“The hurrier I go, the behinder I get,” complains the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. This, usually expressed in different terms, is a lament most of us can relate to on Mondays through Fridays. Tasks seem to all take longer than expected, interruptions are constant, and just when you need to speak to a colleague before being able to continue, he’s disappeared.
Learning the principles of time management does not put an end to pressure or unexpected happenings, but doing so will often avoid these from turning into real problems. There are only so many hours in the day, but intelligent planning truly can make them seem much longer.
Before Trying to Control the Future, Analyze the Present
One of the keys to successful scheduling is understanding the difference between time spent productively and time that is not. This does not mean that unproductive time can be eliminated completely or that it isn’t sometimes important – coffee and Facebook breaks come to mind. However, if you are struggling to shoulder your workload, you might well be surprised at the ratio between the two.
Recording all your activities at work for a week is a pain, but can reveal unexpected patterns. This means anything that lasts longer than five minutes: phone conversations, talks with co-workers, time spent thinking or walking from one point to another should all be included. Each can be marked as either contributing directly to your work goals, not doing so but being unavoidable, and those that are merely drains on the time available. At the end of the week, these can be tallied up – the results may just reveal how, exactly, someone can be perpetually busy and still never get things done.
How to Separate the Crucial from the Trivial
There’s an analogy that applies to this aspect of time management: imagine you are about to go on holiday and packing your suitcase. One way to do this is to start tossing things in randomly: a lone sock here, a bottle of sun tan lotion that’s actually close to empty, a pair of shoes. However, following this approach probably means that the lid won’t close by the time you’re finished.
If, instead, you place the largest, heaviest, most necessary items where they will fit best and later add smaller stuff to the interstices left over, you can fit in a lot more with a little space left over. This is very much how scheduling works. It is recommended that you choose no more than three to five major, important items and decide that these simply have to get done, before adding extraneous chores wherever they’ll fit. If you plan to do three crucial things, you’ll find time to finish all of them; if your to-do list is ten items long, you might manage two.
Good Time Management Prevents Procrastination
It seems to be an article of faith for most people that an unpleasant or intimidating task, if left alone for long enough, will cease to be of importance. Sadly, this just isn’t so. Whether it’s a leaking roof or an expense report, leaving a time-critical task to stew by itself tends not to make the situation better, but worse.
Planning a day or a week ahead allows a person to keep these tasks and their relative importance in mind. Since disagreeable or boring jobs rarely disappear, good scheduling lets a person do them when time is available, rather than having to complete them at the last minute. Staying on a schedule you’ve drafted yourself is not the easiest thing in the world, but acquiring this habit means a lot more free time in future.
Setting a Schedule Keeps Others on Time
It seems to be the natural law of meetings: if there are twenty minutes available for it, it takes 20 minutes; if there is no time limit, it can take ten times longer with much the same things being said. One trick that’s effective at preventing this kind of timewasting is to hold meetings standing up, but another is to announce a time limit beforehand. In this way, people will be forced to show up prepared to reach a conclusion within that timeframe, or have to schedule another meeting. Even better, it does not seem offensive to anyone involved; if someone needs to leave by three o’clock, no-one can reasonably complain when they do. A variation on this involves automatic email replies: since checking email twenty times a day is one of the great timewasters, someone who practices good time management will generally do so only once or twice a day and let clients and colleagues know these times.
Putting personal scheduling into practice requires honesty, assertiveness and more than a little self-discipline. Yet, it is one of those habits that separate those who get important things done without apparent effort from those living in Wonderland, who have to run as fast as they can just to stay in place.