The degree to which you feel in control of your time and life significantly affects your wellbeing. The better you manage the critical events of your life, the better you will feel and the more energy you will have to get things done.
The good news is that you can make a huge difference by using a few simple self-management techniques, introducing structure, and exercising self-discipline in your working practices. Together, these can help you be more productive and efficient and less likely to feel stressed. In this article, I consider practical ways to help you take back control and learn to manage your time like a pro.
How do you currently manage your time? Do you keep a calendar or some other schedule? If so, it can be helpful to book time with yourself for ‘personal development or ‘updates’ or whatever you would like to call it. A tip given to me years ago is to mark time in my diary entitled ‘TFM’, meaning ‘Time For Me’. I was sceptical but tried it. Sometimes I’d make this 30 minutes, other times longer depending on what I knew I wanted to do with the time. I also use ‘TFM’ to give me a chance to read, reflect and plan.
Try using a virtual personal assistant like Cortana, which is available if you subscribe to Microsoft 365. Cortana enables you to prepare for an upcoming meeting by intelligently surfacing related files and tasks to find what you need, connect with the right person, or join your next meeting. You can get a daily briefing that is personalised and actionable via Outlook with important information on upcoming meetings and outstanding tasks, so you’re prepared for the day ahead. There is also the option for a weekly view with suggestions for booking time to allow you to focus on tasks, relax and catch up on messages.
Start with small steps when introducing new habits. It is tempting to try to do them all at once, but this rarely succeeds, and then disappointment sets in, and you might give up because you feel that you’ve failed. What if you set aside 20 minutes once or twice a week to work on a particular task. For example, look at one interesting TED talk or spend time reading a chapter of a book that you find inspiring. Try it for a couple of weeks and monitor how you feel after accomplishing this investment in yourself. How can you bring that same feeling to other tasks? What other micro-changes can you make that will improve your focus?
Don’t wait for others to set your priorities and deadlines. Be proactive, not passive. Be clear and specific about what you are working on and your capacity to take on other tasks. Ask yourself – what needs to be done right away? Building new habits take time, effort and the willingness to say ‘no’ to the things that distract you. It can be hard work, mainly when others take up your time with their issues and requests. Think about how your past behaviour may have influenced the way others deal with you. Do you always say yes? Do people expect that you will suck up the extra workload without pushing back? Are you unintentionally training people to think that it is okay to act in this way?
Don’t feel obliged to do everything yourself. It is a fast road to burn-out. People who are good at managing their time, energy and resources know how to delegate. Doing more doesn’t mean doing better. Fatigue can lead to careless mistakes because you’re trying to do too much at once. Recognise which tasks can be passed on to others to focus on the essential things to add value. It isn’t about dumping work. Be considerate and remember that others might find doing all or part of a task exciting and rewarding.
Being self-aware is the first step to gaining control of your time. Think about the distractions and interruptions that derail your plans. Which ones can you anticipate and deal with ahead of time? How about spending the first hour of your working day reviewing progress on a critical task rather than reading your email? Acting on the things you can control will boost your confidence and help you focus on what you want to do throughout the day.
Use your brain for thinking, not remembering. There is an avalanche of information hitting us every day. Attempting to retain it all through memory alone is exhausting. Consider what is useful and choose tools that are most appropriate to your way of working. Organise your thoughts and ideas using apps, reminders, notebooks, whiteboards, journals and phones. Find a simple system that works for you. Bookmark useful websites so that you don’t waste time searching.
Sometimes procrastination or rumination can steal your time. If you have decided on something, act upon it, then review the outcome to see what worked well and what might be improved next time. This is a practical yet compassionate way of moving forward with issues bothering you for a while. Help yourself by breaking down big tasks into manageable chunks, enabling you to see a way forward. Always seek the advice and support of others when planning a complex task. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. Quite the reverse. It demonstrates the ability to anticipate problems and shows good planning skills.
Categorise your tasks by importance, not the order you received them. Think of each one. Now mark where you are on each one using a scale of 1-10 where 1 is not important at all, to 10, which is vitally important to you. Anything below 5 is doubtful to happen as it is not important enough. Start with the one that stands out as being the most important for you. Work on that one first. This is a commitment you are making to yourself, and you are more likely to keep it when you have the context of its importance in mind.
Remember that time management is really life management. What could be more worthwhile than focusing on getting the best from your life. What is the first easy thing you could do? What resources do you need to get back on track and stay there? Who might partner with you for mutual help and support? Make a fresh start and take back control today.
For further tips, check out my latest video – How to get things done and still have a life
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