Time-boxing, Pareto Analysis, the Domino Reaction and Eisenhower Methods – there’s no shortage of grand-sounding, slightly intimidating names for different time-management techniques and programmes. They may sound daunting, but the important thing is to understand the basic ideas that underpin most of them.
The first step of time management, they say, is to use a little of your time, untroubled by your usual work pressures, to focus on how you are going to use the rest of it. While you are swamped by demands from your employer, colleagues, clients or contacts, harassed by deadlines, schedules, phone calls and emails, it is simply impossible to get the clarity and perspective needed to organise your own time according to your own goals. In that situation, your plans for yourself and your time tend to be limited to getting through one pressing task and on to the next.
Once you’ve found that time, you can get stuck into the next key activity that nearly all time-management gurus insist upon: goal-setting. Without defining and laying out your own goals, you have no basis on which to organise your time, and that means other people’s goals will probably have an undue influence on the job you do.
You need to step back and define what your long-term goals are, both at work and beyond, in all the different aspects of your life. If you don’t know what they are, you have precious little chance of taking the necessary steps to achieve them. You’ll also find that setting your own goals is extremely motivating.
Now, make a to-do list. Start with a list of all the things you’d like to achieve this year, then break them down into a monthly, then weekly, then daily task list. Add to that daily list all the other tasks you need to do today, whether or not they are part of longer projects. A to-do list might not seem very exciting, but it's a prerequisite for the next crucial time-management technique...
The next step is to prioritise it. Looking at each item on the list in turn, try to work out how important it is in terms of achieving your goals. If it helps take you a step towards one of your goals, give it a high priority. If it doesn’t, but it’s still urgent, give it a lower priority. And if it doesn’t take you towards any of your goals and isn’t even particularly urgent, stick it at the bottom. What you end up with is a prioritised to-do list, which is a very simple but hugely important tool and can make a huge difference to the way you work and live. It shapes your time entirely towards achieving your life and work goals as efficiently as possible. It also helps reduce stress, by turning what can seem like a mountain of tasks into individual pieces, sorted by priority and ready to be dealt with one by one.
Finally, schedule your tasks. It’s important to be realistic about this, allowing for the many unavoidable demands that are placed upon you, but also making time for your high-priority tasks. Try doing it at the start of every week. Using a diary, notebook or computer, first identify the time you need to do the parts of your job that you absolutely must do to fulfil the basic requirements. Block those times out on your schedule. Then put in time for the work you must do to do a really good job. Then put in some blocks of unplanned contingency time. Every job has patches of unscheduled interruptions or downtime, and for your time management to be realistic you need to make allowances for them. Even though you can’t predict when such interruptions will occur, allowing time for them makes them part of your day without knocking everything else out of shape and scuppering your plans entirely.
Approaching your schedule in this way should then leave you with time in which to enter items from your prioritised to-do list. If there’s no time left, or not enough, then go back through the earlier entries and see if you can’t shave a little time from some or all of them to make way for the things that are most important to you. Above all, once you’ve made this schedule, do everything you can to stick to it. If you’re realistic and don’t try to schedule everything at once, you can easily come up with a plan that fits into your life and lets you make the best possible use of your time. Your efforts will be directed at what you want to achieve, you will minimise activities that waste your time, and the odds are that you will be able to do your work within your contracted hours.