You’ll be amazed at how much quality work you can get done in eight hours if you address the issues that suck precious time out of your schedule. Simple commonsense practices can make your day much more productive.
I’ve organized these tips in a progressive fashion; you should master one before moving on to the next for the greatest chance of success and for the least impact on your work. It’s easy to slip back into old habits, however, so some diligence on your part is required to keep these tricks working for you.
Change isn’t easy
Time management is key when it comes to improving performance. To get the most benefit from this advice, be sure to review my previous article in this series, which covers being aware of your day and breaking time-consuming habits. Then move on to step three of the process, time management, which is covered in this article.
After mastering your schedule, look for the upcoming final installment, which covers taking shortcuts and making distinctions about your work. Once you’ve mastered all five tactics, you’ll wonder how you ever got by without them.
Step Three: Manage your time
You’ve probably heard it a million times, but you must structure your time to keep it from getting away from you. Even if you attack every day head on, without a plan you’re putting yourself in a hit-or-miss situation when it comes to mastering your workload.
The single most effective practice you can adopt to manage your time is creating a structured outline of how your day will be spent. If you lay out your intentions, you’ll have specific goals to accomplish. Creating and maintaining a schedule may seem to consume time otherwise well spent, but after a week or two the practice will take no time at all and you’ll have proof of its success.
Create a personal schedule
Take a look at the lists you created in step one from the previous article. To ensure that you get everything done, create a weekly schedule that assigns time for each item. You may not think it’s realistic to work that way, but if you estimate needed time accurately and minimize useless activities, you’ll see results immediately. Your first week or two of careful scheduling will give you great insight into when it is most effective to perform specific tasks. You’ll eventually hone the process to keeping a standard schedule every week.
Let’s say you have 15 things you have to accomplish every week. It’s unrealistic to arbitrarily assign three a day—each task has dependencies and priorities that must be taken into account. Some tasks take longer than others or, in the case of software development, stretch over the week.
Look at each task logically and block out time(s) for each one. If you’ve scheduled code reviews from 10:00–11:00 A.M. on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, be sure you respect your own schedule by starting at 10:00 and ending at 11:00. If you're running long, evaluate whether you should continue based on the task’s priority. If you finish early, work ahead or use the time to pick up where you had to cut something else short. If you notice the times you allotted are consistently too long or too short, make adjustments to your schedule.
You’ll soon realize that you must allow for one-time events and stuff that just comes up out of the blue. The best way to deal with these issues is to allow time for them. Don’t book things back-to-back. If you wind up with some free time, I’m sure you’ll think of a way to use it.
Training yourself to stick to your plan isn’t easy. Even worse, making the commitment to merely create a schedule may seem contrary to your personality or habits. However, if you’re experiencing enough of a time crunch to be looking for solutions, you should consider this not-so-uncommon measure. If you stay flexible while making time for all your requirements, you should realistically be able to perform everything you are responsible for in a 40- or 50-hour workweek.
Set office hours
Time management is about structure. Sometimes you need to ensure your schedule won’t be thwarted. Since blocking time is important, try to apply it to external tasks as well.
Thinking about office hours takes me back to college days, standing with a group of other students outside our professor’s door, waiting for him to open it. You might not be able to train your coworkers to obey your request of scheduled hours to that degree, but if even a few “cubicle hoppers” respect your time, it’ll be an improvement.
I’ve found that this practice is most effective when used sparingly. Whenever I’ve tried to use it all of the time, people adhere to it less and less.
The best way to deploy this tactic is to hang a sign prominently on your door or at eye level in the entrance of your cubicle. It should be polite but firm and say something like:
“Due to an impending deadline, I have restricted my office hours. Please come back between 10:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M. or between 3:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M. Otherwise, feel free to send me an e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment.”
It’s a good idea to allow time in both the morning and afternoon. Be polite with anyone that stops by during unscheduled hours. Listen to what they have to say, and inform them that you’ll get back to them later.
Be sure to make yourself available during scheduled hours, and make exceptions for emergencies. Office hours should be used as a means to funnel interruptions into a finite time frame, not a method for isolating yourself from ad hoc responsibilities.
Let e-mail accumulate
E-mail is another necessary evil of the workplace. You can’t get anything done with it, but you can’t get anything done without it. Try letting messages accumulate a little before interrupting yourself to respond. This tip can be applied to voice mail just as easily (or not-so-easily, as the case may be).
Even if it’s important to respond to e-mails promptly, you can try only responding once every half-hour or hour. This reduces the interruption to your workflow, and keeps e-mail from becoming a screaming beacon of nonessential communication. It may be impossible to use this tactic at your location, but if you can pull it off, there are a number of benefits.
First, e-mail information tends to trickle in. If you check or respond to your e-mail only periodically, you can capture those one or two afterthoughts all at once, cutting the amount of time you spin your wheels. This practice can also curb the instinct to get involved in frivolous e-mail discussions.
Of course, some organizations eat, breathe, and live through e-mail. Unfortunately, in this situation you may not have the luxury of postponing responses for even a short time. If this is the case, cut down on the traffic by completely answering questions. Of course, some people will only read the first line of a message and ignore the rest. When you get queries you’ve already answered, all you have to do is highlight the relevant portion of your response and forward it along.
Be the task master
The key to maintaining an effective schedule is dedication to your personal life. If you consistently strive to complete your work within a reasonable amount of time, you can still have great relationships with those you work with and time for a life after work. Time management depends on:
- Being aware of where your time is spent.
- Getting rid of useless practices.
- Taking control of when you perform specific tasks.
The key to successful time management is structure and defined intentions.
The next and final article in this series will help you fine-tune your time management practices by suggesting ways to take shortcuts and showing you how to determine which tasks are truly important. Until then, practice the skills you’ve learned up until this point and start making the most of your day.
How does time scheduling work for you?
Share your experiences with a structured workday by posting in the discussion below or sending us an e-mail.