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“I am definitely going to take a course on time management... just as soon as I can work it into my schedule.” Louis E. Boone, author

Busy leaders everywhere can identify with Boone's tongue-in-cheek statement. At least they can feel a modicum of comfort knowing, even if they could work it into their schedule, a course on time management wouldn't do much good. Why? Because you cannot manage time - anymore than you can manage the weather or the stock market.

But if you stop trying to manage time and start using it better, you can find time for everything - at least for everything important. Consider this your crash course in streamlining your schedule, eliminating distractions, and using time to your advantage.

Are You Using or Abusing Your Time?

Between Google, social media, coffee breaks, and trying to recover from distractions and get back to work, 89 percent of American employees admit to wasting time on the job. You may not realize how much of your time disappears into the abyss. Find out by keeping a schedule of your tasks, conversations, and thoughts for a week. Where does your time go? How much do you spend on value-add activities and how much on... not much of anything?

Remember the Pareto Principle: 20 percent of your efforts create 80 percent of your results. If you can diagnose how you use your time, you can devote more of this finite resource on the 20% value-adds and less on the unproductive 80%.

Finding Time for Value-Added Activity

When you track your time, you'll begin to realize that you cannot fit everything in - no matter how hard you try. The key is to use your time effectively for the activities that truly matter. How?

  • Plan Ahead. Look at the big picture. What projects, deadlines, appointments, and commitments do you have this week, this month, this year? What might interfere with your ability to meet those obligations? It's helpful to have an overarching view before you get into the nitty-gritty of daily life.

  • Prioritize. Which tasks and activities deserve your attention today? This week? What is important? What do you have to do today, tomorrow, this week? Think about your work, but also remember your family/social life. (Can't miss your kid's first ballet recital or your daily workout.) Figure out a viable system for assigning importance to tasks and highlighting your priorities. Even putting a star next to priority items can help.

  • Set Goals. Set attainable goals to focus your attention and efforts. Goals can be long-term, but don't forget about short-term, daily goals. For instance, I want to leave the office at 5:00 so I can meet a friend for dinner. If that's my goal, I know I have to silence my devices and get to work.

  • Set deadlines. Some tasks have management-imposed deadlines. If not, assign them yourself and mark them in your planner. If you have trouble with accountability, tell someone about your deadline (e.g. friend, colleague, social network).

  • Delegate. Have some lower-level tasks that you can hand off? Do it. As Illya Pozen writes in Forbes, "80% is good enough." In other words, if a direct report can do a task about 80% as well as you can, give them the opportunity - and give you more time.

  • Say "No.""No" is one of the most difficult words to say: you don’t want to let people down. You don’t to be perceived as selfish. But opting out of work or obligations can benefit you – and the person you turn down. Look at your schedule: do you truly have time? If not, you may end doing a subpar job, which does no one any favors. Embrace "No."

Set Yourself Up For Success

  • Create a Working Workspace. Clear the clutter; it's good for your career. An OfficeMax study found that 77% of employees say clutter negatively impacts their productivity and motivation. Create a dedicated workspace, even if you have to set up a desk in the living room, and keep it organized. There are as many organizational systems as there are people; find one that works for you, whether it's file folders and Post-its or zip drives and virtual assistants.

  • Use the Right Tools. Take advantage of the explosion of apps that can help eliminate distractions, set priorities, and stay on top of your schedule. A few options: Remember the Milk, Evernote, Dropbox, FocusBooster, MyLifeOrganized, and 30/30.

  • Leverage Your Most Productive Times. When do you do your best work? While you may be stuck within the confines of a traditional work day, you can still plan your tasks so you capitalize on your most productive times: save high-level work for your peaks, and dedicate more routine activities for valleys.

  • Don't Waste Time. If you tracked your activity as suggested, you know where your time "disappears." Twitter, I'm looking at you. Try the Pomodoro Technique: work without distraction (turn off push alerts) for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break. You can use this time to check your online communications - or better yet, do some desk exercises or bust out an organizational chore (e.g. clearing unnecessary documents off your desk).

  • Become a Uni-Tasker. As Publilius Syrus wrote, "To do two things at once is to do neither." To put it bluntly: multitasking is a sham. The human brain cannot devote its resources to two or more cognitively taxing tasks at the same time. Save time and tackle one to-do at a time.

All Work and No Play...

Want to boost productivity and get more done? Take a break.

A study led by Alejandro Lleras, psychology professor at the University of Illinois, concluded, "[W]hen faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task"

They can also help you learn more effectively. Oakland University’s Barbara Oakley says "when you're not thinking directly about what you're trying to learn, or figure out, or write about - downtime is a time of subconscious processing that allows you [to learn] better."

Schedule several short breaks throughout the day and make time for longer, rejuvenating rests in the evenings and/or weekends. If you must, set a timer or send yourself an email reminder. In the end, you'll focus more effectively, work more efficiently, and stave-off career-crippling burnout.

Forget about managing time; you have 1440 minutes today. You'll have 1440 tomorrow. The key is using each of them to their best advantage, and to yours.


Larry Hart

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