Truly effective time management isn’t something you can do once and then forget. The clock keeps ticking, and your efforts to stay on top of everything must keep up. The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch every day. Establishing good time-management habits and routines will give you a strong foundation and help make managing your time come naturallly.
The first habit you must develop is prioritizing, or actively ranking the relative importance of the things you want and need to do. Try these prioritizing tips:
- Acknowledge life’s fluctuations: Your priorities must be constantly in flux. For instance, the tax return that was merely important two months ago is urgent in the hours before it is due. The point of prioritizing is not to create a set-in-stone list of the order in which you’ll perform tasks. The larger objective is to become good at figuring out what’s important now and what will be important in a week, a month, or a year.
- If a task can be completed in 90 seconds or less DO IT NOW: Interruptions are a constant facet of life so don’t let the little ones pile up. If you can accomplish a small task in 90 seconds or less (a quick email, filing a report), do it now. For other tasks that will take longer put them on your calendar and schedule a time to complete them. Don’t be too inflexible with the 90 second rule, however. I know several colleagues who use this rule but make it their “five minute rule.”
- Don’t set yourself up for drudgery: Though it’s important to take care of immediate business first, you should also think about—and plan for—your long-term goals. If you’ve always wanted to write a book, for example, schedule daily or weekly writing time and commit yourself to it.
Punctuality is one of the most underrated aspects of time management. To achieve punctuality:
- Consider your own well-being: Meeting deadlines and showing up on time will dramatically alter the way you perceive yourself and your workload. It will eliminate the stress of falling behind schedule and the emotional drain of letting people down.
- Think of others: When you arrive late or turn in work late, you often create a domino effect and make life harder for your coworkers, clients, or friends. Guilt can be a good motivator. Think about the people you are inconveniencing by failing to be punctual.
- Take on only what you can handle: Before taking on new assignments, consider whether you can do them—and do them well. Remember that it’s more important to build a reputation as someone who does good, punctual work than it is to say yes to all requests. Keeping commitments to yourself and others will also make you feel good about yourself. It’s satisfying to do just what you said you’d do and to do it in a timely fashion.
It isn’t enough just to decide what your priorities are. You must also act on those decisions, focusing on the tasks at hand until they are completed. To help yourself focus:
- Recognize the difficulty of paying attention: Modern life is full of distractions, from chatty colleagues to constant emails and text messages. If you’re someone who jumps from text message to email to work and back every few minutes, don’t underestimate how difficult it will be to stop flitting around and start focusing and concentrating.
- Note when you’re losing focus: Identify the moments when your concentration flags. It,s perfectly natural to want to give up when the going gets a little tough. For example, if you’re writing a difficult email and are struggling over a phrase, you might drift away to your favorite gossip blog as a way of avoiding the problem at hand.
Persistence is closely related to focus. It’s what helps us stick with a task until it’s completed. To become persistent:
- Remind yourself why the task is important: Be clear in your mind about the reason you’re performing the task. Know that you’re writing that tricky email not simply because it’s an item on your list but because you’re trying to retain a client who’s thinking of leaving. Focus on the broader picture.
- Encourage yourself: When you catch yourself losing focus or longing to check Facebook, pause for a second and utter some words of self-encouragement: “Don’t give up,” “Stick to it,” or “I can do this.”
- Bribe yourself: Bribes can be anything from the satisfaction of a job well done, to a nap, to downloading a song. Write down the task you need to accomplish, and underneath it, write down the reward you’ll give yourself if you succeed.
Logically, we know disorganization is likely to cause tardiness, missed appointments, and misplaced documents. Yet few of us emphasize order when tackling time management. To manage your time effectively, it’s essential to create a physical environment that supports your efforts. The trick is to figure out what you want to accomplish, then invest in the organizational aids and systems that can help you get there. When well conceived and well executed, good organizational systems make you feel as though you’ve added hours to your day. To bring order into your life:
- Give each room in your home a purpose: From the living room or den down to the closet in your guest bedroom, give each area of your home a “job.” Once you know a room’s purpose, you can utilize it much more effectively. Don’t neglect the cabinets either! They also need a purpose.
- Give each section of your office a purpose: Figure out your priorities and organize your desktop, desk drawers, and filing cabinets so that the immediate priorities are close at hand, while project-related items that can be put off are farther away (though still accessible).
- Keep it out in the open: If creating a business plan is your top priority, then devote a section of your desk entirely to that project. Keeping the project in sight instead of hidden away on a shelf or in a drawer will help you keep it at the forefront of your mind.
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