realistic: what can you really achieve with each time slot during your day? Be sure not to over-commit yourself to others, which will cause unnecessary stress. There is a limit to what you can get done each day. Use your goals and priorities to ensure you have enough time for the things you absolutely must accomplish during each week.
Don’t forget to leave time each day to handle the unexpected. Things come up, and your schedule must be flexible enough to handle changes without causing additional stress.
Write your goals on a list you can keep close at hand during the day, at least until you grow accustomed to your new system. Assign incoming tasks according to a priority system: 1, 2, 3 or A, B, C, or even a colour system. Use whichever you prefer, and add as many levels of importance as you think you need, without overcomplicating the system. Unnecessary complication can add to stress.
When preparing your weekly schedule, make sure the tasks you work on during the day are the ones with the highest priority. Fill in time blocks to complete these tasks first, then move to your second priority. If you still have time (keeping in mind to leave contingency space for the unexpected), then move on to your third category. If not, see if you can delegate the task to someone else. If not, avoid committing to the task.
Remember: each time you are given a new assignment, analyse it for importance and prioritize it accordingly.
If you have an existing task or to do list for this week, prioritize it now.
4. Set deadlines
Now that you’ve got your goals, priorities, and schedule clear, review your deadlines. Chances are, you’ve already been given deadlines for most of your tasks. If not, make your own, taking into consideration your priority criteria. If you let tasks float around without being formally added to your schedule, odds are you’ll procrastinate on them and they won’t get done until you’re asked about them…and by that time, you’ll most likely be expected to deliver ASAP, causing unnecessary stress.
5. Keep an activity log
During your first week with your new system, keep an activity log. This is a valuable tool that can help you understand how you spend your time. Set up a quick Excel sheet (or use a simple piece of paper) with four columns: Time (of day), Activity, Duration, Priority, and Energy. As you work on each task throughout the day, simply note down the things you do as you do them: what time of day it is, a brief description of the activity, how much time you spent on it, what priority rating you give the task, and your energy level while you worked on the task.
Once the week is over, use the log to look for ways to avoid wasting time and effort during the week. Also note what hours of the day you are most productive, taking into consideration your energy level. This can help determine when you perform at your best and help you organize your day to take advantage of your natural highs and lows in energy. Some people naturally work better in the morning, and others in the afternoon.
After you’ve noted which are your best hours, be sure to schedule your most challenging tasks for the times of day when your own energy level is highest. If you don’t take this into consideration, you may end up scheduling tasks that require high levels of concentration during hours when you’re naturally at an energy low. This can lead to unnecessary stress.
6. End procrastination…now!
You’ve already made sure that each task has its own deadline, so you’re clear about when things are due. Don’t delay tasks that you perceive as less desirable until the last minute. They won’t disappear on their own, and you’ve got to get them done at some point, so it’s best to just get them over with. The peace of mind you’ll get from completing what you perceive to be a less desirable task will help reduce stress and will help you move on with the rest of your tasks.
If you’ve got an email in your inbox that you’ve read and re-read, go straight to it and reply the next time you’re checking your mail.
7. Minimise distractions
Distractions can keep you from working on priority tasks. You know what they are: email, instant messaging, phone calls, the internet, co-workers, or a noisy environment. Keep a week-long interruption log, similar to your activity log. Make note of Time (of day), Interruption, Duration, and Priority (which of your goals did it affect, and what is the priority of that goal?). Once the week is over, use the log to look for ways to avoid interruptions during the week, thus reducing unnecessary stress. Also note what hours of the day you receive the most interruptions. Take this into account when planning your weekly schedule.
To avoid email interruption, try to minimize the number of times a day you check your email, reading and replying to e-mails in blocks only a few times each day. Be sure to notify your boss if you have one, and other co-workers of your new policy. See if you can reduce email time to three blocks each day: morning, when you get in, before or after lunch, and just before you leave. Again, be sure to take into consideration the priority of each email before dedicating time to it. And, keep your personal email separate from your professional email by using separate accounts and folders. Disable all email alerts, such as pop-ups or sounds to reduce the temptation to check constantly.
