I imagine you know the answer to the question posed in the title already: time management is self-management. You'll have heard the popular adage 'you can't manage time, you can only manage yourself' before now. People sometimes ask me for advice. But when I start talking about to do lists and how to prioritise tasks, they get agitated and say, “Yes, I know all about that. I have my lists and of course I know about dealing with priorities and attending to urgent things first of all. But I still can’t get on top of things, and I’m exhausted. So, tell me something I don’t know about time management? What really works?”
Well, there's advice that can be given, of course, but you'll find that different things work for different people. Everyone who has a busy life and loads of responsibilities has to manage their time. And in this frenetic world, it's normal to find it difficult. So you need to monitor yourself and try different things to see what works for you.
I remember reading some years back that our brains were not designed for the modern 21st century workplace. We humans were designed to live the hunter-gatherer existence in the wild and to only use our adrenaline intermittently to flee our predators. Our brains, it seems, are only programmed to deal with occasional stress (like when our predators were hungry) not like these days when stress is on a continuous rampage. Knowing this evolutionary biological titbit is interesting, but it's not particularly comforting to know the abnormal environment we humans live in now is the new normal, is it? Knowing you’re super busy doesn't make the work go away.
So, perhaps the most important pieice of advice to offer is this: stop being so hard on yourself. You will never accomplish everything you have to do. It is impossible to stay on top of everything. As soon as one list is completed, you create the next one. So, be kinder to yourself, and let yourself off the hook. You have to let some things go for your own sanity. You can look for ways to improve your working efficiency, but there’s only so much room for improvement. Then you have to say, “OK I’ve done all I can do today. It’s time to switch off.”
To become better at time management we have to stop looking for ways to stop the clock and look for better ways to manage ourselves instead. Managing our own well-being is important for this.
it is important to monitor your mental energy. We need mental energy to get things done. We sometimes forget that making decisions takes a lot of mental energy, and we make thousands of decisions every day, which in turn wear us out. So it's important to rest the mind and take rests from continuous decision-making so that you can recharge your mental batteries. Exercise is great for rebuilding mental energy, as is fresh air, and getting lost in a good light-hearted film or book.
We also have to get our stress levels under control because you can't make good decisions or think creatively when you are worn out. We know that a certain amount of stress is good for us as it gets the adrenaline going and keeps the creative juices flowing. But we need to stay atuned to when stress levels are becoming too high. Some of the signs are when everything takes longer to do, results are poorer, and you can't think straight. Then it is time to stop, not plough on regardless. This is counterintuitive of course. You think you have to keep going to get the job done. But if you don't stop when you are tired you will not produce your best work and it will take three times longer than if you rested and came back to the task later. (But leaving it too long of course is also a problem. It will be like starting from scratch again.)
So here are my suggestions for getting on top of your work. I’m taking it for granted that you know to-do lists are essential, as well as having a notepad to hand, and that you have to think about prioritisation, so this list below tries to go beyond the basics.
1. Decide on the No.1 priority for the day and get it done
So yes, the advice is to focus on just one priority. If it really is your #1 priority, you will feel really good when you’ve achieved it. And that means your priority, not something someone else wants you to do.
Remember to know the difference between urgent and important. Urgent things are only things that happen unexpectedly in a crisis. If you have urgent things to do because you are a poor planner, you need to get better at planning! Weekly, monthly and yearly plans are all a good idea. But don't obsess with planning. Recognise when you are using planning as a procrastination technique to avoid getting stuff done! You need to strive to get the balance right between planning and productivity. Make a list of the important things to do at work like talking to colleagues and taking a break and put them into your schedule. Don't live life in crisis mode. You'll burn out. And remember that the important things that perhaps you tend to neglect (like making time to connect with your colleagues, or to reflect on your learning), are priorities too.
2. Stop procrastinating, take the first step
We’ve all done it, found a hundred different ways to procrastinate! We will do almost anything to to avoid doing those things we hate doing or that seem difficult. And social media is a killer for this, isn't it? Just five minutes on Facebook which turns into an hour. The challenge needn’t be about the size of a task, it's also things we really dislike or things that make us nervous. But the more we delay the bigger the task seems to become in our mind and the more metal energy we need to apply to it. So, stop procrastinating! Just get started. If it helps, break the task into smaller steps, and take the first step. You’ll be amazed at how helpful this is. Once you get off the starting blocks it gets easier.
