Strategies for Effective Time Management
A reader paid me a very lovely compliment recently. What intrigued me was the question that accompanied the remark (I’m paraphrasing): How do you write such high quality articles on so many blogs with all that you have going on in your life?
My time management system is based upon four overriding principles:
- Remain Flexible
- Resist the Urge to Procrastinate
- Work Quickly and Efficiently
You cannot manage your time effectively without the proper tools. All of the successful people I know have a personalized system that they have developed and honed over time through a process of trial and error, sticking with the techniques that are most effective for them, abandoning those that are inefficient.
I used to employ traditional, numbered “to do” lists — professional and personal. However, in recent months I have been using mind maps and find them extremely handy for keeping track of tasks I must complete, as well as conceptualizing, organizing, and drafting documents and articles. I can’t believe that I ever actually outlined. Mind maps are fluid and allow you to organize your ideas in a nonlinear fashion that fosters and inspires creativity.
I usually maintain one mind map for each week’s schedule, along with an individual mind map associated with every specific project I am working on, using the most adaptable of many available formats.
My computers have calendaring systems, of course, as does my Blackberry, but I am old fashioned — and cautious. If I do not have computer access, I want to be able to reference my organizational tools. So I keep a physical calendar with me in order to visualize the week and month ahead by referencing the full-month and two-page per week views. I use a 5.5″ by 8″ refillable style with pockets in the front and back where I keep mind maps that I can pull out to add notes. It fits perfectly into my purse for those times when I do not have my briefcase with me.
Each morning, I review my weekly mind map and calendar to make sure that I do not miss a deadline, meeting, conference call or any other item(s) that need(s) my attention. I usually do that first thing while taking my vitamins and checking e-mail. With that review in mind, I refine my plans for the day while I am in the shower and dressing. By the time I’m backing the car out of the garage, I am a woman on a mission.
Each day, there are certain projects that I must work on or complete, meetings to attend, phone calls to return, e-mails to read and respond to, etc. My organizational system is simple and workable. All tasks are designated as belonging in one of four categories:
- Today — The task or project must be completed that day.
- Looming — A due date is looming, so all items in this category are presented in order of the approaching associated deadlines.
- Work Toward — Tasks in this category must be completed within a nonspecific time frame. This is where long-range projects, such as lengthy writing assignments that either won’t be completed for a significant period of time or for which no firm date for completion has been established are listed.
- Whenever — As you can imagine, there are few items in this category!
Priorities shift, frequently due to factors beyond one’s control. So when I establish my “game plan” for each day, I always keep one word in mind: Tentative.
I learned years ago to view virtually every plan as “tentative” until such time as the event in question actually takes place, approval for a project or event is received, etc. In business, there is frequently no follow-through on what seemed like a great idea, a suggested process or policy is never implemented, the planning for a proposed event never completed so it does not take place, etc. That’s just how things work out, so it is imperative that I always remain open to a different approach, a new plan, a change of schedule.
In what color do I make most of my calendar entries? Pencil. I am frequently asked to “hold the date” pending approval, travel arrangements, etc. which means that my calendar has a lot of erasure marks as things shift from one date to another. If I were going to write everything in ink and take a dogmatic approach to scheduling work and events, I would have a calendar full of white-out, never accomplish anything — and be very unpopular.
Resist the Urge to Procrastinate
I am a natural procrastinator. If the deadline is 5:00 p.m. and I estimate that I can complete the assignment in three hours, my innate tendency is to start work at 1:30 p.m., giving myself about 30 minutes leeway.
Not a successful strategy.
Deadlines get moved up when other persons’ priorities change, crucial information is not received timely . . . all sorts of unforeseen obstacles can impact the tentative schedule I establish for completing tasks.
When I first graduated from law school, I learned to calendar real deadlines, but also artificial ones, and adopt a policy of completing work in conformity with the earlier date. That approach serves me well.
For instance, when I was in private practice litigating full time, my secretary never put real deadlines for filing documents with the court on my calendar. She always entered the deadline on my calendar at least one full business day prior to the actual “drop dead” date and time, preferably two. We sometimes experienced momentary panic when something when wrong. But then we’d stop and remind ourselves that the date we were working toward wasn’t the true deadline. We would double-check the calendar, recalculate the deadline and realize that, in reality, we had one more day to, for example, get overdue information or documents from the client that were critical to completion of a brief, pleading or motion.
Waiting until the last moment is never a good approach. It is akin to playing Russian roulette. Sooner or later, the bullet is going to be in the chamber when you pull the trigger and your days of leading a charmed life will come to a very messy end. A graphic, but apt, analogy.
Work Quickly and Efficiently
I am a firm believer in not “reinvesting the wheel” or pouring more energy into a project than is necessary in order to complete it efficiently. So I always seek effective shortcuts such as generating documents from basic templates or utilizing forms to communicate mundane but necessary information.
One of the smartest things my mother ever did was to insist that my sister and learn to type. I have been unable to convince my kids to learn to type with their hands properly positioned. They both type quickly, but I can beat them. Being able to type extremely fast and accurately constitutes a huge step toward working efficiently.
I avoid and eliminate keystrokes whenever I can. Setting up e-mail software with contact lists, folders, rules for handling incoming mail, and signatures saves an enormous amount of time, as can configuring your browser and utilizing add-ons. I use Bloglines (I did not like the Beta version) to keep up with my daily reading and have been experimenting with Netvibes, but I do not think I am going to utilize it fully. Although you can import your e-mail account on the front page using a widget to see if you have any new messages, in order to actually read or respond, you have to open another browser tab and log into your webmail account. So that pretty much defeats the purpose, in my estimation, of using the service. But there are a lot of other great features and many bloggers are posting about how delighted they are with them.
I strive to make the most of every minute of every day — I hate to sleep because time spent sleeping is, in my opinion, time wasted.
What techniques do you employ to manage time wisely and efficiently? Leave a comment, including links as appropriate, with your best tips and suggestions!