5 Ways to Improve Your Time Management

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You know those people who seem to have infinite time? They’ve read every book and watched every movie, all while raising kids and maintaining a busy work schedule. Sometimes I get a little overwhelmed by the amount of stuff certain people are able to accomplish in a day; it very literally feels like they have more hours to work with.

I don’t often speak in absolutes, but I’m extremely confident that these people do not, in fact, have extra time in their days. Whether its through habit or determination, some folks are just better than the rest of us at managing their time. It’s impressive, and might even make you a little jealous. If I may offer a little advice – instead of feeling envious, let yourself feel inspired.

Time management isn’t a natural talent. Some people might have a stronger inclination to stay proactive and efficient, but that doesn’t mean this ability is unlearnable. You can make better use of your time incrementally, the same way you gradually get stronger by going to the gym. Best of all, you can start immediately.

As a matter of fact, you can start right now. Before you finish reading this article, think of one email you need to send but have been putting off. Got something in mind? Great - write and send that email. No joke, do it before moving on to the next paragraph.

If you actually took the time to email someone just now, you chose to stop procrastinating. See how easy it was? That’s a huge component of time management, and the first step toward mastering these five habits of successful time managers. Speaking of, I’m going to stop rambling and move things along.

1. Ease Up on the Multitasking

Someday, the myth of multitasking will get debunked. Until then, I’ll keep beating this drum: doing two things at once usually doesn’t work. Occasionally it does, but only in the most specific of circumstances.

As an example, you can read a book while eating your lunch. That’s a fine version of multitasking, assuming you have a half-hour lunch break and want to eat slowly. If you want to finish your food quickly, reading a book will absolutely slow you down, and there’s a good chance you’ll get mustard or salad dressing all over the pages. See how doing two things at once isn’t always the smartest choice?

Now think about the tasks you approach concurrently at work. When you sort your inbox while making phone calls, your attention is divided. You’re either organizing emails haphazardly and overlooking important details, or you’re not really listening to whoever’s on the other end of the call. In theory, you could save a couple minutes tackling these projects at the same time. However, how much time is lost when you misplace an important email that has to be tracked down later?

This is a very specific example of how multitasking proves problematic, but this isn’t the worst of it. More often, issues arise when you schedule two things at once and miscalculate your time. When you intentionally plan to edit a document while on a conference call, there’s a good chance that editing work won’t get finished. If you end up playing a bigger role in the conversation and don’t have time to read attentatively while other people chat, you throw off your schedule and have to find a way to create more time later in the day.

The point is, multitasking shouldn’t be planned. It can be done, and knocking out two activities in one block of time isn’t a bad idea. Unfortunately, anticipating this condensed use of time backfires pretty frequently. Try giving everything its due attention, and then take advantage of multitasking opportunities as they present themselves.

2. Schedule Your Distractions

If you’re a human, things distract you. This is our reality, and avoiding this truth is totally futile.

I’m not just talking about brief distractions, like a car horn blaring or a dog barking. More important than those issues are the distractions we provide ourselves:

● Texts and phone calls

● Side conversations

● Hunger

● Personal matters

You can take steps to reduce these interruptions, but eliminating them requires a diligence most people don’t possess. Sometimes you have to leave your phone on so the babysitter can get in touch, and every once in a while you can’t help but feel really hungry 15 minutes before your lunch break.

Time management doesn’t entail ignoring circumstance. You won’t make better use of your minutes by powering through meetings while your stomach growls or putting off a much-needed cup of coffee. You also won’t do yourself any favors by failing to account for the minutes these distractions steal from your day.

It might seem counterintuitive at first, but you should really consider setting aside time during your workshift for ignoring your work. Beyond the half hour or hour you take for lunch, give yourself a few 20-minute breaks to check your email, touch base with your spouse or childcare provider, and play games on your phone if that’s something you need to do.

This is about more than leaving a little cushion to account for unexpected phone calls and conversations. You also need to acknowledge that your brain has to take a few breathers throughout the day. Sometimes you get on a kick where nothing can stop you from being productive, but there are just as many moments when your serviceable efforts tail off in the afternoon. This doesn’t make you a subpar worker; it just means you have a normal brain that needs glucose, oxygen and rest to function.

Some people steal away for midday naps. Others take exercise breaks when they hit a wall. Maybe all you need is an apple to push past a sluggish period. Whatever it is, you don’t overcome normal distractions by walling off mentally and hoping you can power through.

Don’t miss what I’m saying and spend half the day scrolling through your Facebook feed. Instead, give yourself a 10 minute social media break during that part of the day when your productivity starts to dip. This is a good way to get relief from mental stress, and it can also motivate a better effort when you return to your duties.

3. Plot Your Day Thoughtfully

This should go without saying, but planned distractions aren’t the only thing that should get penciled in ahead of time. You can’t expect to maximize efficiency if you’re scheduling everything on the fly, so each day needs to have some sort of outline.

To this point, think of the last time you had a day with a light workload and thought, “this is great, I only have one thing to do!” Then, somehow, half an hour before you were supposed to go home you realized you hadn’t even touched the day’s one responsibility. That, my friends, is unmanaged time.

Lots of us struggle to make scheduling habitual, especially when we’re young and our memories keep us on track. If you don’t make good use of a Google calendar or a day planner, the concern isn’t so much that you’ll forget things (though that is a notable problem), but rather that you’ll waste time you could use more productively. You should feel relaxed on a day when there aren’t too many fires to put out, but you should also take care of a few things you’d otherwise need to handle later on.

