Leadership

Five time management tips that are worth a shot

We've all heard the advice about creating daily to-do lists and prioritizing tasks. But there are also some less obvious tips that can have a big impact on your productivity.

Have you ever tackled an office or home cleanup project, feeling pretty virtuous, only to discover at the end of the day that all you did was move stuff around? Same stuff, different spot.

Time management strategies usually play out that way for me, too. I shuffle things from list to list and re-prioritize without actually getting more done. Well all that's about to change, because February is National Time Management month. True, the month is half over, so I'm a little late with this post. But you know how that goes. And anyway, I'm on it.

To drive this February self-improvement effort, I rounded up a few top time management and productivity tips that actually make sense to me. Maybe they'll make sense to you, too.

1: Follow through

Chip Camden offered this tip in his article about getting tasks done.

If you have a choice between working on two projects, choose the one that is nearly finished even if the other one is more fun. When you complete a project, it creates momentum and reduces that long to-do list that haunts your psyche. Every time I complete a project, I feel an immense sense of relief; and it makes me happier and more productive.

2: Don't answer every call

In Five tips for avoiding false efficiencies, Justin James dismissed some time management myths and offered advice for streamlining your work.

The wonderful engineers at the phone company invented caller ID and voicemail for a reason: so you do not have to answer every single incoming call. Many people feel the need to answer every call, regardless of what they are doing at that moment. Why break your focus to answer a call that may not be very important? And if you're working with other people, why make them waste their time sitting around watching you have another conversation? Unless you are expecting an important call (or the person keeps calling back, indicating an emergency), let it go to voicemail if you're busy and check the voicemail during a break in your work.

3: Focus on one task at a time

Alan Norton outlined a variety of strategies for getting more accomplished during your workday.

It is a common misconception that the conscious mind can process multiple tasks simultaneously. It's just not possible if the tasks require conscious selection and action. The best multi-taskers may quickly switch from one task to another, but they can still focus on only one task at a time. Experiments have shown that productivity drops when multi-tasking.

It may be in vogue to listen to an MP3 player, text your peers, and work all at the same time, but your work will suffer if attention is placed on that other activity, even if only for a moment. I believe it is possible to listen to music in the background and actually be more productive. However, listening to and comprehending any talk, including the news, commercials, and talk radio, is counterproductive.

4: Don't waste time on obsolete email

If you're digging out from a backlog of older email messages, try Dave Johnson's simple reply strategy. It can shave a ton time off your email obligations.

No one's perfect, and you neglected an email so long that it's three weeks old by the time you work your way down to it. Don't reflexively jump on the task. Send an email that says, "Sorry it took me so long! I was on vacation/in medical school/at rehab/doing a special project for the CEO. Do you still need this? I'm still happy to dive in." In my experience, 75 percent of the time, the issue resolved of its own accord. Mission accomplished.

5: Track your time

Jack Wallen's article on organizing your office life touched on the issue of time management with a suggestion that you try a tool to see where your time goes.

Work is an environment that's most often governed by time. The only problem is, most people can't seem to manage that time. Applications are available that serve as timekeepers -- such as KTimeTracker (part of KDE Pim), GTimeLog, and Time Panic. You can use them to keep track of how much time you spend doing tasks. I strongly suggest you take advantage of one of these tools for a while just to see where your time is going. But to do this, you have to be vigilant about keeping track. Even keep track of the various distractions that take your attention away from work. After a week of using one of these tools, you will get a good idea of how you use your time. Once you have this data, you will be able to figure out what can be optimized, dropped, or added to.

