When everything in your life is screaming “I NEED ATTENTION NOW!”, no time management tool, mobile app, project management system, wall planner, organiser or ‘to do’ list is going to help. What you need is a reality check.
I used to have a boss whose only answer to my workload problems was “work smarter”. I don’t know if you’ve ever had anyone tell you to “work smarter” when you’ve been working 18 hour days, living off vending machine snacks and snapping at family and friends for months, but my response was to punch him in the face. Or rather that’s what I pictured as I smiled through gritted teeth.
He might not have expressed it well – or at the appropriate time – but the “work smarter” philosophy is pretty much the only effective way to ‘manage time’. Or, as I prefer to think of it, ‘use our waking hours wisely’.
A finite resource
Let’s start with some obvious facts. Time, like money, is a finite resource. No matter how diligent you are with it, there’s never enough of it to do everything. But while few of us waste money on worthless goods, many of us waste time on worthless tasks.
We take on everything that’s thrown at us. Come in earlier. Stay on later. Skip lunch. Avoid socialising. Write lists. Work harder. Juggle more. Tick things off our lists. Start new lists. Get more things done. And get little or no thanks for our efforts.
Busy doing nothing
Being busy doesn’t equate to be being effective.
You can reply to every email. Take every phone call. Produce beautiful spreadsheets and grow your own quinoa. But if your goal is to double your income, run a small holding on the Isle of Mull or play bass in a rock band, you’re not ‘using your waking hours wisely’.
So, let’s state another obvious fact – the only way to achieve goals is to set them. Set them. Plan how you’re going to achieve them. And stick to them.
Fixed goals, variable means
I learnt the phrase ‘fixed goals, variable means’ on a training course many years ago. It’s a bit like ‘work smarter’ in that it gets your back up. It’s too convenient. Too simplistic. But like ‘work smarter’, it makes sense.
If you’re constantly grabbing at everything, starting new stuff and going with the flow, you’ll do lots and achieve little.
Stick to a few big goals, try different ways to achieve them and you’re more likely to get the right results.
7 steps to using your waking hours wisely
Okay, there’s probably a lot more than 7. And you’ve probably heard them all before. And even if you follow them to the letter, there’s no guarantee they’ll work. But at least you’ll stop kidding yourself that the panacea to all ills is time management.
- Know what you’re supposed to be doing
If your life’s ambition is to be the busiest person in the psychiatric ward, carry on trying to do everything.
If, on the other hand, you want to keep your sanity, talk to your line manager/partner/best buddy/psychotherapist and agree what you’re supposed to be doing with your life.
Then write yourself some goals. Goals remember, not tasks.
- Give yourself permission to fail
Very few of us achieve our big goals. Life/work/people/sickness/laziness gets in the way.
If you’re holding down an important job; looking after kids, pets and elderly parents; and trying to maintain an element of romance in a relationship, you probably need to dump/delay that novel you’ve been trying to write since 1992.
Give yourself a break. Give yourself permission to let something go.
- Never say “I’ve got until Friday”
You know that job that’s only going to take a couple of hours so you’ve plenty time between now and Friday to do it? No. Never. Forget it.
Experience shows that it will take at least twice as long as you thought. You won’t have the info/resources you need. Somebody will add/change something. Nobody will be around to proofread it/quality test it/deliver it. And you’ll get dragged into a three-hour meeting you didn’t know about.
Don’t just stick deadlines and appointments in your diary/planner/project manager thing. Go through every element of the job and put those in the diary too.
- Plan for the unexpected
Even if you’re dead good and plan in every element of a job, you have to be realistic about how long you can spend on it at any one sitting. Email. Phone calls. Colleagues. Customers. IT systems going down. Interruptions are part of life.
Don’t fill your planners with just what you’re working on. Plan in time for problems, reactive tasks, interruptions. If they don’t happen, it will be like winning the time lottery!
- Recognise the difference between urgent and important
When we’re under pressure, everything seems urgent. The deadline we’ve known about for weeks is suddenly on top of us. There’s a shit load of stuff that needs doing. And everyone wants everything yesterday.
Something isn’t urgent just because someone says it is.
Urgent tasks are things that if they don’t happen immediately people will die. Or millions of pounds will be lost of the stock market.
When you’re sinking, stop thrashing about, take a deep breath and ask yourself what’s important?
What will be the consequences of not doing something immediately? What one thing among everything else you have to do will have the best long-term effect?
Important tasks are tasks that help you achieve your long-term goals.
- Do, diary, delegate, dump
There are only four ways to deal with any job. And, as all these time management mantras come from the make-it-sound-easy farm, they all start with D.
Of course, the four Ds only work if you’re following points 1-5. If you’re determined to stay in ‘work harder’ mode, you’ll be stuck with D1 for ever.
- If something is both urgent and important – DO it now.
- If something is important but not urgent – DIARY it.
- If something is urgent but not important – DELEGATE it.
- If something is not urgent and not important – DUMP it (or delay it until you’ve earned yourself a I’ve-done-everything-I-need-to-do-today reward).
And in case you’re thinking “I have no-one to delegate to”, don’t think you can only delegate downwards. Try sideways (colleague/friend), upwards (manager/client) or outsourced.
- Stop saying “I can’t” and start saying “I will”
Most of us hate saying ‘no’. We want to be liked. We worry about the consequences. We don’t feel we have the right to say ‘no’ so we soften it by saying “I can’t”.
Stop saying I can’t. It makes you sound weak.
When we say “can’t”, we generally mean “well I can do that but I’m doing something else instead right now” or “well I could go to the meeting but I don’t see why I should” or “well I could have a go at it but I’d be pretty shit”.
The next time you’re asked to do something you don’t have time/resources/expertise/money/desire for say:
- I won’t do it by 2.00pm. I will do it by 5.00pm.
- I won’t do it myself. I will ask Bob to do it.
- I won’t do it for £500. I will do it for £1,000.
- I won’t go to the meeting. I will read the minutes and actions afterwards.
Or words to that effect. The aim is to offer something else. Another time, person, cost or method.
If you do the same thing, you get the same results.
I appreciate than none of this is easy. A few tips and mantras aren’t going to change the habits of a lifetime. But while it sounds crass, doing the same thing will get you the same results.
Take a risk. Don’t reply to that email immediately. Be realistic about how much time to spend making a PowerPoint slide look good. And try to consider the long term effect of your actions.
Remember, nobody ever lay on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office.