We have a limited amount of attention and energy, and more ways to drain both exist today than for any generation before us. We can easily become unmoored and drift away from what’s truly important.
So, what’s the best way to effectively manage your time?
You might ask, what qualifies me to tell you about time management? After all, the topic has been covered at great length, becoming a de facto publishing category. Well, my two bona fides include:
I’ve researched and studied probably a dozen systems over the years of my lengthy career and found tips you can follow to extract the most out of whatever system you’d care to try.
It’s working! I’m as surprised as anyone that the nuggets of wisdom I’ve gleaned have made me pretty darned effective in my work and personal life.
Regardless of the time-management system you settle with, be sure it starts with a livable strategy to direct your energies toward the right goals. Only then can you allow the method to govern how you manage time.
I’ve tried them all
My studies have been far-reaching, covering both the expected—David Allen’s Getting Things Done and Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People—and the obscure—The Pomodoro Technique (worth considering, for the right type of professional). I even tried an app called Life Balance (circa 2005), a smart approach that died with the Palm OS.
I’ve earnestly tried them all, for a while tethering myself to alphabetized folders, both physical and virtual. I’ve tried working in the mini-sprints of Pomodoro, resting every 25 minutes for five, before starting another. I’ve tried the more agile-like week-long sprints prescribed by Covey, categorizing everything by the roles I play in life (employee, professional, brother, friend, servant, etc.).
After my travels through these far-flung methods, I’m back to tell you what’s really important in the system you choose, and how you can immediately become more productive and less stressed-out.
Here are my five (highly subjective) tips:
Start with your values. I have to say, Covey’s 7 Habits describes this step best. Find your “true north,” and commit to it; give it a year or two and see how things go.
If you really like where it’s taking you, keep going with Covey’s First Things First. That book dives deeper into values, and it finally got me to write a personal mission statement, which resonates with me today as much as it did when I first wrote it.
Pick a system. Don’t wing it. Don’t leave time management to chance. It’s no coincidence Covey called them “habits.” He prescribes actions effective people must take that shouldn’t require conscious thought; they should become second nature. And many aren’t intuitive. So, pick a system and make it yours.
Keep to-do lists. Recently, a co-worker confessed that he was getting overwhelmed. I asked him how he managed his tasks, and he wordlessly brought me to his computer monitor. It was papered with Post-Its, resembling the windshield of a car left under a tree on a wet autumn day.
Instead of a list, he would start each day with more than a dozen yellow reminders screaming at him! Always in his line of vision, the tasks reduced his ability to complete them and clouded his vision of which ones he could or should delegate. They became his master.
Hide your list. My colleague’s story reminded me how valuable it is that when I capture a new to-do item, I immediately hide it from view. I’m rarely overwhelmed, even when I have a rolling list of 20 or more items per day; most non-urgent ones are carried forward to be tackled tomorrow.
Although you can rely on paper lists and hide them out of sight, I strongly recommend using automated systems. While allowing you to turn away from them, automation keeps your tasks ready for review at any time, wherever you are.
The online system, Remember the Milk, syncs across all my devices, and my list is the first thing I look at each morning. My tasks follow me everywhere but never overtake me. I am their master, not the other way around!
Prioritize and refine your lists. For this last tip, I need to talk about late President Eisenhower and his enduring approach to prioritizing tasks. It is wisdom that Covey also explores in his books, but here’s a summary:
Draw an X/Y graph as below, with the vertical axis being level of importance, and the horizontal being urgency. Then rank each of your tasks into one of the quadrants.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
From there, how to proceed becomes clear:
Important / Urgent tasks are done personally and immediately.
Important / Not Urgent tasks are done personally but assigned deadlines (which can be ultimately moved). This quadrant is in yellow because it’s the area most of us fall down on, and it’s the most important to our success. We should be spending the most time in this quadrant.
Unimportant / Urgent tasks are politely delegated.
Unimportant / Not Urgent tasks are tactfully dropped.
When you divvy up your work this way, you discover that many tasks disappear, which is liberating, and others are delegated. The byproducts are collaboration and interdependence, qualities that help deepen work and personal relationships.
The 4 Ds: Drop, delegate, do now or do later
Some tasks disappear because they are neither important nor urgent. For example, does it really benefit you or your employer to attend that annual conference, or is it driven by ego…or FOMO (fear of missing out)?
If in doubt, drop it and save yourself the paperwork and the time away from important tasks. You can always find out from others anything you might have missed. Start skipping these types of things and you’ll soon be surprised at how often you hear there was nothing new covered!
Other tasks get delegated. For example, next time, verbally ask a coworker to respond for the both of you to that group email asking who is bringing what to the potluck. (Promise to return the favor next time, of course. Don’t take advantage of work relationships!) In my experience, group emails are often the domain of the urgent but unimportant. They can quickly become “Reply All” time-wasters.
Want to know if I deem something unimportant? When you ask me to choose an option, I’ll smile and cheerfully respond, “Surprise me.” By saying those words, I’ve given both of us a little time back that we can devote to other, important decisions. Oh, and another bonus: I’m often genuinely surprised by your choices.
This leaves only important work and tasks you’ve delegated on your list, which you can choose to do now or later. So, what’s truly important? Don’t believe what you’re told. Refuse to let others impose on you what’s important. Instead, consult your values and goals. (See Tip #1 above.)
You are your word
Time management is important because the best employees, the best parents, the best friends, have something in common: They do what they tell us they will do. And with every kept commitment, trust grows, along with your social and professional esteem.
Here is how I handle a new request: If it’s important and I can do it, I’ll commit to it, and I’ll set a deadline. Then I’ll add it to my to-do list with a deadline well before it’s actually expected (e.g., If it’s urgent and it’s due by 5 p.m., I’ll promise that time but shoot for 3 p.m. and usually complete it by 4 p.m.).
So, what have I done? I’ve promised something to my boss, employee, friend or relative. But the task I wrote down in my to-do list was actually a different promise to my future self. It was a small withdrawal I made against my self-esteem “bank account.”
Once written down, the task is hidden while I tackle other things. I trust myself to do it. When I’m ready to review what’s up next, I will see that task and if it’s time, tackle it.
When I’m done, two things happen:
I check it off my list and feel great! I’ve once again behaved honorably with myself. The amount I withdrew from my self-esteem account was returned—plus interest!
I’ve followed through with the original promise. The person I committed to has an opinion of me as well, and I just helped that opinion grow a little.
One definition of living in integrity is having the same opinion of yourself as those held by your friends, family and coworkers. Good time management moves you closer to that ideal.
Have I missed any good time-management tips? Let me know in the comments box below.
Make the most of your time, and do work that makes a difference. Find your fit with our Accenture team today.
Copyright © 2018 Accenture. All rights reserved. Accenture, its logo, and High performance. Delivered. are trademarks of Accenture.
This document makes descriptive reference to trademarks that may be owned by others. The use of such trademarks herein is not an assertion of ownership of such trademarks by Accenture and is not intended to represent or imply the existence of an association between Accenture and the lawful owners of such trademarks.