3. Aim for 2 productive hours each day, know when they are and get producing!
This is based on the 20:80 Pareto rule, that says that 20% of your time produces 80% of your most valuable work. In addition, it's important to work out your own biological clock so that you know when your most productive and creative time of the day is and you maximise this time for producing your best work. For most people, it's early in the morning, but this needn't be the case for you. Whenver it is, you probably need privacy to concentrate, so find a quiet place or put your headphones on and put up the ‘Do not disturb me, it's my creative time!’ sign. Then you can plan to complete easier mechanical style tasks later in the day when your brain is less productive.
4. Do, Dump, Delegate, Defer
This 4D Model is great for dealing with emails and messages: Take ten minutes to look at your inbox in the morning. If you can answer an email in 2 minutes, answer it. If it’s really not relevant, dump (delete) it straight away. If it's for someone else, send it on (delegate). And if it’s important but not urgent, store it in your defer folder. Then close down your emails and go and focus on that priority for the day. It works with to do lists as well.
5. Put your phone/technology away
This has been said a thousand times but it can’t be said enough. If you are like me you work with laptops and smartphones all day. If you struggle to put your phone away for a couple of hours, ask someone to help you. My partner and I allocate certain hours every day when technology is banned. Then we hide each other’s phones and focus on something else. We really are addicted to our phones and this law enforcement with each other works a treat. Make rules and agreements at work about when you are contactable and when not. Then stick to the agreed rules. The first person who breaks the rules, ruins it for everyone! It's a really good idea to establish no work emails at the weekend.
6. Go for a walk
You need to take breaks regularly throughout the day. Take a walk to give your brain time to recharge. You also need to relax your eyes and you can’t beat natural sunlight for that. It has been said that going for a walk is an excellent way to get the creative juices going; new ideas and solutions to problems will pop into your head when you are least expecting them to.
7. Look after yourself
Sleep, exercise, and keep to a healthy diet. These things can’t be stressed enough. There is conclusive scientific proof now that nothing recharges the body and mind like good sleep and exercise. I don’t want to go into preacher mode but prioritise getting restorative sleep and find the exercise that works for you and do it regularly. Only by recharging your batteries can you be at your most reative and productive.
8. Reward yourself
This is important too. Take a moment at the end of each day to applaud what you have achieved. Whatever it is, and so long as it’s not detrimental to any of the other 7 points above, treat yourself to whatever it is that makes you feel great and savour it!
You can read all the best time management advice in the world but in the end you need to work out what works for you. Try different things, and reflect on their worth. Mix it up if it helps. For example, sometimes I like to use to do apps and other times nothing beats pen and paper; sometimes I like writing bulleted lists and other times I prefer mind maps. I have a sign over my desk which says ‘ Take one step to stop procrastinating!’ and this helps me deal with one of my own time management weaknesses. I like mixing up the time management repetoire as the variety helps prevent me going off the boil.
And I can’t finish without sharing my favourite time management tool. It’s not new, but I simply love it. The Rocks in the Bucket story. You probably know it already. But if you don’t, here it is again. Even if you know it, it’s worth thinking about it often. And if you don't want to read it, jump to the What Now? section below.
The trainer walks into the training room with a bucket. This session is on time management. He stands behind his desk and puts the bucket on the desk. He then fills the bucket with a few large rocks. He asks the trainees: “Is the bucket full?’ and they say “Yes”. He says no. He then adds sand to the bucket, shaking it till it fills all the gaps between the rocks. So he asks again’ “Is the bucket full now?” They are catching on now but don’t quite know whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’! So the trainer takes a jug of water and pours the water into the bucket. Once he has done this he says, “The bucket is full now. So what does this teach you about time management?” One trainee says, “Well, it’s obvious, even if you think you’ve planned a full day of work, there’s always more you can get done if you are more efficient.There's always more you can fit into the bucket (= your schedule) ” “That’s a good try”, says the trainer, “but no, that’s the wrong answer. The right answer is this: Put the rocks in the bucket first, or otherwise you will never get the rocks in. So, the rocks are your priorities. Priorities are not the things you feel you should or must do, but the things that really matter to you.”
When we look at our lives or our work, we have to think carefully about what our rocks are - our loved ones, our passion for a particular activity, or making time to talk to people at work. Whatever your top priorities are, whether they are daily, monthly or yearly, put them into your routine first and highlight them. Know what the most important things in your life and your work are and don’t neglect them.
So, over to you. What are you going to change in your life or at work today to help you manage your time better? Remember to accept that you cannot do everything, and that's ok, so find ways to maximise your creative time and to focus on your true priorities. One of the main priorities for yourself is to make time to relax your mind every day, in order to recharge your batteries. If you don’t look after yourself first, you'll be in no fit state to look after others or to get things done.
These are some of the time management tips that help me. What would you add?