Best practices: Managing time effectively

We all understand the concept of time management. So why aren't we better at it?
May 1, 2010

We all understand the concept of time management. So why aren’t we better at it? Why do we continue to waste our time on unimportant things and fail to accomplish everything we set out to do?

One of the major mistakes people make is neglecting to take the time to determine in advance and with great clarity what their goals are. There will always be distractions at work, but if you don’t have a clear plan, it’s too easy to end up spending more time on the distractions than your actual work.

Set major, long-term goals for what you want to accomplish. This is true not just for work but also for your personal life. Spending time with family and friends and pursuing rewarding hobbies is essential for living a happy, balanced life. Just as with work, you want to get the most possible out of that time.

Once you have your long-range goals, subdivide them into more manageable, shorter-range goals. These shorter-term goals must be expressed in such a way as to meet the SMART test. They must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive. For example, if one of your long-range goals is to write a book on your family history, then a few commitments could be: interview your mom and dad by June 1, find a coach who can help you by July 1, find all the photos in your parents’ home relating to your grandparents and their parents by August 1, and so on.

Once you have set goals, plan your week accordingly. Planning daily is problematic because it is too easy to get caught up in the minutiae of urgent activities and lose the connections between your important strategic goals and the daily rush of meetings, phone calls, e-mail, etc. Have a regular time once a week when you review your longer-term goals, and actually block off time in your calendar when you commit yourself to work on them. In this way, you put the ‘big rocks’ on your calendar first, so they don’t get squeezed out by the unimportant ‘pebbles.’

After you’ve set your goals and made plans to achieve them, you have to actually get to work. At the start of each day in the office, don’t check your e-mail. Instead, select the most important and valuable strategic task you are facing and work on that until it is finished. By starting your day tackling the biggest challenge you face, you will set yourself up for the rest of the day to storm through it brimming with self-confidence and enthusiasm.

Develop a reputation for speed and reliability. Take important phone calls immediately. Complete all small jobs (those that take under a couple of minutes to finish) immediately. Respond quickly to requests from people with whom you have important relationships (your spouse, your boss, your kids, and so on).

Keep a list of tasks and whenever you have a new one, add it to your list. Don’t keep it in your head. This will sharpen your thinking and increase your effectiveness and productivity. Also, crossing off items one-by-one as you get them done will motivate you to keep going.

Organize your work space. People who claim they work better from a messy desk are deluding themselves. Don’t let your desk get covered in unorganized piles of paper. Handle each piece of paper once. Toss it, refer it to someone else, take action on it, or file it. When in doubt, throw it out.

When you have taken the time to set goals, lay out plans, and then work hard to fulfill those plans, you will have far more time to devote to the areas most important to you. The purpose of these tips is not to turn you into just a super-efficient automaton. Rather, by using your time more effectively you will be able to live a happier, more balanced life. Spend time on fun activities, spend time with the people you love. Whether it’s at work or at play, be sure to always get the most out of your time.

Chris Palmer is the author of Shooting in the Wild (Sierra Club). Peter Kimball is an independent filmmaker and graduate student at American University.

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