By Mark Walsh
It seems like no one has enough time these days. I don't know one person who has less to do than five years ago. Unless you're Dr. Who, we all have the same number of hours in a day; therefore, time management is about managing energy, attention, and commitments.
It is possible to feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information out there and multiple incoming requests. In many ways, dealing with this is the essential leadership and stress management skill for the 21st Century.
Ultimately the benefit of effective time management is that you will not waste the life you have. On a more mundane day-to-day level it means keeping promises, increasing productivity, and staying (more or less) sane.
Record and analyze what you spend your time doing for a week. However, being efficient (doing things well) doesn't necessarily mean you are effective (doing the right things).
Rushing into things means you will have a high repeat rate as you will do the wrong things. It's tempting to jump in when the in-tray is full, but the carpenter's recommendation to measure twice, cut once will save you time in the long run. To do this, you will often need to get centered. While counter-intuitive, training your attention through meditation, mindfulness, and slowing down also is highly beneficial to getting more done.
Time management tips are good, but a thorough system is better and regular practice crucial. Many of the people we work with enjoy David Allen's Getting Things Done. What is important is that you find a system that works for you and conduct regular reviews (e.g. 30-minute plan Monday morning, review Friday afternoon with ten-minute system checks twice a day) and be disciplined in sticking to it. It is tempting to be a busy fool, and although I have never worked with anyone who has reduced their effectiveness by planning how best to use their time, there have been many who were panicked into thinking they didn't have enough time to plan.
For what reason are you doing everything you do in a single day? Know how every action contributes to a project or long-term goal, matches a job role or values and, ultimately, why you are on the planet.
The higher up the ladder you can go, the more you will be motivated and the clearer the importance of any individual task will be.
Get (it) out of your head
People are bad at remembering things and trying to do so makes them stressed. If you have things to do, then make a list. If there are time-sensitive items on it, set an impeccably reliable reminder system, such as an alarm on your BlackBerry.
Get specific (list)
Make one list and put everything you want to do on it so you trust the list and are not distracted by other matters not listed. Make each item a single actionable thing (e.g. call John, not sort finances). Consider ordering your lists by location, importance, energy, and urgency. A simple color system is a quick way to do this.
Move from putting out urgent fires to investing in yourself long-term by managing commitments and setting aside sacred time for the important, but not urgent, things.
Empty your e-mail inbox using the following method: do it (less than two minutes), drop it (not important), delegate it, or defer it (with time frame and reminder). Differentiate between reference/storage and to-do areas and don't use one for the other.
Do one thing at a time. There is no such thing as effective multi-tasking - only dividing attention and switching quickly between tasks. The problem with the former is you make mistakes and need to repeat things, and, with the latter, there is pick-up time with each switch, making it less efficient than batching. Do one thing at a time and chunk together similar tasks in a given period.
Eat that frog
Do the hardest most important thing first to get your day going. From the saying, "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and the rest of the day will be easy," and Brian Tracey's classic time-management book named after this. Finding ways to overcome procrastination is crucial for effective time management. Strategies range from breaking tasks down, to self reward, to energizing breathing, to personal get going mantras. Developing a habit is the key.
I don't recommend having a daily to-do list as stuff will come up which you will have to move around, and this could make you feel disheartened. It's better to have one overall evolving time management list. If you do opt for a daily list, build in slack time or crumple zones to account for what comes up. For many professions, as much as 70 percent of their time is needed for slack.
Time often isn't the problem; it's managing pesky human things like energy and mood. If you're tired and grumpy, you might not do the things you need to succeed. Find ways to manage your energy and mood (e.g. sleep, diet, sufficient rest, and inspiration).
Manage your commitments
You can't manage time; you can manage what you have said yes to and within what timeframes. When people are overwhelmed, it is because of their commitments and not the clock on the wall. Be impeccable with your commitments to yourself and others, and be clear about everything you have committed to.
Say no, ask for help
If you can't say no or ask for help (includes delegation for managers) you will be overwhelmed. These emotional and embodied skills are not straightforward for many people.
Choose your tasks
Doing things from a sense of choice will energize you and lead to better relationships more so than doing things resentfully because you have to. If a task doesn't connect to something important to you, then don't do it.
I acknowledge Stephen Covey, David Allen (Getting Things Done), Richard Strozzi Heckler, and The Newfield Network for their work in this area, and from which many of these tips are drawn.
About the author:
Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training, based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK. Specializing in working with emotions, the body, and spirituality at work they help organizations get more done without going insane (time management training and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and help leaders build impact, influence, and presence.
This article is reprinted from our UK sister site, TrainingZone.