Time management tips
Time management tips: how to be more productive at work
“I’m so busy.” This is a common complaint in the world of work, where an increasingly long to-do list and pressure to raise productivity are pitted against the reality of only so many hours in a standard working day.
In fact, today’s skilled professionals report being consistently pressed for time, which often leads to high levels of workplace stress. The World Health Organisation has even recognised burnout at work as a syndrome of extreme workplace stress.
This isn’t surprising when, for many of us, the working week is longer than ever, yet the number of tasks we need to complete is never-ending. So, if the ‘more hours, less time’ phenomenon epitomises you, perhaps your answer to reduce your level of workplace stress and improve your productivity lies in an approach we’ve all heard of but may have dismissed: time management.
What is time management?
Put simply, time management is the process of intentionally allocating your time effectively and productively. It involves prioritising your tasks and responsibilities, then scheduling your week to ensure your time is spent on the most important jobs. By effectively planning how you’ll spend each day, you’ll minimise distractions and ensure that the largest portion of your time is spent on your most essential tasks.
After all, there’s only so many hours in the standard working day. Effective time management allows us to choose wisely how we’ll use them – and, in turn, the tasks that don’t warrant allocating our finite time to.
What poor time management looks like
In today’s always-on world of work, many people think that looking busy is the key to looking successful. As Hays Chief Executive Alistair Cox wrote recently, some people consider a successful person to be someone who is constantly rushing from one meeting to the next, eats lunch at their desk while simultaneously dialling into a conference call and checking emails.
Alistair explains that this is actually far from what ‘success’ really looks like. Instead, it’s a classic case of someone with poor time management.
What good time management looks like
A person who is an effective manager of their time comes across very differently. They’re usually viewed as reliable, productive and able to meet their deadlines. The quality of their work is consistently high and they have a good professional reputation. They also have a successful career and their accomplishments are rewarded.
How do these people achieve this? There are three main components of good time management:
1. Prioritise what is most urgent and important
2. Time block your week
3. Commit to your plan – but be flexible when priorities shift
Below we address each component in more detail:
Tips for better time management at work:
1. Prioritise what is most urgent and important
The good news is that effective time management is not hard – but it can be surprisingly difficult to commit to. Having said this, provided you set aside a small amount of time once a week to prioritise and schedule your tasks, then commit to your plan, you’ll find that effective time management will not only become a reality for you, but will become one of your greatest strengths.
Be proactive not reactive: Time-poor people often have one thing in common: rather than deciding which tasks are the most important and urgent, and thereby allocating the appropriate amount of time to ensure they are completed to a quality standard, they spend most of their day responding to every request that comes their way. As a result, they ultimately spend the least amount of time on their most critical tasks because they’re too busy being distracted by what has landed in their inbox.
If this sounds like you, it’s time to shift your focus. Rather than spending your time putting out the daily fires, keep the big picture in mind.
To do this, write out all the tasks that require your attention, then prioritise them based on what is most important and urgent.
What’s genuinely urgent and important? At this point, take a moment to reflect on what items on your list are genuinely urgent and important. After all, while some tasks may be urgent because they come with a clear deadline, they may not be important. Often, these are the tasks that make the most ‘noise’, but they ultimately add little value. They should therefore be postponed or delegated.
At the same time, while some important tasks may not be urgent, failing to address them would, over time, lead to a negative outcome for yourself, your team or your organisation. Therefore, they should be scheduled at some point soon – but not necessarily this week.
There are only so many hours in a day, so prioritise tasks that are both urgent and important. If a task is not both, it can be delegated or postponed for a few days or weeks. This will ensure you use your finite time wisely and productively by making informed, intentional choices about what you will and won’t spend it on.
For more on how to identify and prioritise tasks based on urgency and importance, the Eisenhower Matrix has stood the test of time.
Before moving on, it may also help to refer to your current objectives to remind yourself of the strategic targets and end results you have committed to achieve. When scheduling each week, ensure you allocate enough time to achieve these key deliverables too.
