Thursday, December 26, 2013

Resolve to Better Manage Your Time

Ahhh, New Year’s resolutions. We make ‘em, and break em; and vow to make ‘em again. Whether it’s to lose weight, get fit, work better or smarter or just be a better person, most of us struggle to follow through. In our professional lives, making and keeping resolutions can have big payoffs. One of the most common goals I’ve heard is to be more organized and manage time more effectively and efficiently. Many other important benefits can be derived from being more efficient and better managing our time. We can be more productive, make fewer mistakes, have more time to do a better job and ultimately have more success.

Here are some tips to help you in this goal.

We all battle time-wasters, both in our personal and professional lives. These annoying pests can severely affect our productivity. Let’s identify some common time wasters:

We waste a lot of time reacting to what’s going on around us. We bounce from one task to another without making much headway on anything.

Some people fail to put in enough time planning their work - determining priorities, deciding how things will be done, anticipating problems, and so on. But if you don’t plan effectively, you can’t work efficiently.

We often don’t take enough time to prepare for a job. Instead of gathering everything we need (equipment, materials, information we need) before we start, we jump in and then waste time running around looking for the things we need to complete the job.

For many of us, the real queen of time wasters is procrastination. We keep putting things off, wasting valuable time and creating a situation in which we will later be rushed to get the job done without enough time to do it well or risk missing a deadline.

Paying excessive attention to unimportant details also sucks up valuable time. Yes, we want things to be done right. But the best way to maintain quality is to focus on priorities. Wasting time on the unimportant stuff doesn’t leave time for the really important things.

People who try to do everything themselves often end up wasting their own time. Being reluctant to ask for help often results in a job taking far longer than it should. Reluctance to ask questions can mean a lot of time wasted trying to figure out something that a co-worker or supervisor could probably explain in a couple of minutes.

When you don’t clearly understand what needs to be done, you have to waste a lot of time trying to figure it out. Or worse, you make mistakes, which means the job has to be redone.

Being uncertain about expectations can easily get us sidetracked and waste a lot of time. If you don’t understand the goals and standards for a job, you can’t do the job efficiently—and you certainly can’t do it well.

It’s easy to become overcommitted. We often want to say yes, and don’t want to say no. But when you take on too much, you often end up getting very little done. If you’re really overwhelmed with work, talk to your supervisor. Maybe you can work something out. Maybe your supervisor can help you readjust your priorities.

If papers are scattered, tools misplaced, or files unorganized, you spend more time getting ready to work than actually doing it.

Rushing is another time waster. It seems like it would be the opposite, right? The faster you work the better use you make of your time, right? Well, no. Moving faster is not always better. Rushing leads to mistakes, omissions, and rework. And that’s a big waste of your valuable time. Going at a reasonable pace is the most efficient way to work. Remember the old saw: If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right the first time.

So, how to we get past these obstacles? 

Minimizing time wasters and gaining control over your time begins with proper planning. The time you spend planning before you act can turn into days or weeks of time saved.

Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to make a list of all the tasks you have to accomplish. I’ve been a list-maker for many years. It does help! And, crossing items off that list can be very satisfying. Another benefit is that the physical act of writing something down will help you to remember it.

You can organize your list into daily tasks and those tasks that must be completed that week. This list could include timelines for short-term projects, scheduled meetings, deadlines, etc. If necessary and appropriate, you can expand this with monthly tasks, as well.

Prioritizing your tasks is the next step. Organizing your tasks and responsibilities into order of priority is essential to keep you from fracturing your energies and ending the day with important tasks not completed. 

Each day, rank the tasks and commitments you’ve listed in order of importance. You can do this simply by numbering tasks—one being the most important, and so on. Or another method is to assign a priority letter to each task.

"A" stands for must-do tasks with the highest priority.
"B" tasks are important and worthwhile, but if for some reason they cannot be accomplished that day, there will not be a crisis.
"C" tasks can wait until you have the time to do them.

Don’t fall into the trap of making everything a top-priority! Remember, "B" and "C" tasks might eventually become "A" tasks tomorrow or next week.

Build in time for the unexpected – you know it will happen – be prepared to adjust your list accordingly.

Allow sufficient time in the day for planning, thinking, making decisions, solving problems—things that only you can do. Don’t fill your list with so many high-priority items that you have no time to plan, make decisions and prepare. 

