Managing our time is crucial for getting things done. And it’s wasting time that – along with poor goal-setting – most often results in slow progress towards achieving our potential.
Yet time management is far from easy. “We cannot manage time,” writes Alec Mackenzie in The Time Trap. “We can only manage ourselves in relation to time.”
So the fault for time wasting lies squarely with us, the time waster. But what can be done?
1) Get a plan
Top among the reasons why people procrastinate is their lack of purpose: they’re simply not motivated. So set some long-term goals, with some milestones and some immediate, short term, actions. Only then will the need for time management become truly apparent.
2) Focus on your ideal day
Mackenzie implores us to understand our 'personal energy cycle' and use that as our guide for creating the 'ideal day', which means planning blocks of time moulded to our working preferences. For instance, I write first thing, am still creative until lunchtime, and tend to be more sociable in the afternoon. Morning meetings, therefore, irritate: as well as feel like a waste of creative energy.
3) Action of the day
Winston Churchill wrote 'Action of the Day' at the top of each diary page to ensure that something significant was achieved that day. It was a daily goal that, over time, added up to significant progress. It doesn’t have to be major, but it should be a step forward.
4) Get a diary
Yes, Churchill kept a diary. He understood that a diary is the single most powerful time-management tool available – allowing you to plot the day’s needs and also record your progress (and frustrations) towards achieving your goals. Diaries also help unravel your thinking – saving you from wasting time asking colleagues for (usually the wrong) advice.
5) Timetable your week
While you’re at it, why not timetable your whole week? If you understand all your roles – as a parent, child and friend, as well as a productive adult pursuing your goals – then a seven-day, 16-hour, timetable is entirely feasible. Your life then becomes a series of projects executed during allotted blocks of hours, with “relaxation” included as a project.
6) Focus on the hour
And let’s not forget the varying concentration span of a single hour. One trick – invented by Francesco Carillo – is the Pomodoro Technique, after those ubiquitous tomato-shaped timers found in Italian kitchens. Set it for 20 minutes, work like crazy – and when the alarm goes off have a 10-minute break (remembering to reset the alarm for the next session). Every hour offers 40-minutes of intense work, as well as 20 minutes distraction time.
7) Understand and deal with interruptions.
Of course, our time is not always our own. But a strong start here is to calculate what is and isn’t an interruption. Stephen Covey (writer of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) offers a time management matrix in which we divide everything we do into activities that are urgent/not urgent and/or important/not important. This results in four boxes for all our actions – with those labelled urgent but not important usually interruptions. Once identified, they can be controlled.
8) Stop the office terrorists
These days most interruptions come via email or the phone. So control both. Only look at emails at allotted points in the day: perhaps even avoiding until lunchtime, or at least until 10am. As for the phone – never answer it. Pick up the messages during a break and respond as/when needed. Literally – turn off your devices – or have your day controlled by others while achieving little.
9) Dont waste travel time
Beyond office interruptions, travel is the next biggest time waster. Yet it can be an excellent way of using your time constructively. Car commuting is the greatest waste (though even here audio books can turn journeys into tutorials), while train/bus or aeroplane travel is perfect for studying/research. And if you cycle or walk? Well, you’re ticking-off the need for daily exercise.
10) Limit the socialising
Lastly – and one particularly for the young – is the recognition that your time is valuable, so wasting it on partying too hard has an enormously detrimental impact on your progress. Those nursing hangovers from heavy evenings and weekends are losing out to those staying fit and alert in order to achieve things. After all, it’s no coincidence that the sporty types are usually the career winners too.