Mapping out your day helps you tackle more duties, but it isn’t as easy as lining things up on a calendar. If you really want to make the most of each day and manage your time, you have to think about how you organize and prioritize.

Time of Day

Very few people are at their best right before or after lunch. If this is true for you, that should play into how you build your schedule. Got a long report to write or an important phone call to make? Maybe that should be scheduled for 9:30 or 10 a.m. when you first arrive and the coffee in your mug is still warm. You can save the tedious items that require repetitive action and little brain power for 1 p.m. when your body is working hard to digest a sandwich.

If you get a second wind in the last few hours of your work shift, you still might want to avoid tackling a big assignment that late in the day. Getting part way through something and letting it sit overnight can result in a project that stays incomplete. Sometimes a better way to end your day if you have the motivation is to plot out the best use of your time for when you come back the following morning. If you can plan in advance and set goals you’re excited about completing, that’s a great way to become more efficient.

Type of Task

I love my job, but there are still responsibilities I don’t always look forward to. Anytime I choose to put off the thing I’m least excited about doing, I always end up dreading it and wasting time thinking about the fact that I still have to handle whatever it is I’m delaying. If this resonates with you, I promise you’ll be a whole lot happier when you start taking care of the boring stuff earlier in your day.

Best for last is a recognizable phrase I think we all mostly identify with. In order to save the best for last, the worst has to come first. Whether it’s addressing inventory or dealing with collections, the part of your day you find the least thrilling should be your jumping off point. If you tend to procrastinate, you’ll keep doing so until you force yourself to go after the matters you routinely postpone.

Expect the Unexpected

Certain phone calls are bound to run long and certain meetings will have a plethora of unnecessary questions. On the days when you have a feeling someone or something might throw a wrench in your gears, try to prepare for that inevitability. Maybe things will go smoothly and you’ll stay on track, but it’s worth putting a 30-minute cushion on the backend of a presentation so you don’t end up constantly checking your watch and worrying about how you’re running behind.

It’s one thing to plot out your day and have each hour accounted for. It’s much more effective to put your activities in an order that makes accomplishing everything easier. If you know yourself and have a good idea of how your days usually flow, use that info and get crafty with your daily planning.  

4. Be Realistic

Get this: it’s entirely possible you’re already a good time manager. You just have an unrealistic expectation about what can get done in a day.

Managing time has nothing to do with how long it takes you to accomplish something. If you have incredibly detailed processes with numerous calculations that have to be double checked, spending hours on those tasks isn’t an indication that you mismanage your time. Like it or not, some things just take a while to finish.

As you plan your day and set your goals, you have to be honest about your timeframes. Don’t block off an hour in which you hope to finish a draft and then say “oh well” when it doesn’t get done. That helps no one and solves nothing. One of the true pinnacles of successful time management is actually knowing how long things take.

When you decide how much time you need to accomplish any given task, you have to find the balance between accuracy and expectation. Sure, it can take 10 seconds to read and reply to a simple email. At the same time, it can take two hours to respond to an email if you have to do a lot of research to make sure you’re giving the correct response. For this reason, blocking out time just for email responses when you don’t know what you’re responding to might cause your schedule to implode pretty quickly.

There will always be uncertainty with your schedule, but guessing can’t play a large role in how you manage your time. If you’re unsure about how involved a project might be, plan on tackling it in stages so you can get a better idea of its duration as you go. If need be, set aside half an hour of prep time before you dive into something so you have a better handle on how long it will take.

Having more time always tops not having enough. While you don’t want to block off half a day to accomplish a minor task, you need to avoid setting yourself up to fail.

5. Delegate Strategically

As long as you understand the difference between delegating and passing the buck, it’s hard to delegate too much. Splitting up responsibilities to speed up processes makes sense in virtually any situation.

But you can’t do it blindly. Asking an employee to proofread when editing isn’t his or her strength puts both you and that worker in a tough spot. Delegating is about getting stuff done, not about making someone struggle through a task their ill-equipped to handle.

When you decide to take something off your plate, put a lot of thought into who you hand that work off to. When do you need it done by? Who has enough time to get it done right? Are you delegating to be efficient or to avoid some business you don’t feel like doing?

Before you pass an assignment on to another person, you should have a clear idea of what else that worker has to get done. You might be delegating to a perfectly capable person, but if they’re currently working on two other deadlines, something might not get finished.

As you get more strategic with how you spread work throughout your team, the need to delegate could very well decline. People will become more comfortable and proficient with the tasks they’re given and will start regularly assuming the work. When you assign jobs appropriately the first time, future assignments can become completely streamlined.

If you aren’t sure who you should be passing duties along to, it might help to look beyond job titles. People get hired as administrative assistants, office managers, controllers and the like, but those monikers don’t always denote skill sets. If your assistant can work wonders using Excel, let that person handle projects that would otherwise fall to the office manager. You can’t expect people to think outside the box if you let job titles dictate every responsibility.

Delegation is a key factor in using time well, but the act must have a stronger directive that just saving time. You should delegate with the intention of getting things done well and efficiently. As long as that serves as your motivation, assignments should fall to the people best prepared to complete them.

Good time management makes me really happy. It signifies effective planning and usually makes everyone’s life easier. When you spend time wisely, things get done and you have more time to relax and enjoy life.

For each of the five tips listed above, there are dozens of ways to enact each strategy. How you improve your own time management will depend on what you do, who you work with and a million other variables. Fortunately, no one is beyond help when it comes to improving efficiency. If you can figure out methods that work for you and commit to certain practices, you’ll start to feel like you actually do have extra hours in your day.

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