Key learning outcomes:
- Understand that good time management will boost your business’s productivity and bottom line.
- Practise creating a to-do list and prioritising the tasks on the list.
- Develop strategies for optimising your peak working periods.
- Recognise that multi-tasking may negatively impact the quality of your work.
Time is the one constant in life and the one thing that we never seem to have enough of. Learning to manage your time more effectively will enhance your productivity and profitability.
The time management principles are quite simple and easy to learn; the difficulty is sticking to the principles and forming good habits that are lasting. Consider the following list of the most common time management mistakes we see people make. We outline each one and provide you with strategies to overcome them.
1. Not using a to-do list
Without doubt this is the number one time management mistake that people make. We all have so many things to do that it is impossible and foolhardy to think that we can remember them all. Almost any consultant will recommend you write a to-do list. This way you will prevent something turning into a crisis because it has skipped your mind.
Our article ‘Effective To-do Lists’ will help you to create a list that works for you. We like to use a handwritten list, although these days there are a number of wonderful apps and software solutions that will work just as well. The important thing is that you review the list every day to ensure that it accurately reflects what you need to do and is not just a never-ending wish list.
2. No prioritisation of tasks
A lot of people work with a to-do list but the issue is what to do when. Not everything on the list is of equal importance and not everything on the list needs to be done today. If you don’t spend some time prioritising your list, you may find that although you are busy you have actually achieved very little. It is essential to identify every day what are three to five most important things to be done and do them first.
The other issue is that it is easy to spend all your time dealing with crisis situations and other things that crop up during the day. It is essential to remember these wise words of President Eisenhower: “What is urgent is seldom important and what is important is seldom urgent.” Refer to our article “Urgent/Important Matrix” for an explanation of a time management tool to help you determine how to set your priorities.
3. Not managing distractions
This is one of the biggest issues in time management today. With communication coming at you 24/7, it can be hard to stay 100% focused on the task at hand. Checking emails, social media and phones every time a message comes in can literally cost you hours each day. Add to people distractions this and you have a major time management issue.
Our article “Managing Distractions” explains some tools and strategies to deal with the distractions that most people face every day. The most important tip is to manage your technology and make sure it works for you. Use features such as “do not disturb” on your phone, turn it to silent when you are working on an important project and only check emails at certain times during the day. Also, do not be afraid to close your office door or block out some uninterrupted work time in your diary.
We all put off tasks from time to time. It might be something that you are not keen to work on, a job that you find tedious, or something that you know is going to take a lot of effort or that you feel unsure or anxious about. The trouble is that if we put something off, we start to stress that we are going to run out of time or we feel guilty that we haven’t done the task, and so we put it off just a little bit longer. Before we know it the task is either overdue, a deadline is looming or we are in a crisis situation dealing with the ramifications.
Here are a couple of tips if you have become a master of putting things off. The first is to adopt a “worst first” approach. If you have something on the list that you have been putting off, perhaps doing that financial report or ringing that difficult customer, the best thing to do is to get it out of the way. You will feel great that it is done and everything else on the list will seem like a breeze.
The next thing is to chunk large tasks down. Rather than committing to spending a day on those figures or writing that report, just do a section or portion of the work for now. This will allow you to move the task forward and feel satisfied that you have made a start on it.
5. Taking on too much work
Are you always the first to volunteer your services at the school or community event, or someone who thinks it is quicker and easier if you do it yourself? There is an old saying that if you want something done then give the job to a busy person. And this can hold true, but only up to a point. When you take on too much the quality of what you do can suffer, but more importantly it can bring with it other issues such as stress.
It is important to learn to say no. Now, that is not to say you should be rude; however, it is important to learn how to point people in the direction of a solution that does not involve you. Or, alternatively, if it is something you can or want to do, learn to explain that you would be happy to help at a time that suits you.
If you find it is just quicker and easier to do things yourself, you need to learn how to delegate. Often a little bit of time spent training someone to do the task will save you literally hours or more in the long run. It is also important to understand that someone with less experience may not do the job quite like you, but they will improve over time. And remember, you weren’t an expert to begin with either. As long as it does not adversely affect a customer or the outcome, does it really matter?
