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Trainer’s tip: Time management


Do you ever get snowed under with work? Does your to-do list need a makeover? Mark Walsh gives us his 15 top tips to successful time management.

It seems like no-one has enough time these days, in fact I don't know one person who has less to do than five years ago. Of course, unless you're Dr Who we all have the same numbers of hours in a day, so really time management is about managing energy, attention and commitments. It is possible to feel overwhelmed by the quantity of information out there that might mean something important and multiple incoming requests. In many ways dealing with this is the essential leadership and stress management skill for the 21st Century.  
Ultimately the benefit of effective 'time management' is that you will not waste the life you have. On a more mundane day-to-day level it means keeping promises, increasing productivity and staying (more or less) sane.

Get efficient

Record and analyse what you spend your time doing for a week. If it's sending emails, for example, would it be worth investing some time in learning to type? However, being efficient (doing things well) doesn't necessarily mean you are effective (doing the right things)...

Get centred

Rushing into things means you will have a high repeat rate as you will do the wrong things (as defined by your medium/long term commitments - job title, values, etc). It's tempting to jump in when the in-tray is full, but the carpenters recommendation to 'measure twice, cut once' will save you time in the long run: to do this you will often need to get centred. While counter-intuitive, training your attention through meditation, mindfulness and slowing down is also highly beneficial to getting more done.

Get systematic

Time management tips are good, but a thorough system is better and regular practice crucial. Many of the people we work with enjoy David Allen's 'Getting Things Done'. What is important is that you find a system that works for you and conduct regular reviews (e.g. 30-minute plan Monday morning, review Friday afternoon with ten-minute system checks twice a day) and be disciplined in sticking to it. It is tempting to be a busy fool, and although I have never worked with anyone who has reduced their effectiveness by planning how best to use their time, there have been many who were panicked into thinking they didn't have enough time to plan.

Get perspective

For what reason are you doing everything you do in a single day? Know how every action contributes to a project or long term goal, matches a job role or values and, ultimately, why you are on the planet.

Get inspired

The higher up the 'ladder' (tip four: Get perspective) you can go the more you will be motivated and the clearer the importance of any individual task will be.

Get (it) out of your head

People are rubbish at remembering things and trying to do so makes them stressed, so if you have things to do - make a list. If there are time-sensitive items on it, set an impeccably reliable reminder system - high or low tech (a Blackberry alarm or a laundry basket in front of your door to remind you to do the washing for example).

Get specific (list)

Make one list and put everything you want to do on it so you trust the list and are not distracted by other matters  not listed (e.g. picking up your kids). Make each item a single actionable thing (e.g. 'call John', not 'sort finances'). Consider ordering your lists by location, importance, energy and urgency. A simple colour system is a quick way to do this. Example locations: 'Computer', 'Computer no net', 'With secretary', 'In town', 'On phone – private', 'On phone – public', 'Braindead', etc.
Stephen Covey's classic distinction between urgent and important is still useful to consider. Move from putting out urgent fires to investing in yourself long-term (e.g. reading this) by managing commitments and setting aside 'sacred' time for the important but not urgent things.

Get empty

Empty your email inbox using the GTD recommended 'do it (less than 2 min), drop it (not important), delegate it or defer it (with time frame and reminder)' method. Differentiate between reference/storage and 'to do' areas and don't use one for the other.

Get focused

Do one thing at a time. There is no such thing as effective multi-tasking – only dividing attention and switching quickly between tasks. The problem with the former is you make mistakes and need to repeat things and with the latter that there is 'pick-up time' with each switch, making it less efficient than 'batching'. Do one thing at a time and chunk together similar tasks in a given period.

Eat that frog

Do the hardest most important thing first to get your day going. From the saying, 'Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and the rest of the day will be easy', and Brian Tracey's classic time management book named after this. Finding ways to overcome procrastination is crucial for effective time management – these can be quite individual – strategies range from breaking tasks down, to self reward, to energising breathing to personal 'get going' mantras. Developing a habit is key.

Slack off

I don't recommend having a daily to-do list as stuff will come up which you will have to move around, and this could make you feel disheartened. It's better to have one overall evolving time management list. If you do opt for a daily list build in 'slack time'/'crumple zones' to account for what comes up. For many professions as much as 70% of their time is needed for slack - measure yours one day to see.

Get human

Time often isn't the problem; it's managing pesky human things like energy and mood. If you're tired and grumpy you may not do the things you need to succeed. Find ways to manage your energy and mood (e.g. sleep, diet, sufficient rest and inspiration). The term 'time management' is misleading in many ways.

Manage your commitments

You can't manage time, you can manage what you have said yes to and within what timeframes. When people are overwhelmed it is because of their commitments and not the clock on the wall. Be impeccable with your commitments to yourself and others and be clear about everything you have committed to.

Say "no"/ ask for help

If you can't say no or ask for help (includes delegation for managers) you will be overwhelmed. These emotional and embodied skills are not straightforward for many people.

Final time management tip - choose

Doing things from a sense of choice will energise you and lead to better relationships more than doing things resentfully because you 'have to.' If a task doesn’t connect to something important to you then don’t do it.
I hope these time management tips have been useful. I would acknowledge Stephen Covey, David Allen (Getting Things Done), Richard Strozzi Heckler and The Newfield Network for their work in this area, and from which many of these tips are drawn.
Mark Walsh leads business training providers Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK. Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time management training and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and help leaders build impact, influence and presence. Clients include international blue chip companies, UNICEF and The Institute of Development Studies. In his spare time Mark dances, meditates, practices aikido and enjoys being exploited by his cat and baby niece.

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