Consider your day-to-day schedule for a moment. Think about the tasks on your to-do list, and what you usually accomplish in a day. How often do you look back at the end of the day and realize that many things on today’s to-do list have been moved over to tomorrow’s to-do list? Or worse yet, they are just missed entirely?
If you’re like most working adults and adult learners, you probably say this regularly — maybe every day. You likely feel frustrated and unfulfilled when you can’t accomplish everything you set out to achieve, whether it be for work, your studies, or your personal life. You probably think the solution is to manage your time better. But you’re wrong.
That’s because time management is a myth. The truth is, we don’t manage time because time itself is not something we can control. Rather, we manage the choices we make about our time. We decide to spend an entire day on a project, neglecting other tasks we have to get to. We choose to check email every 10 minutes and pick up every phone call, opening ourselves up to distractions that steal our attention away from our objectives.
The real solution, then, is to get better at deciding how you spend your time. Here are 11 tips I recommend:
1. Take the power seat. Every time you choose to immediately respond to an email, answer a phone call, and attend an ad hoc meeting, you are choosing how you allocate your time. As a result, you might create expectations about your ability to respond and act immediately. This can in turn derail your schedule. But when you take control and slot the task into an appropriate place in your workflow, you can stay on track while still accomplishing new tasks on deadline. I know that you can’t plan every minute of your day. You shouldn’t try. Leave “white space” on your calendar to deal with the urgent things that come up during the day.
2. It’s about priority management, not time management. If everything is urgent, nothing is urgent. That’s why it’s crucial to always focus on your #1 priority. If you do this, you’re well on your way to making better decisions about using your time because this helps you push aside distractions and stay centered on the task at hand. If you don’t know your #1 priority, then you need to slow down and take time to think it through. Even a five-minute planning break can make a huge, positive impact on productivity.
3. An instant response is not the same as an instant answer. Don’t feel pressured into giving an immediate answer to someone’s question. It’s OK to respond with, “Thanks for the question. I’ll get back to you with an answer.” This way, you acknowledge the request, while giving yourself time to develop a strong and complete answer. As a courtesy, tell the person when he or she can expect to hear back from you, and then make sure you do so.
4. Instead of making a to-do list, make a “stop-doing” list. What you put on your to-do list is just as important as what you leave off it. This helps you focus and prioritize your tasks. I recommend you look at each item and ask yourself: Does this task really need to be done? Am I the right person to do it? Does it have to be done now? If the answer is yes to all these questions, then schedule it. If not, delegate it, defer it, or delete it appropriately.
5. Get to the bottom of how you’re spending your time. What have you done today? Are you drawing a blank? If you don’t know what you do in a day, it’s difficult to change how you spend your time. To gain insight, keep track of everything you do for a week, including start and stop times. By the end of the week, you’ll be able to see exactly how you spend your time and how long it takes you to do tasks. I guarantee the results will be shocking and enlightening. From here, you can make measurable improvements to how you spend your time and allocate appropriate amounts of time for certain activities.
6. Schedule more appointments — with yourself. If you feel like you just can’t get to something, schedule an appointment on your calendar to do it. This gives you a specific time to work on the task, so it’s harder to push it off. Treat that appointment the same way you would treat one scheduled by your boss or your professor.
7. Plan some “percolating” time. Set aside time to think about a project before you start it. This lets you develop your plan of attack, and gives you the opportunity to develop a strategy behind it to better achieve the objective at hand. When you sit down to execute a step, you can act immediately because the thinking is done, the plan is in place, and you have a timeline for seeing it through.
8. Don’t fear big projects. Many working professionals and adult learners put off big projects because they feel like they don’t have enough time to finish them all at once. Well, you don’t have to finish a big project in one sitting — not when you plan ahead. When the next big project comes down the pike, take the time to chunk it into several smaller tasks that you accomplish day by day. Suddenly a big project is not so big anymore.
9. Rise and shine to your #1 priority. Mornings are probably your peak productivity time because you’re freshest and sharpest. But if you’re like most working professionals and adult learners, you spend your mornings on email and preparing to do work. These activities can derail the best plan before it begins. Do your planning the night before and get started right away in the morning. Take the first 60-90 minutes of your day to dig into work that requires maximum brain power. When you do check email, scan it for real emergencies and then get to work on your #1 priority. The rest of your email can be tackled at a less brain-intense part of your day.
10. Time shift your studies. If your best time to study is in the early morning or late at night (perhaps when your family is asleep or off doing their own things), then plan to study then. Set aside a block of uninterrupted time because you can typically be most creative, efficient, and productive.
11. Time shift your work duties. The same can apply for work. Employers, take note, too. Not everyone is at their most productive at the same time. You might be a morning person, but your employee might be a night owl who is far more creative and productive at the end of the day. Allowing for some flexibility helps employers get the most out of their employees and boosts employee retention at the same time. Try to schedule meetings around, not through, your employees’ best production times.
When a project slips, it’s too easy to say, “The situation took control.” If you let situations control you, you won’t succeed in business and you won’t succeed as an adult student. You must take the reins and be able to make good decisions about how you spend your time.
Finally, realize that no one has more time than anybody else. We all have 24 hours in every day. How you spend it is up to you.