So you need to get things done, but nobody is standing over you making sure that you get them done. What will you do? Will you procrastinate until the last moment and then panic while convincing yourself that you’ll never let this happen again? Or will you learn some time management strategies so that you can really learn to deal with getting tasks done more effectively from now on? Here are some tips below.
Make a schedule and give yourself some time limits
Break your time up into 30 or 40 minute slots and set the alarm on your phone to go off at each interval. This basically means that you have 40 minute deadlines. This is what we had in school to keep our concentration. One hour classes would have been much less effective because most people can’t hold their attention for that long. Also, you may find that this will disturb your daydream if you find yourself drifting off. If setting the alarm is too disturbing in an office or library environment, put the phone on vibrate and pop it into your pocket. For those of you who like using technology, you could make use of the many online task managers.
Keep your targets in view so that you don't forget them
Continuously remind yourself what you are focusing on and what it means for you to get your task done. I’d go as far as to write it down, if you find that helpful. On the right is an example of what your to do list might look like, or you can use the one I've given you above. Keep your list in view or take it with you if necessary. This is an important part of setting your habits. Once you've set your habits of working to short term deadlines, it's a lot easier to keep them going. So feel free to print out the 'To Do List' and keep it on the wall beside you just in case you lose focus.
Give yourself benefits and consequences
This is an essential part of the exercise for anytime you lose focus, you can regain it by remembering the benefits and consequences of the results. For example "I should be able to increase my success rate if I get more done in the same time. That means my boss will be pleased and I will have a chance to get a promotion". Or use whatever benefit you could use to motivate yourself. Alternatively, you may find it more useful or additionally useful, to write what will happen if you don’t get your task done in time. So write down some consequences. Will you waste time? Will you lose money? Will you be frustrated? Will someone be disappointed? Will you miss an opportunity?
Basically, what are the incentives that you can think of to do the task well? Remember that they need to be things that really matter to you or else this won’t work.
Most of the time multitasking is not a good way of working because you assign too little of your concentration to your priorities. Just do one thing at a time. So if you're writing a report, forget about your emails, calls and social media, and just focus on giving your complete attention to the report. Also, it's best to check email and social media only once or twice a day, otherwise it can very quickly take over. If you need to use it more than that for business or other special purposes, there's no problem with that but I always find that it's best to schedule it if you have to use it.
Ask yourself some good questions:
The reason I say this is because we can often waste time doing something that we never needed to do in the first place, or else we did it the long way. So ask yourself; Is this the best way to complete my task? What’s the ideal outcome? What’s the best way or the shortest way towards the outcome? Has someone done this before? If so, how? What went well? What went wrong? Can I use their work to help me with my task now? Or I often find that we start to do things that we don’t need to do at all. So when someone says “what happens if XYZ?”, unless it’s a very serious threat, I prefer to say that “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”. That way we’re not wasting time preparing for something that may never happen.
Only have meetings that have clearly defined outcomes
We've all been in those meetings that we're not really sure what they are about or what we're trying to achieve. When everyone leaves, the outcomes are uncertain and the tasks to be done for the next meeting remain unclear. So set some defined outcomes at the start of the meeting. "What our the outcomes for this meeting", or "what are we trying to achieve here?". This sounds simple but quite often it doesn't happen, in my experience. Also, when it's not possible to set a time limit for the meeting, some technology companies have been said to have meetings standing up. That way, people often don't bring up issues that are irrelevant or talk excessively. It seems to be quite effective.
When you take breaks - move your body
When you go on breaks, get up out of your chair move your body, stretch your legs or go for a walk and get the blood flowing again. This will give you more energy when you go to sit down again and will give you a bit of variety rather than just sitting at a desk all day. Breaks are an important part of your day and many companies feel that the employees are able to generate more ideas and solutions to problems while they are relaxing. The other thing to note about breaks is that they are essential, so even if you don't get your work done, you should still take the break. This way when you go back to work, you know that you only have that specific time to get the work done because you know that you'll take the next break when it comes. It's a good habit to get into.
Give yourself a reward
Rewards are fun so go ahead and make a plan to treat yourself to something nice if you get your work done. But not until you get it done. Maybe after two forty minute sessions, a coffee and biscuit or some fruit and nuts, would be a good incentive, but choose whatever works best for you. This will help you relate getting your work done on time to receiving something pleasurable. Then, it makes it easier to develop this into a habit.
Prioritise and delegate
Prioritising may seem easy. Do the most important tasks first. But part of it is also learning how to say "no" to work that is not your responsibility or that is just not as important as your other work. It's important to understand that you'll be busy later, so now is the optimal time to start. It'll also give you a better chance of having high quality work rather than rushing it at the last minute. Also, learning to delegate is a key skill in itself but it can be difficult for even the best managers. There's a story I love from 'Sources of Power', a book written by a decision-making researcher named Gary Klein. There was a manager who needed to deal with an emergency situation. He didn't tell anyone what he was doing and made all his own phone calls to outside parties, then he went over to his secretary who was sending out messages to notify people of the events. He wrote down his own message, gave it to the secretary and then stood behind her to make sure that she didn't make any spelling mistakes. By doing this, he wasn't a manager or a secretary, but as Klein notes, "a secretary's assistant".
Understand the famous 80:20 rule
An Italian economist by the name of Vilfredo Pareto came up with this idea of 80:20. He found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. He also found that this ratio was a lot more common that just that. A lot of sales people agreed with him that 80% of their sales came from 20% of their customers, while others often found that 20% of their time produced close to 80% of their results. If this works out to be true for you, will that change how you prioritise your work on a daily basis?
Does 20% of your time produce 80% of your results?
If 20% of the time you spend gets 80% of the results, then prioritising the top 20% becomes even more important. You could even go as far as to say that sometimes you won't need to do everything on your 'To-Do' list to get the outcome that you're looking for. Some food for thought.
Finally, I hope that the tips here have been of some use to you. Let me know how you get on.
Thanks for reading. Ronan.
Lavinsky, D. (2014) 'Pareto Principle: How To Use It To Dramatically Grow Your Business', Forbes, January. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/davelavinsky/2014/01/20/pareto-principle-how-to-use-it-to-dramatically-grow-your-business/ [Accessed 30 09 2014].
Ed, (2012) '10 quick reviews of 10 online task managers', August. Available at: http://mackerelsky.co.nz/10-task-managers-10-quick-reviews/ [Accessed 30 09 2014].
Klein, G. (1998) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1999. (Example 14.4)