I’m talking about...
- work days that stretched into the late work nights, as I struggled to meet deadlines
- panic over how I would finish a project I had left until the very last moment
- battling against endless procrastination
- not knowing how to get started on a big project that seemed insurmountable
- missing out on social occasions because I hadn’t got my work done in time
- spending too long on a task I wanted to do perfectly, then not having enough time to finish other important jobs
If you’re in your 30s or older, you might have similar memories. Or, if you’re in your 20s, perhaps you’re wasting as much time now as I once did. Well, you’re in luck.
I remember all too well what it’s like to manage time badly. But now, after years of experience, I also know how to manage time well.
So, I’m passing on my knowledge. Here are the 9 time management hacks that could’ve saved me from all those stressful work days.
If you’re still a youngster, maybe they can give you a leg-up. If you’re an old hand, I hope you’ll enjoy this trip down memory lane. Let’s go.
1. Plan for only 4-5 hours of actual work per dayWe’d all like to go at 100mph from 9am until 5pm. But the truth is, putting that kind of pressure on yourself is a real productivity killer.
So stop. Plan to work solidly for 4 to 5 hours per day instead – a reasonable amount, given necessary distractions like phone calls, emails and breaks.
This way, you’ll have a realistic target you can hit every day. And you won’t feel bad for not pulling up trees every day.
2. If it’s just not happening, change things upIt’s hard to come to terms with. But some days, you just can’t seem to get anything done.
In my 20s, I couldn’t accept this. If I couldn’t get into the zone, I would stay at my desk, staring at the screen, my papers, or a blank sheet. Hours went by on these days, and I would achieve virtually nothing.
The boredom and frustration would wear me out. Which meant I was less productive the next day, too!
Eventually, I learned to recognise these non-productive days and to do one of two things:
- Switch to another kind of task
- Take a break and come back with a clear head
After a rest, or after you’ve got into a rhythm with the other task, you can go back to what you were doing originally. And it will suddenly seem much easier.
Of course, if it’s a task you need to get done quickly, then you need another approach. Such as...
3. Break down hard tasks into smaller, easier onesNothing kills motivation like the prospect of a massive project. Especially if you don’t know to get started on it.
But the solution is simple. You just need to break the project down into its constituent tasks.
These constituent tasks will be smaller and easier. So, you can get them done fast, and work yourself into a productive rhythm. Pretty soon you’ll be feeling good about yourself, and ready to achieve everything you need to.
4. Prioritise everythingBreaking big jobs into smaller tasks is a good start. Prioritising them makes sure you get the most important things done first.
This is especially useful if, like many people, you work better under a little bit of pressure.
Personally speaking, I find it hard to get motivated for a task that isn’t due until next week. But when something is due by close of business? Then it’s easy to be focused!
Organise your tasks into urgent and non-urgent categories – or whatever works for you – and do the most important ones first. You’ll feel motivated and in control of your time.
5. Make daily to-do listsI can’t guarantee it will have the same effect on you, but this little psychological hack works on me every time.
I used to write them in my notebook. Nowadays I will use an app like OneNote, where I can simply click to check off tasks I’ve completed.
There’s nothing better than having a completed to-do list at the end of the day. It provides validation that you’ve done a good day’s work. And that, in turn, helps you to really relax and enjoy your time off.
Write a to-do list today!
6. Set deadlines and stick to themMany tasks at work have a strict deadline, set by your boss or client. But some don’t – like personal or business development tasks you initiated yourself, for example.
It's easy to put a task like this on your to-do list, then ignore it. After all, you don’t really need to do it today.
Well, if you don’t really need to do it, why is it on your list? Because you do need to do it!
You need to stop putting off tasks like this. And the best way is to set a deadline and stick to it.
Without a deadline, a task will probably never get done. Set deadlines for everything you want to achieve – and achieve them.
7. Set meeting times as early in the day as possibleThis trick can save you many lost hours, simply because the time leading up to a meeting is so often wasted.
Why is it wasted? Because you’re so busy thinking about the meeting, it pulls your focus away from your work.
If you hold your meetings first thing, at the start of the day, you can get on with your work with a clear head afterwards.
Hold meetings at 9am, or earlier, and you’ll find you get more done the rest of the day.
8. Group meetings togetherThe same applies when you have several meetings in the same day.
A meeting is an interruption of your work. Every time you stop work for a meeting, you change your headspace. And you cannot simply dive straight back into work afterwards – it takes time to get back into your rhythm.
If you group meetings together in one block, you will have one longer block of focused work time.
Always group meetings together!
9. Use reminder tools to plan your timeThis last hack brings everything together in one handy place.
Now you’ve read this article, you’ve got a lot of new techniques to try out. And they require a fair bit of organisation. So let your computer and your smartphone help you put them into action.
Apps like OneNote or Google Calendar are free, they make it easy to manage your time, and they even give you reminders when you need to do something or be somewhere.
If only I’d known all this in my 20s...I could have wasted less time and enjoyed a lot more leisure time if I’d known all these time management tricks at the start of my career.
If any of them are new to you, give them a try. It might just change your working life for the better!
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P.S. In case you're not sure about how good your own time management abilities are, we have a free, personalised test that you can take and finish in about 5 minutes, which can be found here.