Have you ever started the day with great ambitions and then realized at the end that you didn't get anything done? It happens to everyone, but it happens to some people more often than others.
Time management allows you to have a higher degree of control over what you do in a day, week, or month. Time management skills can help you spend the hours you have on what is most important to you.
Organizational skills are easier for some people than others. For instance, all time management advice includes some form of writing down what you want to accomplish. For many people, this is easy and natural. Other people have difficulty creating lists and following through on them. It's a left-brain/right-brain thing and has to do with whether your brain favors logic and structure or creative and unstructured thinking. Time management requires discipline. If you're not prepared to be disciplined, you're not going to be a very good manager of your own time.
Here's a top-10 list of time management techniques that I've employed myself. Notice that I didn't call them "best practices." However, they do work for me and can work for you as well.
1. Create a list of things to do each morning
If you don't keep track of what you want to accomplish, you're not going to have a chance for effective time management. Create a to-do list at the beginning of each day or at the end of the prior day. The list can include business and personal items and can be put on paper, your workstation, PDA, etc. Refer to the list several times during the day. For example, if you have 10 minutes before a meeting, glance at your list. There might be an e-mail you wanted to send that would only take 10 minutes. When you complete each item, check it off. If you’re like me, you derive satisfaction from being able to check off an item as complete.
2. Write down all follow-up items on your list
To keep track of new things that come up during the day, place them on your daily list. If your list is full and the activity can be completed tomorrow (or the next day), place it on your list for a day or two out. Have you ever wondered why people tell you they'll do something and then don’t follow through? It's because they don't write it down. When I was a manager, I would often talk to people about work we needed to complete. I never trusted their memory. If they didn't bring a pencil and paper, I gave them some so they could write down what needed to be done and the due date.
3. Carry forward unfinished work and follow up
Now you have a list of work for the day, and you've added new items for follow-up during the day. What do you do with the things you haven't completed at the end of the day? You carry them forward and add them to your list for tomorrow. But don't be a procrastinator. You don't want to carry an expanding list of activities from day to day to day. If the activity is important, get it done. If it's not important, follow up with the person who's expecting something from you and explain that the work hasn't been completed.
4. Keep track of due dates
Use your list to keep track of due dates. This includes commitments to work colleagues and friends. My experience is that people miss due dates more often than they hit them. If you're not clear, ask when an activity needs to be completed, write it down, and then use time management skills to make sure the work is done on time. If you can't meet the commitment, communicate that in a timely manner.
5. Create a list of priorities for this month and next
I know many people make lists for today. How many make high-level lists of the things they need to do this month and next? Unless you have a transactional job where your time frames are always short-term, you need to stop at the beginning of each month and determine what you want to accomplish. These lists are obviously at a high level, but, again, they keep you focused on what you want to accomplish. As the month progresses, start adding items to your list for the next month.
6. Keep track of longer-term reminders
Your things-to-do list isn't going to help you for follow-ups you'll need to remember in the distant future. For instance, you may tell a colleague that you'll follow up with him to check progress in two months. You need to have a way to keep track of this follow-up and to remind yourself two months in the future. I've always just used a calendar. Most online calendars have features for reminders. In fact, I place multiple reminders over multiple days, so that if I miss one, I'll catch the reminder the next day.
7. Keep a clean desk
I never knew of a good time manager who worked in a pigsty. In fact, it usually follows that people who have cluttered offices or cubicles aren't very good time organizers. I don't think you can be a good time manager when you spend a lot of time looking for stuff in a cluttered work environment.
8. Keep all of your current work in one area
Over time, you may work on many separate activities and initiatives. Keep your things organized. I always keep all of my current work papers in one area where I can get at them easily. When I'm finished with a project or initiative, I move the folder elsewhere (see tip 9).
9. Purge files and documents you no longer need
Here's one that might startle you. For the past 10 years, I've had one file drawer where I keep all my papers from completed work initiatives. I keep adding new work folders to the front of the drawer, and when the drawer gets full, I throw out files from the back end. In other words, I never keep more files than can fit in one drawer.
Contrast that to your system of keeping endless years of paperwork that no one cares about anymore and no one will ever care for again. Of course, I'm not talking about users' manuals or reference material that you need. I’m talking about the work files you accumulate. And yes, once a year, I wish I could go back and find something I threw out. But I usually have the original documents online.
10. Back up online files and purge
I have a similar philosophy about online documents. I would guess that 95 percent of what you have online in your work files probably has a shelf life of three months or less. I periodically back up my files to CD (or disk) and then go through and quickly delete all the older junk I don't need anymore.