A while ago I posted a link to a review of several time management solutions, but since this topic continues to challenge many of my clients and colleagues, I wanted to post my best advice on taming your to-do list.
People everywhere are feeling the pinch of trying to balance an overwhelming amount of work at the office (virtual or actual), and a long list of priorities at home. This overload is multiplied by the constant flood of news and information from web sites, blogs, news feeds, social networking sites and Twitter. Are you drowning in a sea of tasks? Is your inbox raging out of control? Here are my ten commandments of effective time management to help you tame your to-do list and take back your life.
1. Make a List – Start by sitting down and writing out a list of absolutely everything you have on your plate. Separate projects from quick tasks, and categorize your list according to whether the tasks are for home or work. Make sure that EVERYTHING is accounted for on the list(s) somewhere.
2. Knock off the Crappy Stuff First – Color code or flag stuff you know you don’t want to do or that you are likely to procrastinate and take care of one or two of these items at the beginning of each day. You will feel better about the rest of your day if you know that it’s all downhill from here.
3. Dedicate Time for Quadrant 2– Don’t let urgent tasks over-rule important tasks every time. While everything becomes urgent if you put it off long enough, your quality of work suffers if you are always operating in crisis mode. Make blocks on your calendar of 1-2 hours in length where you will focus on a specific larger project without interruption.
4. Re-write Your Task List Every Week – While it may seem inefficient, the act of writing out your tasks every Monday morning rather than carrying them over from the week before will show you what things you are failing to complete. If you have carried something over more than twice it will start to annoy you and you will be more motivated to knock it off the list. Anything that has been pushed out more than twice should be flagged as a crappy task (see #2).
5. Keep Track of Delegated Items – If you handed something off to someone else, keep it on the list but flag it with the name of the person who’s working on it and when you expect it to be completed. Check in once/week to get a progress update.
6. Color Code Your Calendar – Make a color for projects (or even a separate color for each project if you have several), and another for employee management tasks such as goals meetings. Have a separate color for customer facing work as well as management meetings. Color coding your calendar will help you see visually where your time is going and adjust how much time you allocate to each aspect of your job.
7. Actively Eliminate Tasks Without Value – Every Monday when you re-write your list, ask yourself what value each task brings to your team and your organization. If a task adds no value, eliminate it from the list. Consider the value of any task or objective before you add it to the list.
8. Consolidate Similar Activities – If you have 10 phone calls to make, block an hour (or two) and run through them all at once.
9. Eliminate Meetings – Go through your list of meetings on a regular basis and see which ones could be eliminated through the use of email updates or other applications of technology. Some meetings may be important and valuable but others are simply forums for updates.
10. Don’t Skip Lunch – Eating and taking breaks makes you more efficient, not less. If you find yourself struggling with something that should be easy, or reading the same lines on the page over and over, get up and walk around the building or go have a cup of coffee. You may find that your best solutions come to you when you have stepped away from the problem.
The most common analogy for time management is juggling. People are forever trying to “keep balls in the air”. Given the stress that this type of activity causes, you may feel like you are juggling chainsaws or knives instead. Getting your task list under control can be a tremendous step towards lowering your stress level and improving your effectiveness as a manager. You can’t hope to manage others if you can’t manage yourself.