In my previous blog post, I discussed how to start tackling your time management issues by taking a high-level perspective of the big picture and figuring out your priorities. Measuring tasks by their urgency versus their importance, their impact versus the effort they require, or their value can help you determine which tasks need—and deserve—most of your attention. Once you’ve sorted your tasks according to one (or more) of those three criteria, it’s time to adopt a more granular view.
Building Your Plan
There’s time enough, but none to spare.
—Charles W. Chesnutt
Now that you see everything laid out before you, it’s time to restructure how you spend your time. Start by asking yourself some broad questions:
What projects do you need to accomplish between now and
- the end of this month?
- the end of the quarter?
- the end of the year?
Next, sort those tasks according to some rubric that helps you identify the best way to prioritize them. I’ve suggested three strategies that, among them, cover most circumstances. But as the saying goes, “Your mileage may vary”—and you may find that you need to tweak things. Ultimately, the ideal solution for you is the one that works best for your situation, which includes the needs of your organization and your boss. (If you are ever unclear about what your priorities should be, ask your boss.)
Once you have your priorities nailed down, you need to assign time to them. Start with the zoomed-out view, then zero in on the details: lay your projects out by month, determine the goals for each week, then the goals for each day within each week.
Schedule your day—don’t just allow it to flow without structure. Without guardrails to keep their focus on track, most people (myself included!) have a tendency to get lots of busy work done without giving bigger projects the attention they need. Also, having a plan means that when distractions arise (and they always do!), you know where to go to get back on course.
Think of chunking your times into buckets: within a 40-hour workweek, what percentage of your time should you be spending in certain areas? Identify your peak times (and your not-peak times) for each day, and put your most focus-demanding tasks during those slots.
Don’t limit your scheduling to “nose to the grindstone” time to work on specific tasks that feed into larger projects. Be sure to give yourself time for reflection, strategizing, and planning, too. The best leaders use those opportunities to adjust, reposition, and tweak as needed as circumstances evolve and conditions change.
Improving Your Focus
The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.
Guess what? All the best time-management rubrics and scheduling hacks won’t get you very far if you aren’t able to focus. Focus lets you manage your time more effectively by being mindful about what you are doing. Fortunately, the ability to focus isn’t an inherited talent, but a skill you can cultivate.
To improve your mindfulness, try one (or more) of the following strategies:
- Before starting on a new task, clear your mind for 60 seconds.
- To understand where your focus needs to be, identify what deserves your attention for the next hour.
- Unplug from e-mail, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, other productivity applications, and all social media for an hour, so you can focus on the task at hand. (And turn off all notifications, too, so you aren’t distracted by things that go “ping”!)
- Use the Pomodoro technique to train your brain to stay on task for short periods of time:
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and get to work. When the buzzer sounds, take a 5-minute break.
- After following this sequence four times, take a longer break (approximately 20 to 30 minutes).
- Check your thermostat. (A too-warm or too-cold environment could be distracting.)
- Turn on some music. Of course, too much background sound can take your mind in different directions, but listening to music you like can help you focus your thoughts.
- Don’t multitask. Give all your attention to one task at a time.
- Finish what you start.
- Check your priority list before you check your e-mail.
- Schedule every single phone call and keep your ringer off (and your phone stowed away) outside of those call times.
- Similarly, schedule one or two daily blocks of time for reading and answering e-mail—and stick to them. (An automatic response message such as “I check my e-mail only at 10 a.m. and at 4 p.m.” can let people know not to expect to hear back from you right away.)
- As much as possible, limit meetings to 15 minutes (30 minutes, tops). We’ve all suffered through meetings that were long on time and short on information density. Making meetings as efficient as possible lets you (and everyone else involved) maintain your focus on those conversations—and spend more of your time on the actual work you need to do.
- Reward yourself for completing a task.
- Work in different locations. Sometimes a change of scenery (moving from desk to sofa, for example, or from office to coffee shop or library) can “reset” your brain so you can focus better. A quick walk around the block (or, if it’s raining cats and dogs, in the hallways of your office or building) can also serve this function.
As you can see, some of these strategies help you remove distractions from your environment, and some of them help you deal with distractions that you can’t avoid. Because you can’t always fully control your circumstances, it’s good to keep a variety of options in your tool kit.
Analyzing Your Productivity
Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.
One way to define productivity is to measure your output (or results) against the time you put into your work. Set aside a block of time every Friday to review your week and ask yourself five key questions:
- Did I achieve what I wanted to achieve?
- Did I personally need to be at every meeting that I attended this week?
- Could I have achieved the same amount of work in a shorter timeframe?
- What were my major distractions?
- What should I do differently to be more productive the following week?
In short: “Am I getting the most bang for my buck?”
If your answers to any of those questions leave you feeling less than satisfied with your results, then it’s time to make adjustments to how you manage your time and how you evaluate your productivity.
For one week, track to the minute how you spend your time during the workday. At the end of each day, put the timesheet next to your priorities list and schedule, and note which activities, events, distractions, etc., prevented you from accomplishing that day’s goals. At the end of the week, look over your summaries of those five days, then identify and implement the changes needed to bring how you actually spend your time back into alignment with how you want to spend your time.
Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it.
Some days, it’s possible to feel so time-starved and stressed that you may find yourself thinking you’d rather engage in a life-or-death game of riddles than deal with all of the work projects and other tasks on your plate. But here’s the thing: the issue isn’t one of how much time you actually have but one of how you use the time you do have. Once you realize that through better time management you have the power to shape your sense of how much time you have, you will be more productive—and a lot less stressed.
Do you have any time-management tips that help you make the most of your work time and focus? If so, please share them in the comments!