Additional reading

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

7 comments
NickNielsen
NickNielsen

When my corporate Blackberry rejected its SIM :0 , I was allowed to keep it and use it as a PDA. The problem I found was that, since I wasn't carrying it on my belt any more, I tended to forget I had it. Over time, I used it less and less. A half-year later, I realized I hadn't touched it in over two months. A month after that, I turned it and the charger in to the phone swap.

ian
ian

I am a list person, or to more precise a two list person. Having just one list with everything on it can be overwhelming to say the least. At the end of the day the list may not look any smaller and may actually have grown with new items added. This is only going to give an unsatisfying sense of non-achievement. I have found having a list of all tasks that need doing and a second list of only todays tasks keeps me focused. You can use a notepad for this but I use a spreadsheet with filters because I also monitor start and end times. Once I have set my list order for the day, I set the filter to only show todays tasks and hide everything else. The spreadsheet stays open all day. Each task has a due date (at least one day prior to the actual due date) I select those items that must be completed today, but only as many as I can work on comfortably. I then select the items that can be finished quickly and leave the big one till last - even if it is the most urgent. The reason I do this is 1. It gives a sense of accomplishment to see items crossed off. 2. If the tasks are for different clients, then the majority will be satisfied their tasks are complete. 3. If I start on the big one first, I still have the nagging feeling about the others that need doing. 4. If a task is not completed due to unforeseen events, it is re-prioritized. If I have projects that will run into days/weeks/months, I break them down into daily tasks - or smaller, to complete two or more tasks on the same project the same day. I now know how much of the overall task is completed and can report being on track. Breaking projects down into bite size tasks is also how I prepare my bids. I have a good estimate of how long a task will take and can bid accordingly. Also, dissecting a project gives me a better understanding of it and I can ask pertinent questions up front.

Tigger_Two
Tigger_Two

I was chatting with a friend who I have always known to be extremely organized. She mentioned to me that as she "matures" she is finding that her short term memory is essentially shot. Her Blackberry is becoming an extension of her hand. I could instantly relate. I have virtually NO short term memory. What I DO have is a note pad and a pen. This actually works well. When you write something down, you engage a different part of your brain than the bit that usually manages short term memory transfer into long term. In many cases, you will find that you really don't even need the note because you recall the act of writing it and what it looks like. Applying this to time management is easy- a single note (to yourself) can save you dozens of emails (to others). A tip I got from a professional organizer also stands me in good stead. We tend to accumulate unneeded things because we have subconsciously attached a value to them. If your space is getting cluttered, looking at the item and asking yourself why it is in your space is key. If the item is necessary, file it or store it appropriately. If the item isn't, but you want it anyway, scan it. If the item really IS valuable, why is it stuffed away under clutter? Show it the respect that you actually have for it. Using this tip- a memo or other item that you will likely need to reference in the future- file it. That way when the future comes, you can find it instead of wasting valuable time looking for it. Something that you don't really NEED for the job at hand? Scan it or photograph it. Save the scan or photo, get rid of the thing. Something that you REALLY value like an earned certification or photo with special meaning? Frame it and hang it. Another tip from an organizational coach- find what turns you on and USE IT! I have an app called Toodle Do on my Touch. It can synch to the Toodle Do website. I add tasks and appointments as I go through my day and synch everything at the end of the day. It robustly allows me to code things using labels that are meaningful to me. I also use the native iCal on my Mac in a similar way, but Toodle Do will work with the Windows crowd. If you are a Mac user, Garage Band can really be your friend. I can record short pod casts to myself and put them on my Touch. I'm certain that a similar tool exists for Windows. Those short podcasts might be information that I have researched about a subject for a meeting. As I drive to the meeting, I can listen to the podcast to refresh myself. Are you a fiend for color? Me too. Color coding makes a major difference in how I see things. Prioritizing is not your friend? Me too. I dug back to my nursing days for help. If the patient is not breathing/has no pulse, they go first. A task with massive impact that will quickly either fail or take you to a next step would be the same. Bleeding? After breathing, but before pain. From a task perspective, can it wait if a minor action is taken now? Pain is virtually everything else, excepting those things that are really routine but are considered to be of greater importance by their owners. Those are tasks that need to be addressed but probably not as a top priority. One of my favorite time management techniques is from Getting Sh*t Done. Don't make a dozen lists and then try to juggle all of them. If you are a list maker, one sheet will do. What do you have to do? Write it down with a nice, friendly, check box beside it. When it gets done, check it off. From this perspective, "Prepare for insanely important meeting" is a line item. It might spawn other line items but that isn't important. The next line item might be, "Pick up bread and milk". At the end of the day, you take everything that isn't complete and transfer those tasks to the next day. At this point, "Pick up bread and milk" is probably complete. "Prepare for insanely important meeting" has more than likely not been complete- but now it looks like, "Research insanely important sub-topic" and "Create insanely important slide show", and possibly, "Look up one way flights to Borneo" or "Consider advanced degree in any other field". Regardless, things DO get done, unfinished tasks DO get distilled to manageable parts, and you actually KNOW how you got where you are. How you manage to TRAIN yourself to a system? THAT is a whole other topic.

