I have spent much time studying time management, or something I often refer to as Me Management since you can’t control time, but you can control what you do between the ticks of the clock. Here are ten strategies that, when implemented, are guaranteed to improve your productivity.
- Calibrate Your Priorities: There is nothing more critical to effective time management than determining your priorities. If you are going to be productive with time, you need to know what you want in every area of your life, something I call Achievement by Design. Because you have one life, you should design what you want from it. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in tasks that are not related to your priorities, so get clear on what’s most important first.
- Determine Your Outcomes: One of the reasons so many people struggle with time management is that they have a task list, or a to-do list if you like that better. The most productive people have these lists too, but they are focused on the outcomes of the tasks, not the tasks themselves. Let’s say you want to increase the sales of your business by $1,000,000. That growth will likely require many to-dos, and those tasks will probably change over time. Let me give you a straightforward example. You might have a task that reads, “Go to dinner with significant other.” The outcome might be “deepen the relationship with significant other,” a result you can achieve regardless of where you eat dinner.
- Treat Everything Like a Project: One way to improve your time management is to treat everything as a project. A project will likely have several tasks, it will take some time, and you will probably have helpful resources available to you. When you treat important outcomes as a project, you spend time planning your actions, and you schedule a time to complete the necessary tasks, turning a list of tasks into something more substantial.
- Establish Routines: In interviewing dozens of writers, they universally shared the routine of rising very early and producing pages first thing in the morning. They all suggest this routine was an essential part of their process. Whether your routine is to work immediately upon waking (my method) or go for a run or a workout, the discipline will improve your time management. You might have a morning routine, an afternoon routine, a weekly review routine, or a routine for reviewing your priorities.
- Draw Boundaries: When you say “yes” to small things, you are saying “no” to bigger things. It is challenging to manage your time when you don’t have boundaries. Some people want your time and attention at work, and many times, their needs are real. Without borders, you will never be able to protect the time you need for your priorities. You will no doubt be asked to help with projects, some of which will be interesting to you. However, when you agree to chair a committee, you are saying no to the things that are more important to you. Saying “no” is a powerful and necessary strategy, if you want to manage your time better.
- Schedule Weeks and Days: Minutes turn into hours, hours into days, days into weeks, and weeks into months. It is easy to fritter away your time when you haven’t determined beforehand what you are going to do with it. Once you know your priorities, you can schedule your days and weeks, starting each day with a solid plan to make progress on the few important things. When you begin to work, you won’t waste any time deciding what you need to do.
- Give Your Priorities Your Focus: Even though you have a schedule, you have limited attention and focus. You have some times of the day where your focus and your will power is stronger (for me, it is the first thing in the morning). You want to give your best energy to your most important priorities. Refuse to give those power hours to things like your email or social media sites. Instead, do the few things that move you closer to the outcomes you need to produce.
- Aggregate Tasks: Some tasks are necessary, like responding to your email or voice mail. You also have to pay your bills and fill out reports. These tasks lend themselves to aggregation. Instead of living in your inbox, check it three times a day, and process the emails completely (if you read it, decide what to do with it, do it, or put it on a task list, then archive it). If you are going to pay your bills or do your expense reports, collect them and do all of this work in one sitting—instead of allowing it to chip away at your time.
- Use a Single Task Manager: Some people’s idea of a task manager is a computer monitor covered in yellow post-it notes (maybe not the most elegant solution, and one that is also not mobile-friendly). It would be best if you had all of your projects and tasks wrangled into one place where you are confident you won’t miss something. If you like electronic task managers, there are dozens of good ones. If you prefer analog, a notebook works, as long as you keep everything there. Whatever your choice, commit to it completely.
- Decide What Not to Do: A to-don’t list is as crucial as a task list. What would go on a to-don’t list? How about “Don’t open email first thing in the morning.” Or, “Don’t allow people to interrupt your focus blocks.” If you want to do even better with your time, maybe try: “Don’t let other people place their priorities above mine,” knowing you can make exceptions when it makes sense. A list of things you are not willing to do will help you better manage your time.
The list above is in the order I would recommend you implement and execute these time management strategies. If you decide to go out of order, I strongly suggest you start by calibrating your priorities.