Project creep, slipping deadlines, and a to-do list that seems to get longer each day — these experiences are all too common in both life and work. With the new year resolution season upon us, many people are boldly trying to fulfill goals to “manage time better,” “be more productive,” and “focus on what matters.” Development goals like these are indeed important to career success.
There is certainly no shortage of advice — books and blogs, hacks and apps — all created to boost time management with a bevy of ready-to-apply tools. Yet, the frustrating reality for individuals trying to improve their time management is that tools alone won’t work.
Simply put, these tools presume a person’s underlying skill set, but the skills comprising time management precede the effectiveness of any tool or app. For example, would anyone seriously expect that purchasing a good set of knives, high-end kitchen equipment, and fresh ingredients would instantly make someone a five-star chef? Certainly not. Similarly, using a scheduling app without the prerequisite time management skills is unlikely to produce positive time management outcomes.
You have to develop your time management skills in three key areas: awareness, arrangement, and adaptation.
Awareness: thinking realistically about your time by understanding it is a limited resource.
Arrangement: designing and organizing your goals, plans, schedules, and tasks to effectively use time.
Adaptation: monitoring your use of time while performing activities, including adjusting to interruptions or changing priorities.
Developing awareness skills. Effectiveness is different than efficiency, with effectiveness being about doing things well and efficiency being about doing things fast. Both are critical. Pursuing efficiency for its own sake is counter-productive.
Find your peak performance time. Break your typical day into three to four time slots and, over the course of a week, rank-order these slots from your most to least productive (most productive is peak performance). My peak performance is in the morning and therefore I won't spend time on social network upon awake. Instead, I used those time to conduct planning.
Treat your time like it’s money. Create a time budget that details how you spend your hours during a typical week. Categorize time into fixed time (“must do’s”) and discretionary time (“want to do’s”).
Try timing-up/ timebox. Record how long you’ve spent on tasks with very clear deadlines, rather than how much time you have left.
Evaluate how realistically you assess time. After finishing a project, evaluate how long you thought it would take and how long it actually took.
Take a “future time perspective.” Think about how the tasks you are doing right now will help or hurt you in the future (e.g., how do today’s project tasks impact next week’s tasks?).
Avoid “sunk cost fallacy.” When you think you might be spending too much time on an activity, step back and evaluate its importance (e.g., how valuable is the outcome, who will be affected if it’s finished or not finished, etc.)
Developing arrangement skills. Unfamiliar but important tasks often have steeper learning curves and more unpredictable time requirements. Developing arrangement skills is not about organizing your work to better control your life – it’s about taking control of your life, then structuring your work around it.
Prioritize activities and obligations. It’s not enough to simply list out your tasks, to-do lists, and meetings. This is always my personal #1 task daily.
Avoid the “mere urgency effect.” Urgency and importance are related but distinct concepts; urgent tasks require immediate action, whereas as important tasks have more significant and long-term consequences. Tasks that are both urgent and important should be done first.
Use a calendar app. Record due dates for tasks and appointments — and do this immediately when they are planned or requested. Label or color-code entries (e.g., work, school, life, etc.).
Schedule protected time. Make calendar appointments with yourself to ensure uninterrupted time to dedicate to your most important projects.
Reduce underestimation errors. When forming plans, ask a neutral party for feedback about your forecasted time requirements.
Try half-sized goals. When struggling to attain a goal that seems to be too challenging, set a less difficult version of the goal.
Developing adaptation skills. These skills are tested and developed in situations that naturally involve high pressure and sometimes even crisis – the challenge is to handle such situations without getting upset, anxious, or distracted.
Try “habit stacking.” Tie your time management behaviors to habits you already exhibit (e.g., track daily progress every evening when you sit down for dinner).
Use short bursts of effort. When tasks seem overwhelming, put forth maximum effort for 15- to 30-minute intervals to help avoid procrastination.
Create contingency plans. Think about best case/worst case scenarios when you outline possible outcomes of your plans.
Seek to reduce time wasters. Create do-not-disturb time slots and block social media sites during critical work time.
The irony is that we need to become better time managers of our own efforts to improve time management