wpshore
wpshore

Single file for all data [I use askSam for just dumping & finding data but I hear nice things about the free EverNote too], Everything Search (forgot about your hierarchical organization forever - assign a shortcut key to it and find your files instantly), Acrobat standard for all the scanning you're going to do [paper is so last century and even then you can store it as PDFs until you need to print it], keyboard shortcut and/or macro programs (I use Shortkeys & ActiveWords). Organization is nothing but using and combining tricks, it takes time not just to do but to change your habits and feel comfortable doing (think in 1 year increments, not one week..). Good luck.

Tigger_Two
Tigger_Two

It takes less time to create a file and put a piece of paper into it than to sit down to an overwhelming pile of filing. I currently have that issue at home. My husband had a filing system that my brain doesn't understand. That was fine when he was managing that file, not so much now that I have to. As a result, the mass is stacked on the dining room table and I chip away at it a bit at a time. Once it is comprehendible to me, I can keep it going. The problem is that it will take time and effort to get to that place. One of the things that I have discovered is that a time management system only works IF YOU USE IT. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. I used to leave an unfinished task on my desk at the end of every day. Generally it would take little time to complete it, but when my day started with something I could complete, I could more easily find the "zone" and complete more tasks. Chip is right- success brings more success. The two most valuable things I have learned to keep any sense of time and thing organization... When the phone rings, I take a moment to ask myself if I am ready to engage in the conversation. If my answer is no, I let it go to voice mail. Why take a call if I can't be present in the conversation? When an alarm I've set to alert me to a thing goes off, I do the thing. Immediately. If I can't engage immediately, I "snooze" the alarm. Before the alarm can be dismissed, the thing must be completed or at a stage where I can plan the residual forward. For me, this is the only way my alarms can be meaningful. Dismissing the task before it is completed almost insures that the task will go undone. The OHIO concept is key for me- Only Handle It Once. The bill (or whatever) comes in the house, it gets paid (thank you online bank tools!), and it gets filed. All that happens immediately. If I stuff it into a "to be done" pile, it will disappear from my consciousness. Not a good thing.

LewSauder
LewSauder

The time management tactic that helps me the most is getting-and staying-organized. If I get into a disorganized phase with papers all over my desk and nothing where it belongs, I spend extra time looking for that one paper I need or for my left shoe before I can leave the house. If I spend minimal time keeping organized stacks of paper for each project I work on, I save time in the long run. The same goes for electronic files. Keeping well organized directories and putting documents in the correct ones saves time. Lew Sauder, Author, Consulting 101: 101 Tips For Success in Consulting (www.Consulting101Book.com)

Kevin
Kevin

I've been using Paymo.biz for the last couple of years. It's an online service and is free for up to 2 users, so great for a small IT consultancy like ours. You can set up clients and projects, and tasks against projects. You can then book time either manually, or 'automatically' with the Time Tracker desktop widget. You can then print out timesheets for billable hours, and even create invoices. You get a maximum of three invoices a month in the free version. There's a charge of $9.99 a month for unlimited invoices. I have all my support clients set up with monthly projects and book my time accordingly. I also have an 'internal' project for admin, R&D, training, etc. Works well, and worth a look for free.

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