Monday, January 15, 2007

5 Ways to Use Your Time More Efficiently

I’ve been studying time management for about 20 years now and I can tell you this for certain about the best way to manage your available time: for every theory, there is an equal and opposite theory. Lots of help, right? Bear with me for a moment.

I was getting ready to start one of my “9 Ways to . . .” articles when I realized, people don’t really want 9 ways to manage their time; they want one way – the best way. The problem with trying to tell you the best way, is that I’ve found several strategies to be extremely effective in getting the job done. So for this article, I’m listing my personal favorite, and four more that have served me well.
  1. Create lists. In 18 Reasons to Love Lists, I talk about the subconscious power behind creating a list of everything you have to do and how I have a list for just about everything. The reason lists work so well, is that they make you stop and really think about everything you have to do. The next step would be to consider whether everything on your list is accomplishable in the time available. Most of the time, it’s not. So what’s next? You must prioritize your list items. The problem you’ll run into here, though, is that sometimes what is most important isn’t doable right now, or even in the time available, so you must put it off to another time. That’s fine, as long as you really do come back to it. (By the way, never, ever, check something as completed until after you’ve done it.) This is why keeping ongoing lists is so important. But how do you prioritize when your projects are many and varied, and some things simply must be done while others are more important but optional?
  2. Evaluate your top 20. In How to Maximize Your Personal Productivity, I explain the Pareto principle in detail. From a time management perspective, you must identify those activities that contribute 80% or more or your value to your business. (This applies whether you work for yourself or someone else.) What are those precious few tasks that actually contribute to income for your company and, therefore, yourself? Whatever those tasks are, perform them first. For me it’s one thing; writing. If I spend just 90 minutes per day, every day, five days per week, writing, everything else I do falls into place. Blogging, speaking, consulting, training – everything – revolves around writing.
  3. Time chunk. Once you’ve determined what your top 20 tasks are, group them. Then, group everything else. For example, when I sit down to write a blog post, I write it from start to finish, proofread and edit it, and then post it – all in one sitting. I get up for breaks when I need to do so, but I don’t put it down and come back to it later – that wastes time. I have found this method to work wonderfully because it makes you focus. The longer you spend on an idea or thought, the more ideas you get related to that thought. Therefore, as you spend more time focused on a project, the easier the project becomes to complete. Now, if you have a huge project to complete, you will have to break it down into manageable chunks. I have personally found that working in 90-minute segments, 3 hours at a time, works best for me. I have worked as many as 9 hours in one day in that highly focused, highly productive, extremely efficient mode. Grouping your other, less-productive tasks is very effective as well. For instance, run all your errands at once, and do all of your online shopping once per week. I keep a running list of things to buy from Amazon and make my purchases when I get enough items to avoid the shipping charge. Hey, every little bit helps, right?
  4. Do it now. Another highly effective time management model is the “Do it now” theory. In this system, when a task presents itself, you do it now. When your desk gets piled up, you sort through all the paper and each time your hand lands on something that requires action, you do it now. When someone calls and asks you to do something, if you agree to do it, you do it now. This method makes you stop and think about the interruptions you allow into your day. If you’re having a day where you’re swamped, you’ll think twice before picking up that phone because you know if you’re asked to do something, you’ll have to do it now. If you choose not to answer the phone, the person on the other end might just call someone else to do that little chore. You learn these things with the “Do it now” approach and that’s one reason I like it. If you don’t like lists, for whatever reason, you’ll love the do it now system because there’s rarely a need for a list. What I like best about the “Do it now” approach is that is eliminates brain clutter. Having a long list of undone tasks can clutter up your brain and keep you from getting anything accomplished. Doing everything now eliminates that problem because you’ve done everything that has crossed your path. You still must prioritize in this system, but the way you do so is by deciding if the task that has interrupted your workflow is more important than what you’re doing now. If not, you continue with your current project. If it is, you stop, complete the task now, and come back to your project. Some theorists say that it is slightly less effective than time chunking because if you stop to do something else, it takes you longer to get back on track with your project. However, if you’ve ever had trouble concentrating because you were worried that you were going to forget some important task, you’ll understand why doing it now can be just as effective. I try to practice a little of both throughout my day, which brings me to my favorite time-management system of all:
  5. Your ideal day. Working in my husband’s dental practice for five years taught me the benefit of this technique, but it was a while before I started applying in my own business. Since I have – about a year ago now - my productivity has greatly increased and the best part is that my personal satisfaction with what I’ve accomplished at the end of the day has greatly increased as well. Here’s what you do. Forget the lists for a moment and think about your top 20 activities. What are they? Write them down. Over the course of about a week, maybe two for you, when would you most ideally complete these important tasks? For example, if you need to call on clients, when is the best time to do that? Once you have all those activities arranged, start thinking about your ideal day. When would you complete your most important tasks - morning or afternoon? Would you have time set aside for catching up on lists? Would you make sure you had time for exercise? Would you set aside time to “Do it now” and do whatever inspires you? Would you make time for reading important articles in your field? How would your day look if you could wave a magic wand and make it exactly the way you want it - the most productive, both personally and professionally? Want some good news – it can be that way. Exactly. Here’s my ideal day. I get up at 6 AM, hug both of my cats, and start my tea. I go outside and feed the birds while the water is getting hot. While the tea is steeping, I make my breakfast. After eating, I go into my office to do my daily goal writing and “Self MEI.” (In Put Yourself First, I talk about how it’s hard for me to Motivate, Educate, or Inspire someone else when I haven’t first motivated, educated, or inspired myself.) I spend an hour on Self MEI on my ideal days. Then, I get on the treadmill for 30 minutes, followed by a shower and getting dressed for the day. By this time, it’s 9 AM and I’m ready to write. I write my blog posts, speeches, training projects, or seminars in the morning because this is when I’m at my best. Sometime around Noon, I’ll eat lunch. Then, in the afternoon of my ideal day, I work on all those other projects that are less important, but must be done nonetheless. If I’m working on something really big, I might go back to writing; this is where prioritizing and keeping lists comes in handy. And, as you can see, my ideal day is definitely time-chunked. I usually end my work day at 5 or 6 PM, but not before taking time to create tomorrow’s ideal day. I look at my lists and carry over anything that did not get accomplished. I finish the evening with household chores, just like anybody else, you know the drill – laundry, cooking supper, cleaning up this mess or that, followed by some “down time” with my husband, on the couch, watching TV for about an hour before going to bed.


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