2. Time block your week
Once you have identified the tasks that are the most important and urgent, you need to put a plan in place. Block out half an hour at the end or beginning of each week – depending on what works best for you – to schedule your prioritised task list for the week ahead.
This isn’t as simple as jotting down a quick to-do list for each day though. To be effective, block out time for each task. Crucially, make sure you set realistic timeframes. If you are unsure how long a task will take, it’s better to overestimate than underestimate, otherwise you’ll derail your own schedule.
Similarly, don’t allot more tasks to a day than you can practically complete. Being realistic in how much time to block out for each task and how many tasks you can get through each day really is key.
Plan for the unexpected: It’s very easy to be distracted by a constant stream of emails landing in your inbox. That’s why effective time managers allocate time in their daily schedule to check their email. If you’ve tried time blocking in this way before and still find yourself distracted by email, turn off your email program when working on other tasks. After all, if a task genuinely requires your immediate attention, someone will pick up the phone and call you. If not, ignoring your inbox for a few hours will help to keep your schedule on track and your productivity high.
When scheduling time to check your emails, make sure you allow enough time to reply and action any communications you can promptly deal with. After all, we all receive daily emails requesting information or assistance with certain tasks, but these can consume your day if you let them. So, block out time to deal with these unplanned tasks – and when that time is up, move on.
Any emails of low importance or urgency that will take more than your allocated time to respond to should be added to the list of tasks you’ll schedule during your next weekly planning session. Don’t alter your schedule – and don’t sweat the small stuff.
However, if high-priority tasks unexpectedly come your way– especially if they are of more importance or urgency than what is currently in your schedule, you’ll need to change your plan. We talk about this further in point 3, below.
Avoid unnecessary meetings: Like them or loathe them, meetings are a fundamental component of the world of work and have many benefits, from sharing ideas to working collaboratively on projects or making important decisions. But that doesn’t mean you need to attend every meeting you are invited to.
Like email, unnecessary meetings will derail your productivity and time management. So, before accepting each meeting invitation, ask the organiser to send you the agenda. If there isn’t a clear purpose that relates to your role or if your input isn’t critical to the desired outcomes, your productivity will be better served by allocating the time to more critical tasks.
Similarly, if you attend a recurring meeting that consistently achieves little of value, decline the next invitation and suggest that its relevancy is reviewed.
When are you most productive? When scheduling each day, consider when you are most productive. For some people, their productivity peaks first thing in the morning, while for others mid-morning or after lunch are more productive. Irrespective of when your energy levels and output are highest, make sure you earmark this time for your highest priority tasks. Reserve your less productive times for your lower-priority tasks.
3. Commit to your plan - but be flexible when priorities shift
The final step is to commit to your plan. There’s no point starting day one with a shiny new time management schedule if you drop the ball on day two. Instead, make a concerted effort during the first few weeks to tame old habits and stick to your plan.
After all, any new routine takes repeated effort to become a habit. The good news is that your commitment to time management will eventually become an automatic weekly custom – perhaps sooner than you think.
Remember though that your priorities are not set in stone – a task could become more important or urgent at any point in time, which is why good time managers remain flexible enough to alter their schedule if required.
Similarly, a high-priority task may unexpectedly come your way. As noted above, if any task is more important or urgent than those you’ve scheduled for your day, you’ll need to change your plan. Being flexible here is the key – plan to stick to your schedule, but if work of more significance lands on your desk without warning, priorities need to shift. As a result, some items that you had planned to complete will suddenly become less of a priority and therefore should be postponed to make way for the new, more important and higher urgency task.
Ultimately, putting the above time management tricks to work will help you take control of your harried working week. Used with consistency, you’ll no longer find yourself tearing around, struggling to complete your most important tasks. Instead, you’ll be calmer, with more time dedicated to the tasks that really matter.