This curated column is authored by Corporate Psychologist, Patricia Thompson
Back when I was in university, I was pretty lax about managing my time. If I had a mid-term or final coming up, I was notorious for waiting until the week of the exam to crack open my books to read the assigned material. Actual studying occurred during a feverish cram session the day before the test.
It was the same for papers. Again, I would procrastinate until the deadline was looming, and then churn out the essay with a burst of energy at the last minute.
Luckily, I managed to get excellent grades, despite my less than stellar time management habits. (And, come to think of it, that probably reinforced my bad habits). Still, I always had the nagging feeling that if I had gotten my act together, I would have produced even higher quality work, while putting myself under a lot less stress.
Once I finished grad school and became a consultant, things changed. For one thing, the corporate clients I worked with all had an incredibly high level of urgency. So, putting off a project for two weeks simply because I didn’t feel like working on it wasn’t going to cut it. Furthermore, compared to the predictability of the university semester, my consulting schedule was completely erratic. If I had a free day on my calendar, it could get filled with client work (sometimes on the other side of the country) at a moment’s notice.
Because doing a good job was very important to me, I knew I had to tighten up how I managed my time. And, believe it or not, this former procrastinator extraordinaire soon became known as the most reliable and conscientious person in the office.
How did I do it?
I focused on managing myself as much as I focused on managing my time.
Managing Your Time…and Yourself
Nowadays, a lot of us have busy schedules. Between work, school, family, interests, and everything else we want to get done, time is at a premium. Yet, a lot of us fall short in our efforts to manage our time effectively.
So why do people fail to manage their time? Why do they plan well but not execute? Why do they find it so hard to get things done?
The answer is simple: many people tend to focus more on time, and less on themselves. And without even realizing it, they end up doing the wrong things at the wrong time.
The fact of the matter is, you cannot control or manage time. It’s simply not possible. We all have the same number of hours in a day. You can’t get an extra hour no matter how good you are. And you can’t re-use the minutes that you wasted the previous day.
However, you can manage your self.
By focusing on yourself, by practicing self-discipline and by following a calculated yet flexible schedule. Self-management is not rocket science. Still, it works like a charm.
Let’s look into how proper self-management can lead to a productive life, by helping you to do the right things at the right time.
#1: Get Crystal Clear
Having goals is great. But what’s better is having clear goals that beg to be achieved. When you’re clear about what you want to do, how you want to do it, and when you’re going to do it, you’ll be much more efficient at getting things done.
A useful hack is to to decide in advance when you’re going to work on specific tasks. To do this, depending on what makes the most sense for your schedule, take some time at the beginning of the week, and/or at the beginning of each day, to figure out when you’re going to work on the tasks from your to-do list.
As you’re determining when you will do what, take your own personal rhythms into account. After all, it’s easy to mark down on your calendar that you’re going to work on your intellectually demanding project on Friday at 4:00, but for a lot of us, that’s simply not realistic. Schedule the mentally involved work for when you tend to be most alert, and save the more mundane or mindless activities for your lower energy times.
Then, at the end of each day, see how you did. Did you actually accomplish what you aimed to get done? By tracking your progress, you’ll get a clearer sense of how much you can get done in a given time. And, across time, that will help you to fine-tune your ability to create a realistic schedule for yourself.
It sounds simple, but it’s powerful. Try it out and see how it boosts your productivity.
#2: Be Extremely Flexible
According to David Allen, inventor of the “Getting Things Done” methodology, “Self-management is about knowing what to do at any given moment.”
Now, I recognize that being flexible might sound a bit at odds with the previous suggestion, but the reality is that to make the best use of your time, you have to sometimes be willing adapt your schedule, by continually considering your priorities.
If you’re like many of my clients who work in fast-paced and complex environments, what might have been a top priority for you on Monday, may no longer be the most crucial thing to get done on Tuesday. Therefore, if you rigidly stick to the plan you made the day before, you might end up using your time unwisely.
By staying flexible, I’m not suggesting that every unexpected event that comes up will warrant you changing your schedule to deal with it. But, when an urgent and high-priority matter or opportunity does arise, don’t be afraid to re-work your schedule so that you can address it. The trick is to make sure you’re keeping your most critical priorities in mind, so that you can adjust your efforts accordingly.
#3: Avoid Task Hopping
Self-management doesn’t work without focus. Period. If you sit down to work on a task at the predetermined time, and your mind is all over the place, you’re obviously not going to make very good use of your time.
When you’re busy with a lot to do, you might naturally find yourself feeling overwhelmed. And during these times, it’s not uncommon to move from task to task, in response to your racing mind. This tendency can also be compounded by the lure of social media, text messages, and email notifications, which can all make it increasingly difficult for many of us to stay focused on the task at hand.
This is where discipline comes into play. Decide in advance that you’re going to give your undivided attention to a single task during the allotted time period. Then, turn off your notifications, put your smartphone in your bag, or do whatever you need to do to reduce distractions.
If you do this, you’ll find it’s a self-reinforcing behavior because:
- When you focus on one single task, you’re able to give it your best effort. And as a result, the output will likely be better. In contrast, if you try to do several tasks simultaneously, you’re only making your own job harder, and you’ll get a lot less done in the process.
- The feeling of “finishing” a task works as a huge motivator for a lot of us — there’s a feeling of gratification that can come with checking an item off of your to-do list. And, that repeated sense of accomplishment can inspire you to keep moving forward.
While staying focused on a single task might seem like a tall order, across time, you can increase your ability to concentrate by developing your own mindfulness practice. Then, once you get used to focusing on a single task, you’ll work with a lot more peace and ease.
#4: Make Deadlines Your Friend
A big part of self-management is getting things done in a set period of time. But if there’s nobody or nothing to push you towards action, you may not get much done. Heck, you may not even take a start.
The Parkinson’s Law, formulated by British naval historian C Northcote Parkinson, states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Although a lot of us probably have personal experience proving this law to be true, research also shows that work can also shrink to fit the time available.
Therefore, if you’re someone who often sets goals with the best of intentions, but doesn’t actually execute on them, then set deadlines for yourself. If you have a big project, break it down into smaller chunks, and set deadlines for accomplishing each of those objectives.
Take these deadlines seriously and stick to them like the bark to a tree. (If you need to, tell a friend about your deadline to up your ante for accountability). Before you know it, you’ll be getting things done with a new sense of momentum.
#5: Take Time for Self-Care
If you’re burning the candle at both ends, you’re probably going to have a pretty hard time managing yourself. After all, if you’ve gone through the process of determining your priorities and mapping out when you’re going to do what, but you have no energy when you actually sit down to do your work, you’re not going to make the best use of your time.
Therefore, the standard advice applies here. Get adequate sleep. Take breaks. Eat a balanced diet. Exercise. All of these activities will boost your mood, concentration, and energy level. In turn, they’ll help you to be more productive when you do sit down to focus on your work.
Author Alan Lakein wrote, “Time = life; therefore, waste your time and waste of your life, or master your time and master your life.” Learn to manage yourself, and enjoy a fuller, more productive life.
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