Over the past six years, I've picked up a lot of time management tips. Some of them have been helpful and, frankly, some have been useless. Here, I've compiled the ten that have served me best. And yes, I'm sure you'll have heard some of them before ... but are you actually doing them?
It doesn't matter whether you're self-employed, employed or a student: over the past six years, I've been an undergraduate student, a full-time employee, a part-time postgraduate student, and a freelancer - and these tips work for all those situations!
- Three Important Things
This is the big rocks first technique of scheduling your three most important tasks into your day and letting everything else flow around them.
In case you've not come across the rocks analogy before, it goes like this:
You're given a jar, three large rocks, a handful of pebbles and some sand. If you pour the sand and pebbles into the jar first, there won't be room to force the rocks into it - but if you put the rocks in first, the pebbles can flow around the rocks, then the sand can be poured in to fill the gaps.
- Always Carry a Notepad
How often have you been stuck waiting for a train or standing in line at the bank with absolutely nothing to do? Keep a notepad in your pocket or purse and you'll always be able to do some productive work: whether it's an outline for your next project, a list of ideas for new products, or a few notes for an article or short story.
If you have a PDA or phone that you can type on, try using that instead of a notepad - you can transfer your notes to your computer.
- Make Checklists
Do you ever find yourself procrastinating on big projects - or spinning your wheels without much idea of what needs to be done next? For almost any project, a checklist is a good way to keep on track. You might keep checklists like:
- Books and articles to read for your next essay
- Steps to take whenever you take on a new client
- Office procedures, such as closing up at night
Checklists are particularly important for tasks which you do on a regular basis: they'll save you the time of trying to figure out exactly what it is you need to in order to set up a new website or launch a new product. Breaking down a big project into individual tasks is also a great way to avoid procrastination.
- Work in Short Bursts
Many people make the mistake of trying to work for long hours at a stretch. Inevitably, they run out of energy quickly - or end up working inefficiently. It's much easier to concentrate when you're working for a short time period, which is why students are normally advised to study for 20-45 minute bursts, taking frequent breaks.
If you're struggling to concentrate on work, set a timer for twenty minutes, and see how much you can get done in that time. Twenty minutes of concentrated work can be more productive than two hours of fiddling around.
- Do One Thing
Our world is becoming faster and busier than ever. It's all too common for us to be replying to emails, keeping up with friends on Twitter, and holding a conversation with colleagues - while trying to get that big company report finished. No wonder we end up working late.
Experts now believe that it's better for us to concentrate on one task at a time, rather than multi-tasking: every time we switch between different tasks, we have to refocus - and we're also likely to get distracted.
- Pay Yourself First
If you've done any reading on financial management, you might have come across the idea of paying yourself first - setting aside money towards your long-term goals each time you get your paycheck. You can apply a similar principle to your time, either on a daily or weekly basis.
Pay yourself first by spending an hour before work each morning on your goals - not on household chores. (If the chores really need to be done, you'll get them done in the evening.)
- Get Enough Sleep
Many of us try to cram more into our day by cutting out sleeping time: but this can be hugely counter-productive. You'll never be able to focus well when you're yawning over your keyboard and if you push yourself too hard for too long, you may end up getting ill.
Some people can function well with under eight hours sleep, but most of us need to be getting at least seven hours.
- Track Your Time
Where does all the time go? I'm sure that's a question most of us have asked ourselves recently. Of course, it's not hard to find out: simply spend a week keeping track of your time, writing down what you do each hour.
Don't make the excuses that you don't have time to do this - it'll only take a few extra minutes during the day (simply make a note of the time you start and end each task) - and it can reveal some uncomfortable truths about where you're spending the bulk of your time.
- Schedule Time for Emails
When you sit down at your computer in the morning, what's the first thing you do? For many of us, it's checking emails. It's easy to get sucked into replying to just one thing ... only to find that it's lunch-time and you've not really accomplished anything.
If you find yourself checking emails whenever you're stuck or procrastinating, then set yourself rigid times to read and reply. You could try 11am and 4pm - it's unlikely that anyone really needs a reply from you at 8am.
- Delegate Whenever Possible
Finally, the best way that I've found to free up my time is to delegate. The more tasks you can pass on to other people, the easier it'll be to cope with your own workload. This might mean training a subordinate to take over some of your tasks at work, it might mean hiring a virtual assistant for your home business, or it could just be getting your spouse or teens to cook dinner once in a while.
Many of us find delegating stressful, so here are some tips on how to do it right.
Which of the above ten tips work for you? Have you got a favorite time-management tip that's not on this list? Let us know in the comments...