What is the most valuable thing you have? That’s right! It’s your time! You don’t know much you have, you can’t get any more of it, you can’t save it for later, and it ticks away at the same rate no matter what you’re doing. – Why then, do we all waste so much of it?
Wasting time might seem harsh when you are constantly busy, working on the pile of tasks that just doesn’t seem to get any smaller, no matter how many hours you spend. But working on the wrong things eats up more of your precious time than anything else.
Time Management is not so much about setting a rigorous timetable for the most urgent set of tasks and refusing to have a chat with a colleague (because you really don’t have time for it!), but much more about understanding what you’re trying to achieve and making better choices about what to do next.
So what does that actually mean and can we really change our lives by following a few simple guidelines and changing our habits?
Making better use of your time really can transform your work and your life! A bold statement, but obvious when you think about time as the most valuable thing you have!
But don’t underestimate the challenge! Changing habits takes commitment and discipline. Anyone can do it, but you have to recognise you have a problem (or at least a bad habit!) and commit to addressing it.
Let’s start by thinking about what success looks like. Would you like to be more productive?, more efficient? Do you want to spend more time doing the things you enjoy?
The basics of Time Management are simple and obvious, but we still need to make the effort to execute the process and drive our activities, rather than let our activities drive us.
Step 1 – Keeping a ‘To Do’ list
The very first step towards effective time management is to keep a list of the things you have to do. This helps in a variety of ways, from helping you to see what needs to be done, to making sure you don’t constantly waste time wondering or working out what needs to be done each time you finish a task!
A To Do list can be written on a piece of paper, captured in a spreadsheet, even created in an app on your mobile phone. We all have our preferences, but the key thing is to write down your To Do list and look at it at the start of every day.
A few minutes planning what needs to be done each morning, will save hours of wasted time.
Step 2 – Prioritising
We all have a tendency to do the things we like to do and avoid the things we don’t. Most people also respond to interruptions and let themselves be driven (to a greater or lessor extent) by other people’s agendas and priorities.
Prioritisation is crucial to gaining control and surprisingly simple to do! The objective is to focus on the important tasks and only address less important tasks secondly. The hurdle to this is generally urgency! Some tasks have to be done right now! So how do you choose what to work on?
A common approach is to use the matrix shown in the diagram below and place each task from your To Do list into one of the four sectors, based on whether they are Urgent / Non-Urgent and Important / Not Important.
This is commonly called the ‘Eisenhower Principle Matrix’ after it was used by the General of the same name to make key decisions during the second World War.
Minor & Major Crises
Goals & Planning
Interruptions from others
Unimportant Phone Calls
Other People’s Minor Issues
Some Phone Calls
Irrelevant Mail, Social Media
Excessive TV, Internet usage
Your own special time-wasters
The objective is to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant 2. Quadrant 1 tasks have to done ASAP, but the more time you spend in quadrant 2, the fewer items should end up in the last-minute fire-fighting crisis situation which tends to dominate Quadrant 1 activities!
Take a moment to look at the matrix and write down what percentage of your time you spend in each quadrant!
Step 3 – Scheduling
Now you know what tasks need to be done, how important and urgent each one is, and which tasks will give the most benefit (those in quadrant 2!), it’s important to look at scheduling. Some tasks simply need to be completed by a specific time or before a specific event, and some don’t.
Go through your list and identify any specific deadlines. Plan to do these tasks ahead of the deadline and prevent them moving into Quadrant 1.
Step 4 – Resting!
There are times when we all need to burn the midnight oil to get something done before a crucial deadline. We take on too much, external events ruin our plans, a myriad of things often conspire to get in the way of our perfectly Time Managed world! Hopefully following these guidelines will help you to minimise these times, but when they do happen, you can make sure you are in the best shape to cope, by making sure you get enough sleep, rest, exercise and nourishment the rest of the time.
The body and the brain need to be rested and nourished to operate effectively. If you’re serious about reaching your goal of being more productive and efficient (whether at work or outside), look after yourself, get enough rest and that will have a significant impact on your ability to cope when things get difficult.
Step 5 – Delegating
You don’t have to do everything yourself! You might not have the luxury of a team of willing subordinates to pass things on to, but neither do you have to do everything people ask of you either.
If a colleague asks you to do something (because they don’t have time to do it!), only agree if you fully understand what it is, and it fits into your plan without impacting other things you have to do.
If your boss asks you to do something and you don’t have any spare capacity, explain your workload and agree what should be dropped to achieve this change in plan.
If you do have a team who can share your workload, then look at which tasks you can pass on to someone else. These should be tasks that are already within their remit to do, or tasks which will help them move forwards and develop in some way. Don’t just pass your problems onto someone else but look at the best way to deliver the total workload given the skills, needs and capabilities of everyone in the team.
The above steps highlight an approach to gain a little more control over using your time in a more productive way. Although each step is quite simple, changing habits is harder and takes time. Don’t try to move from chaos to perfection in one step. Take things at the right pace for you.
Try starting with making sure you have a To Do list and review it at the start of every day. Make a commitment to do this (and only this) for a month. It’s easier to commit to a simple change like this for a finite time. Hopefully, at the end of the month, you would see a positive impact and the habit will have begun to form. Once this is achieved, move on to prioritisation for the next month.
Over six months you will have moved to a much more organised approach and should be pleasantly surprised at how the percentages of time spent in each of Eisenhower’s quadrants has changed. You should also find yourself being more productive and, even more importantly, less stressed.