Time Management: Eight Tips Learned in “The Trenches”

Time Management

Does time management seem to be a constant battle? Do you oscillate between feeling organized one day, to a state of total disarray the next?

If you are like many others – including yours truly – I suspect that most of the time, the answer to both questions is “yes.” I found the quest for effective time management more daunting after starting my own business. I suddenly realized I was single-handedly running every department of a company while trying to build it and deliver at the same time. That was a chaotic juggling act until I ironed out some process and started getting help.

Time Management Equilibrium

For years, I have searched for the “perfect solution” to plan and manage my time better. I am always on the hunt for new ways to improve productivity, while reducing the amount of effort it takes to stay on track. I’ve read many books from the leading experts, and they all offer advice that seems ridiculously rational and irrefutable. But, knowing something and practicing it are two different things. Just look at how many gym memberships gather dust a month or two after New Years.

The simple conclusion I’ve come to is that there is no time management “silver bullet.” It takes different thought processes, behaviors and tools all working together to achieve and sustain better results. What works for me is a melting pot of great ideas from others and lots of experimenting. I’m not knocking on Utopia’s door quite yet, but the tips outlined below have significantly helped.

#1 – Find, Modify or Create a Process

Have a planning process or framework that helps you organize in terms how you think, work, and behave. Trying to conform to a system that makes you grit your teeth every time you use it, won’t be sustainable.

#2 – Use a Tool to Manage Your Process

Once you have a process that “feels” right, you need a management tool for the day-to-day execution. Whether it’s sticky notes on a wall, MS Project or a SaaS offering like Teamwork (my personal choice), find a tool that works best for you in prioritizing, scheduling and managing your activities.

#3 – Prioritize and Break Down Activities

An essential building block of any time management system is identifying the critical activities that: 1) need to be done first and 2) are most relevant and impactful. I still like the Stephen Covey “First Things First” way of thinking about this. Another helpful resource may be our simple 5-Step Planning Model.

#4 – Be Realistic About Time

Learn from your past and get precise about how long your activities take to complete. The more accurate you are, the more efficient the process becomes. Don’t forget to include time allocations for personal, family, learning, travel, exercise and other activities that will impact your work schedule. These are important parts of life and don’t go away simply because you have a lot going on at the office.

#5 – Account for the Unexpected

When planning my day, I like to leave at least a 25% “buffer” for the unexpected. This unscheduled time is useful for new tasks that take longer than anticipated. It can also account for the interruptions that occur during an average day (urgent emails or calls that need a response for example.) Let’s face it, the world doesn’t operate on your calendar and cutting your planning too thin each day will end up being discouraging because you will seldom complete your list. 

#6 – Offload, Delegate, and Outsource

After breaking down your activities in Tip #3 – look at all the “non-core” activities that are repetitive. Determine what parts of these tasks can be done by someone else – either on your team or within your organization. If you don’t have the staff, assess what tasks can realistically and cost-effectively be outsourced and do it! Always be asking the question in your planning process “who can do this instead of me?”

#7 – Be Disciplined and Persistent

Whatever process and tools you end up using, you need to focus on time management every day. It must become automatic behavior at some point to work. As soon as you let it go, even for a short period, you will be quickly become disorganized again. When overwhelmed, just keep doing something, even if it’s a lower priority. Once you have some momentum back, it’s easier to shift into higher priority tasks again. The alternative is to sit immobilized in front of your monitor helplessly wasting time. Another aspect of staying disciplined is keeping a positive outlook. To help with this, focus on your accomplishments. “I didn’t get everything done today” is better framed as “I tackled the three most important things I needed to get done today.” This subtle change in thinking helps you feel good about the process. If you consistently fall short of your daily goals, you need to revisit some of the preceding 6 Tips again.

#8 – Continually Learn and Improve

Getting better at time management has been a long journey for me, and it continues. I believe it’s far more significant and complex than some may think. It also evolves because your life, work situations, and top priorities change over time. I highly recommend that your time management process stays “top of mind” and you keep learning new ways to refine and improve it. It will help you accomplish more and free up more time to do what’s most rewarding and fulfilling.

I hope some of these ideas were helpful. I’d love to know what has worked well for you, so please share any thoughts or experiences you have on this topic.