Often people think that if they do two, three or more things at once they will save time. Research has shown that this is actually a fallacy. Multi-tasking is one of the biggest time management mistakes people make. Every time we switch from one task to another, and prioritise the outstanding tasks, our mind has to shift focus. Now, this may only take a few seconds, but sometimes it takes longer.
Have you ever found yourself on the phone and reading emails at the same time? Your mind has to concentrate on one thing so the result is that either you read the email and the person on the end of the phone knows you are distracted, or you actually do not take in what you read and will have to re-read it after you hang up. In reality you have probably done both tasks poorly, or certainly not as well as you could have if you focused on a single task. Learn to focus on one task at a time and you will find that your productivity and quality of work improves immediately.
7. Skipping breaks
We all know people who love to tell you that they have worked through lunch and have not had a break all day. While it might seem on the surface that they are putting in extra time and therefore are getting more done, research has shown time and time again that the person who does take breaks during the day will not only be more productive, the quality of their work will be superior.
It is essential to take breaks throughout the day and to ensure that you are eating and drinking enough. A drink of water, something healthy to eat and a burst of fresh air will do wonders for how you feel when you get back to the desk. What’s more you will see your productivity soar. Experts will tell you that you should have a five-minute break every hour, stand up, stretch and go for a short walk or just switch off your mind for a few minutes to recharge your batteries.
8. Failing to track your time
Have you ever said or heard someone say “I just have no idea where the time went?”. These people are usually busy and are definitely not lazy; they work hard but just not efficiently. Once you know how you are spending your time you are able to create a schedule that will allow you to improve your efficiency.
Our article ‘Activity Log’ is a useful guide and there are also a number of apps and software tools that allow you to track your time on an ongoing basis. We suggest that you start by tracking your time for a few weeks, re-evaluate your schedule and then do the exercise again in four to six weeks. This will ensure you are staying on track and help you identify areas for improvement.
9. Messy desk syndrome
There are people who will tell you they have everything at their fingertips even though their workspace looks like a disaster zone. The reality is that they don’t, and depending on how bad the clutter and mess is, they may never find what they are looking for again. Everyone is different and it is a matter of finding what works for you. But generally speaking, the more organised you and your workspace are the more effective your time management will be. You do not want to waste valuable time hunting for that report, paper, phone number or note before you can start getting work done. We recommend you take just a few minutes to tidy up at the end of the day.
It is also important to make sure you have everyday materials, such as stationery, close to hand. There is nothing worse than being on the phone looking for a pen that works or for a piece of paper to write on. We like to work with bound notebooks so you always have something to jot down your thoughts in if you are not at your desk, and you can look back at your notes when necessary.
10. Doing the wrong thing at the wrong time
Are you a morning person or a night owl? Everyone is different which is what makes the world go around; however, it is important to understand when your peak periods are during the day so you use these to your advantage. If you know you are best in the morning, try to use that time to do more complex tasks or to deal with customers face to face. If you do not get firing until about 10am, then try to avoid important meetings or events earlier than this. Obviously, there will always be exceptions to the rule and you will sometimes have to fit in with other people’s schedules, but as much as possible try to work with your own natural rhythm.
Our article ‘Energy Logs’ will help you to pinpoint when your best time of day is, and it will also help you to identify things that you can do to increase your productivity and take advantage of your peak times. For example, you might find you have more energy on days that you exercise, or you do not feel great on days when you eat lunch after 1pm. By understanding when and why you feel your best, you can work to maximise your productivity.
Making it work
Time management is one of those things that is easy to do and easy not to do. It takes discipline to develop superior time management skills, and you might find that if you are working with others that could also improve their efficiency, there may be some resistance to new routines. We find time management is an essential skill to develop with your entire team. Use this article as a checklist to identify the areas of improvement and work on them together. Our time management section of the website also has some great tools to help you, and for you to share with the team.
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