There are countless flashy time management techniques and schools of thought out there, but a bit of good old-fashioned self-awareness and some simple practical tips can help you deal with the main causes of bad time management and improve your effectiveness at work.
Dealing with distractions
Modern technology, particularly email and social media, have made it possible to be perpetually side-tracked without even leaving your desk. A 2015 study found that working Brits spend 288 hours every year – that’s around 38 days – sending and receiving emails. Many of us tend to ‘just check email’ every few minutes instead of concentrating on what we’re supposed to be doing, yet very few messages ever require an instant response.
Having a dedicated and limited time to answer emails each day can do wonders for your productivity. When it’s not that time, switch off email alerts and let your phone go to voicemail. If your emails tend to pile up alarmingly, you can streamline how (and to what) you respond by using the 4Ds approach: ‘delete’, ‘do’, ‘delegate’ or ‘defer’.
Interruptions from colleagues are a different form of distraction. Wearing headphones or earplugs can block out general noise and act as a ‘do not disturb’ signal to colleagues (particularly if you’ve already told them that’s what it means!). Many people find that working from home is even more productive, so if this kind of distraction is stopping you being at your most effective, discuss Flexible Working options with your manager.
Learning to prioritise
If you have a habit of wasting time on tasks that can wait or don’t need doing at all, it may be worth making a distinction between your efficiency (getting things done) and your effectiveness (getting the right things done).
Effective workers always have one eye on the objectives their manager will be using to assess their performance. Good objectives outline what you want to achieve, by when, and how important it is in comparison to other goals.
Once you are focused on what you are being paid to achieve, a simple prioritisation technique is to plot your tasks on a graph with an ‘urgent’ axis and an ‘important’ axis. This will slot your work into four categories of prioritised tasks, starting with ‘urgent and important’, then going on to ‘important but not urgent’, ‘urgent but not important’ and finally ‘not urgent or important’. This is your basic ‘to do’ list. It will soon be clear where to put your efforts, and which jobs to ditch (even if you like doing them).
Biting the bullet
Procrastination – the ‘art’ of avoiding unpleasant chores – is a tricky habit to shift. Being told that you'll feel better when you get a difficult task out of the way rarely helps, even if it’s true. But being honest with yourself about the jobs that you want to put off is at least the first step.
It can help to break down an unpleasant or difficult task into a series of more manageable steps. Once you have done the first, it will probably be easier to get on with the second. You could also try mixing onerous jobs up with more fulfilling or routine tasks as well. Or reward yourself when you get them done.
There is nothing wrong with saving routine and less demanding jobs for when you are feeling a bit low on energy, just as you should harness a burst of enthusiasm to do something that takes more effort.
Learning to let go
Insisting on perfection is unrealistic and unnecessary for most tasks we carry out at work. ‘Good enough’ will usually do. And because being a perfectionist is very time-consuming, it can prevent you pulling your weight at work – instead of impressing your colleagues and manager, this can end up annoying them. So if you find it hard to know when enough is enough, here’s an idea: why not try doing something a little less well than you usually do it, and see if anyone notices. Ask for feedback on whether you are meeting or exceeding the standard expected. You can still take pride in your work without turning it into an obsession.
Learning to say ‘no’
Are you a bit of a soft-touch when people (particularly your boss) try to rope you in to extra work? Before you agree to anything that isn’t one of the performance objectives you’re paid to achieve, make sure you have a full and frank discussion with your manager about the work you have on your plate. Time is not a limitless resource, so taking on a new task may mean rolling back on another.
If you are the kind of person who forgets tasks or deadlines, or finds deadlines creeping up on them, then you need to get more organised. There are lots of time management systems, and if they appeal, then by all means check them out. But introducing any discipline or methodology will probably help. Most will involve keeping some kind of to-do list either on paper or your computer. Make sure you are capturing all the tasks you need to do and when you have to do them by. If you are driven by deadlines, set your own. Make sure the tasks on your list are specific and tangible: break large projects down into a series of smaller, manageable and clearly defined activities.