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.
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- 10+ ways to be productive when you're brain dead
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- Take control of your day with these 10 time management skills
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.