Tips for Defeating the Time Thief and Taking Control of Your Day

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While I was on the road conducting project management training for several different companies this spring, I heard the same question at all of the sites I visited: “How can I fit it all in? That is, how can I manage multiple projects while also juggling my day-to-day job?”

This is a tough question to address. It seems that employees are being asked to do more and more every day. And at the same time, you also have to deal with the increasing numbers of distractions that can eat into the precious time you have to get stuff done.

So how can you squeeze more time out of your day? First, you have to realize that you can’t actually get more time out of a day, but you can learn to use the time you do have more wisely. Then, you can divide your day into chunks of time for three vital tasks:

  • Doing
  • Attending meetings and conference calls
  • Strategizing

Running my own business, I typically need four to five hours of “doing” each day in order to keep up with all the projects on my plate. Therefore, I try to limit my meetings (including calls, lunches, and meet-and-greets) to two or three hours a day. It’s not always possible to stick to that number, however, so if meetings cut into my “doing” time, I know I’ll need to make up that work on another day (possibly even on the weekend—which, unfortunately, is pretty typical for me). I also spend at least one to two hours in the morning strategizing on future business by making calls, sending e-mail, researching, etc.

Of course, you may allocate your time for those three tasks very differently (and that’s okay!). Just keep in mind that if you want to gain control over your schedule, you need to understand the amount and type of time you need to get your day-to-day job done while also allotting time for major projects. In many companies, unfortunately, meetings take up the majority of the workday and leave employees with little to no time for thinking, let alone doing.

If that describes your situation, it’s time to review your meetings and determine what you can do to extricate yourself from those in which you’re not central to the topic being discussed or that are merely updates meeting that could be handled via e-mail (or other method). Insist that meeting organizers send out an agenda ahead of time so you’ll know if your in-person attendance is absolutely required. Is there someone with whom you could trade off attendance and then share notes afterward? I have found this strategy to be a remarkable time saver that enables me and the other person to cover topics in a quarter of the time it would take to attend the actual meeting!

Before you can plan your time, though, you need to know how you’re using it now. So your first step is to keep a log that documents what you’ve worked on throughout each day. (You can keep this record in your Outlook calendar, for example, or even jot it down in a notebook.) Be specific and precise (and honest!) and leave nothing out. In addition to time spent working on projects and attending meetings, include time spent chatting with coworkers and dealing with e-mail and other routine office functions.

Keep this record for a week and tally your numbers daily to get a clear picture of how you spend your time, including how much you spend on noncritical activities. Think about what adjustments you need to make so you can focus on what really matters. Then follow these steps to plan your day more efficiently:

#1 - Plan your work and then work your plan

Spend the first 30 minutes of every day putting together a realistic plan of what you’re going to accomplish that day. The keyword here is “realistic”: if you list 10 tasks and get only half of them done, you’ll be disappointed in yourself. But if you schedule 5 and finish all of them, you can celebrate your victory over the time thief!

#2 - Book appointments in your calendar

Once you know what you’re going to focus on that day, schedule your time. Put meetings in your calendar and label each with the task you’ll focus on during that time period. Consider booking the more challenging tasks for the time of day when you’re at your peak. (I typically plan the tough stuff for the morning, when I have the most energy and focus.) Once you’ve laid out your plan, stick to it ruthlessly (and deviate from it only in the event of a real emergency).

#3 - Don’t check e-mail continually

Responding to e-mail can be one of the biggest time-sucks on the planet and can easily prevent you from doing actual work. So first thing in the morning, scan your inbox for any critical messages (such as a note from your boss), then let the rest wait. I usually allow only 30 minutes for answering e-mail in the morning, because that’s when I’m at my mental peak and I want to use that energy for my “strategizing” and “doing” tasks (such as writing). I check back in with e-mail for another 30 minutes in the afternoon, then again in the evening when I need a break from big, meaty projects.

#4 - Don’t do easy tasks just to check them off your list

I find this to be one of the biggest time wasters besides e-mail. If you put together a plan for the day and put one small item in the schedule because it’s a quick task, you can actually undermine your time-management efforts because taking care of the “quick task” then becomes a habit that cuts into your time for the truly important stuff. So instead book an appointment in your schedule for “diddly stuff” to help you remember that everything takes time—and if you’re not time spending enough time on larger initiatives, you’ll always be falling behind.

#5 - Don’t schedule routine meetings

Every meeting should have a purpose, not merely to check in on the status of work assigned (that can be accomplished in less time via e-mail). Schedule meetings at key decision points or when in-person discussion is needed for a project to continue moving forward. This ensures your meetings are productive for all involved. Also, creating and publishing an agenda can help you stay on track.

#6 - Only attend essential meetings

As I mentioned earlier, don’t let meetings consume your day! Insist on an agenda—and make sure it states where your contributions are needed. When I have to attend a meeting that isn’t completely relevant to my work and my topics are late on the agenda, for example, I’ll let the organizer know that I’ll be coming in halfway through so I can focus on other items until I’m truly needed there.

#7 - Jettison noncritical activities

The old adage states that “20% of your effort leads to 80% of your results.” So figure out what efforts are critical to your function, then ditch those activities that are not moving you or the company forward. Be ruthless in your evaluation of what is critical—don’t let yourself be tricked into focusing on smaller tasks that can be accomplished in less time and therefore give you a false sense of accomplishment. If something isn’t mission-critical, put it on hold until later!

#8 - Get back on track

If you find your mind wandering (and, say, you “happen” to log into Instagram), stop, review the schedule you created that morning, then refocus on the task at hand. Self-discipline is definitely your most powerful tool against wasting time and not accomplishing goals.

#9 - Review lessons learned each day

Personal reflection at the end of each day will let you plan for a better tomorrow. If you’re not happy with how the day went, identify those things that pulled you away from your plan and devise a strategy for not letting that happen the next day. If you’re happy with how your day went, figure out what led to today’s success, then make sure you continue doing it tomorrow .

#10 - Reward your success

One popular management axiom states, “You get what you reward.” That’s true when managing anyone — including ourselves. So I build into my schedule a treat if I’ve accomplished the tasks or projects I set out for myself. Maybe I’ll go to a movie over the weekend, for example, or get a pedicure. The reward can even be something as small as drinking a diet Coke (a rare indulgence for me!). What reward would motivate you to plan your work and then work your plan?

Gaining control of your schedule takes rigorous self-discipline on your part. But it’s definitely doable! And the best part is that if you practice this sort of time management long enough, it will become a habit. When you’re no longer even thinking about it, that’s when you’ll know that you’ve defeated the time thief!

Read more from Val Grubb at the Val Grubb & Associates blog.