In order to prioritize tasks effectively, you need to have clear goals in mind. A lot of time is wasted when we put effort into activities that don’t directly relate to achieving the goals of our job or of a project.

Defining goals means you must first determine the desired outcome. What exactly do you need to achieve? 

Short-term objectives are the means of achieving goals. These are the steps that you need to take to achieve a goal. They must be clearly stated and organized in a realistic sequence.

As you work toward your goals, accept that you will need to adjust your objectives as the situation changes. If conditions change significantly, you may also need to redefine your goals.

To manage your time efficiently, you also need to make time-wise decisions about your work. The speed and accuracy with which you are able to make decisions will help you get more done in less time.

  • Gather all the facts and figures you need to make an informed decision.
  • Consider all of the possible consequences of each available option.
  • Talk the decision over with your supervisor or a trusted co-worker.
  • Choose the best available option and make your decision.

Remember that you can revise your decision if things don’t work out as anticipated. 

Capitalize on your prime time. What is prime time?

Your prime time is the time of day when you are at your best and do your best work - you’re the most alert and energetic. For some people it’s the morning when they’re rested and before the day starts to get crazy. For others it’s later in the day when they’ve had a chance to wake up and warm up, or when routine daily activities tend to settle down.

Your prime time may also be the time of day when there are the fewest interruptions and you can really concentrate.

Putting things off is a trap we all occasionally fall into. But this just ends up adding more stress to your day. How can you avoid procrastination? Break a job up into smaller pieces. This can make the task seem less overwhelming. You don’t have to do the whole job at once; you only need to handle it a piece at a time. Sometimes we spin our wheels and become immobilized when faced with a large or complicated project or task. We just need to start somewhere, complete a part of it, and then move on to the next step.

You can begin with the easiest part of the job; this can help get you started. Accomplishment leads to a feeling of fulfillment, and this gives you the energy and encouragement to keep going.

Reward yourself! If possible, switch to a task you enjoy for a little while. Reward plays a subtle but powerful role in motivating you to keep at it and get the job done.

Manage interruptions. Interruptions can seriously cut into your time and leave you distracted and frustrated.  

Whether it’s unexpected visitors or phone calls, set limits for the conversation from the outset. Ask people pleasantly what they want and how much time they’ll need. Try to keep the conversation to the matter at hand. Don’t get involved in small talk.

If possible, answer questions or comply with requests immediately. That way you won’t have to spend time later getting back to the person.

Conclude the conversation firmly. You can indicate the conversation is over by saying something like, "Good, I’m glad we’ve got that settled. Now we can get back to work!"

Controlling your phone and e-mail can also lead to better time management.

If possible, let voice mail pick up incoming calls. Check periodically to make sure you’re not missing something important. You can return urgent calls right away. Other calls can wait until you have a break in your schedule. 

When you do answer the phone and you’re in the middle of something, lead the other person politely to the point of the call. When you feel the matter is concluded and the person keeps talking, say that you’re sorry but you’re busy and have to go.

When you’re making calls, pick a time the person you’re calling is most likely to be in and available so that you won’t have to waste time calling again later. Write down the key points you want to discuss beforehand so that you can get right to the point. If the person you need to speak to isn’t available, leave a message indicating the best time to reach you. Also, use voice mail for its intended purpose; leave a message telling the person what you need! This will save time when that person returns your call with the information you need, instead of resulting in yet another phone call if this person cannot answer your question without getting further information.

E-mail and instant messaging can be efficient ways to communicate since you don’t have to be there to receive the message and incoming messages don’t disturb you when you are there. Again, if the message contains information about what is being requested, time is saved.

Except for the most dire emergencies, most unexpected problems can wait a while. Resist the urge to drop everything and run to put out a fire. Finish what you’re doing first, give yourself time to think about an appropriate response, and then take the action necessary to handle the situation. 

Spend only as much time as necessary on emergencies. Once the situation is under control, move on. Return to your schedule and pick up where you left off.

However, take some time to think about why the emergency occurred and if there is anything you can do to make sure such things don’t happen again. Anticipating problems, and then preventing them, is a key time management skill.

Many of us spend a lot of time commuting every day. Instead of wasting all that time, use it! For example, use it to plan the upcoming day or the next day and decide what you need to accomplish. Or use the time constructively to review work issues, make decisions, or solve problems.

Using even some of these tips can help you become more efficient, effective and successful, whether in your personal or professional life. Here’s to starting the New Year off right!!

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