We’re all busy at work. It’s a “good thing,” right? Well, it is, unless your to-do list is a mile long, you’re always stressed out, and you don’t know where to start. You see, there is an art to being busy, and it’s not easy to master. You have to stick to your obligations, do a good job, and enjoy yourself while working. Oh, and you totally need to protect your time off.
That’s where good time management skills come in. If you take the time to plan your days and weeks effectively, you should be able to meet your deadlines and keep a smile on your face (and your clients’). There is no “silver bullet” to keeping it together, but I’ve got a few recommendations for how to take control of your time:
1. Keep a master to-do list. Record all of your tasks, large and small. Divvy up your list by day, project, or task type. Update it by the end of the day, and feel like a superstar when you cross something off. This is an obvious concept, but not everyone does it. Here are a few recommended tools to help you out: Teux Deux, Wunderlist, Clear, Things.
2. Get your priorities straight. You need a good understanding of how you can structure your weeks, and your days. If you sit down for 20-30 minutes at the beginning of the week, you should be able to preview your deadlines, meeting time, and “free” time to figure out how you’ll get everything done. If you do this, you’ll know what tasks take precedence for the day or the week. If you need help, check with your project managers. They should always be able to help with task priorities. If you don’t have a project manager, check your project milestones. If you don’t know where those are, you need to read a different article…
3. Make your to-do list #1 on your to-do list. Review and revise your morning to-do list before you get embroiled in the dramas of “inbox zero.” Determine what must be done today and what can be completed tomorrow, and prioritize accordingly. Then check your email. If you have to rework your to-do list after you get through your unread messages, that’s fine. You just need some time to pull your thoughts together before interacting with the world.
4. Status! Be sure to check in with your team. A quick in-person (or Skype/phone/whatever) review of the day’s tasks with your team can work to your advantage. A quick check-in forces you to organize your thoughts and task priorities in advance of the meeting, and, by bringing tasks up with a team, it will make you feel more accountable. (Bonus tip: someone might hear that you’re overloaded and offer help!)
5. Focus on one thing at a time. No matter what you are doing, it’s easy to be side-tracked by another task, conversation, or awesome story. All of those things divert your attention and leave your to-do in the dust. When you’ve got one task to complete, do it. If that means you need to throw on your headphones and crank the Celine Dion, do it. If it means you need to ignore the office or your best friend from high school on Instant Messenger, do it. If a coworker really needs you, they will come over to your desk. If there’s an emergency at home, you will get a phone call. You need time to just get work done. TAKE IT.
Also related: Stop being a social media d-bag! Seriously, turn off Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, and even log out of your LiveJournal account. Let’s face it: you don’t care that much about the Twitter feud of the day. Turn off the noise and focus on what needs to be done.
6. Be proactive. Do you have a deadline that is contingent upon the delivery of something else (a teammate’s work, a client’s documentation, etc.)? If you do, don’t just sit there and wait for it. Ask for it. Chances are, asking will not only give you a better sense for where your task resides on your priority list; it’ll also save you the stress of not knowing where it is. A general rule of thumb in life should be: the more you can communicate, the better off you will be.
7. Learn to say “No.” Or, “Sorry, no.” We all love to help others in a time of need. The problem is, it is so easy to let outside tasks and events creep into our days and eat up the time we thought we had. Clearly, those added tasks can get in the way of the priorities (see number 2). Think about it: do you really have time to help with something? Maybe not. So, what do you do? Say “Sorry, I just can’t,” take a breath and move on. It’s totally fine. If you really feel compelled to help, ask if it can be done at a time that is convenient for you. It’s not easy telling people no, but sometimes you have to.
8. Check your email on your own terms. Just because someone can contact you immediately does not mean that you have to respond to them immediately. As long as you set communication expectations and people know how to reach you in an emergency, you can answer most types of email just a few times a day.
Try Ryan Irelan’s email tips and see if that works for you. (Side note: I think Ryan is great, but his approach to email would never work for me, because I need to be in touch with clients all day. But, it works for Ryan, and he wrote an article about it, so hey.)
9. Find your productivity zone. Think about the times when you’re most productive and use them to your advantage. For instance, I know that my brain is far stronger between 8:30 and 10am, so I use that time to power through as much work as possible. Sometimes I am completely shocked by how much I have accomplished in just a couple of hours, and it’s all because I am at my best at that time. I also know that I am completely brain-dead starting at 10:01am, so I just sit at my desk and play Solitaire (don’t tell Greg Hoy).
10. Plan for the unplanned. That’s right. You KNOW there will be more meetings and curveballs. Set a schedule that will help you to get work done—uninterrupted.
Some of us have the luxury of setting up a schedule that works for us. For instance, at Happy Cog, we’ve taken a page out of Jason Fried’s book Rework and instituted “No Meeting Zones.” Our master calendar is blocked from 9am-1pm each day. This gives everyone the time they need to focus on deadlines without the burden of meetings. The only folks who are exempt from this rule are project management and business development, because their jobs rely on conversations and flexibility to meet.
Another intriguing option comes from the folks at GatherContent in London. James Deer, the company’s founder, instituted a new weekly work schedule that revolves around a lifestyle and culture that keeps people happy and productive.
The team’s week is split into “Team” days (Mondays and Thursdays) and “Focus” days (Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays). On Team days, everyone must be in by 9am for a morning review of tasks, and a day full of work and planned conversations (they don’t use the term “meeting”). On Focus days, the team members can work from wherever they want (local coffee shop, home office, bed!), from 9am-5pm or 10am-6pm. Focus days are meant for the team to work in a place where they can be inspired to get their best work done on a timeline that feels flexible within their personal schedules, while still working within the regimen of a typical work day. So far, it has been a success for the team.
Finding a balance to keep a group of people productive is far more difficult than it is to manage just your own schedule. But, providing a bit of flexibility in the work week to help others plan for tasks that will inevitably creep into a pristine to-do list can be extremely valuable.
Time is Ticking
Hopefully you weren’t SO busy that you only skimmed this or never made it to the end. If you’re skimming to the end to save time, here is the moral of the story: You can slice a pie 1,000 ways, but you can only feed so many people. Working through your schedule with a set way of organizing your tasks will help you to understand just how many people you can feed. Carry on with your day utilizing some or all of these tips, and you will become a true TMM (Time Management Master, duh).
This article has been edited from it’s original version published in Cognition on January 24, 2013.