If you aren’t required to use instant messaging at work, then don’t. Set up your messenger so that it doesn’t automatically log on when you start your computer, or set your status to invisible. Only use it when you need to reach someone, then immediately change your status or get offline. If you must use an IM system at work, try keeping your status to Busy to discourage unimportant messages. The same goes for Skype.
Do you really need to answer the phone as it rings, or can you use voice mail to treat it as you do your email? Some jobs require that you be always available by phone. Take some time to think about your job and the type of calls you receive. Are they all urgent and important? Are they all in your top priority status? If not, try letting some calls go directly to your assistant if you have one, or to voicemail. See how that works for you. The same goes for your cell phone and Skype. This is especially useful if you are on a deadline or working on a task that requires maximum concentration.
How much do you use the internet while you’re at work? Do you really need to? If you need to browse the web for research or information, be sure you stick to that and don’t get distracted by social media or random browsing. If you use a feed reader to browse work-related news, review your feed list regularly to delete feeds that don’t directly relate to your top priorities.
Are co-workers interrupting you on a constant basis? If you work in an open office environment, try using headphones with nature sounds or calm, non-distracting music. This can help you create your own peaceful micro-world, and make co-workers think twice before speaking to you. If this is not effective, speak respectfully and directly with the person about the issue. If you have a closed office with a door, you might also want to schedule an hour a day when you simply close the door. If you’re a manager, you don’t want to abuse your closed-door hours, but an hour a day should be enough to give you some extra concentration time. Be sure to make this during the hour of the day when you’re naturally most productive.
Try to minimise the number of times that you change between types of tasks. This can help improve concentration. For example, rather than replying to emails constantly throughout the day, schedule it in blocks as mentioned above. Do the same for other types of tasks that you perform repeatedly throughout the week.
8. Plan for mini-breaks
You know you’re not a robot, so don’t act like you are. Everyone has natural highs and lows in energy levels, as you’ve already noted in your log. If you plod through your tasks without a single break, odd are you’ll burn out even faster, and it will take you longer to complete each task. Just a five minute break can be effective. Be sure to get up from your desk or work area once each hour (set an alarm if you need to remind yourself and don’t find it distracting, or plan to take a mini-break between task types), get a glass of water, and stretch a bit before returning to your work area. Something as simple as drinking a glass of water will rehydrate you and can give you an extra energy boost. This can make a huge difference in fully taking advantage of time by keeping energy levels at their max and reducing stress.
9. Avoid sleepiness
Be sure to get enough sleep each night. Different people require different amounts of sleep. If you’re unsure how much you need, keep a sleep log and track how much you slept each night during the week and what your energy levels and productivity were like the next day at work. Sleepiness can lead to unproductive work days and distraction, causing stress as you realise how little work is getting done.
If you’re still feeling tired at work, go outside for a walk as part of one of your mini-breaks. This will help you get some fresh air and move around, which may help increase your energy levels and productivity.
10. Watch what you eat and drink
When you don’t drink enough water throughout the day, you quickly become dehydrated, and you may not be able to think clearly and focus on your work. There are a couple of ways to stay hydrated: either keep a large water bottle on your desk, and drink it regularly throughout the day, or integrate water drinking into your hourly mini-break.
What you eat may also influence how tired you feel throughout the day. Avoid heavy lunches, and be sure to bring snacks for mid-morning and afternoon. In the same way that dehydration can lead to drowsiness, so can hunger. A small snack of fruit and nuts can bring your energy level up in a way that won’t leave you crashing later, as sugar or caffeine can.
Does all of that sound easy enough? It’s a step by step process, so it’s easy to make huge changes in time management one step at a time. Let me know if you try this system, and how it works for you. Also be sure to comment if you have any additional tips.
Update: Check out 10 MORE steps to improve time management and reduce stress, with readers’ comments and more.