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Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Watching The Clock? Top Time Management Tips

Written by Miles Cooper

Do you ever feel that there aren’t enough hours in the day? Miles Cooper presents her guide to time management...

Time management is the ability to recognise and solve personal time management problems. With good time management skills you are in control of your time and your life, of your stress and energy levels.

You make progress at work. You are able to maintain balance between your work, personal, and family lives. You have enough flexibility to respond to surprises or new opportunities.

All time management skills can be learnt. More than likely you will see much improvement from simply becoming aware of the essence and causes of common personal time management problems.

If you already know how you should be managing your time, but you still don't do it, don't give up. What you may be overlooking is the psychological side of your time management skills - psychological obstacles hidden behind your personality. Depending on your personal situation, such obstacles may be the primary reason why you procrastinate, have difficulties saying no, delegating, or making time management decisions. The psychological component of your time management skills can also be dealt with. The time management skills information below will point at a relevant solution for your situation.

Don't Procrastinate!

Have you ever seen your most important tasks being put off until later and then later and later, while you are getting busy with many not so important activities? Did you hope that you would have more time and be in a better frame of mind in some point in the future to start the task and do it properly?

Does an approaching deadline mean a crisis for you? Do you keep hesitating every time you make a decision?

If you often see yourself in such low productivity situations, then there is a big chance that your life is under the control of the habit of procrastination. And those situations are only the most explicit symptoms.

A basic definition of procrastination is putting off the things that you should be doing now. This happens to most people at some time or another. Yet, what makes a big difference for your success is your ability to recognise procrastination reasons and expressions in their different forms, and to promptly take them under control, before this bad habit steals your opportunities, damages your career and pride, or destroys your relationships.

What are the typical reasons why people procrastinate? It can be as simple as waiting for the right mood or waiting for the right time. If look at the way you organise your work you may notice other reasons for procrastination like:
- Lack of clear goals
- Underestimating the difficulty of the tasks
- Underestimating the time required to complete the tasks
- Unclear standards for the task outcomes
- Feeling that the tasks are imposed on you from outside
- Too ambiguous tasks

And there are also many connections with:
- Underdeveloped decision making skills
- Fear of failure or fear of success
- Perfectionism

Decision Making Techniques

We use our decision making skills to solve problems by selecting one course of action from several possible alternatives. Decision making skills are also a key component of time management skills.

Almost any decision involves some conflicts or dissatisfaction. The difficult part is to pick one solution where the positive outcome can outweigh possible losses. But, avoiding decisions often seems easier. Yet, making your own decisions and accepting the consequences is the only way to stay in control of your time, your success, and your life.

A significant part of developing decision making skills is knowing and practicing good decision making techniques. One of the most practical decision making techniques can be summarised in these simple steps:
1. Identify the purpose of your decision. What, precisely, is the problem to be solved? Why does it need to be solved?
2. Gather information. What factors does the problem involve?
3. Identify the principles to judge the alternatives. What standards and judgement criteria should the solution meet?
4. Brainstorm and list different possible choices. Generate ideas for possible solutions.
5. Evaluate each choice in terms of its consequences. Use your standards and judgement criteria to determine the cons and pros of each alternative.
6. Determine the best alternative. This is much easier after you go through the above preparation steps.
7. Put the decision into action. Transform your decision into a specific plan of action. Execute your plan.
8. Evaluate the outcome of your decision and action steps. What lessons can be learnt? This is an important step for further development of your decision making skills and judgement.
In everyday life we often have to make decisions fast, without enough time to systematically go through the above action and thinking steps. In such situations the most effective decision making strategy is to keep an eye on your goals and then let your intuition suggest you the right choice. {mospagebreak}

Effective Prioritising

Prioritising skills are your ability to see what tasks are more important at each moment and give those tasks more of your attention, energy, and time. You focus on what is important at the expense of lower value activities.

One key reason why prioritising works, and works well, is the 80/20 Rule. The 80/20 Rule states that 80 percent of our typical activities contribute less than 20 percent to the value of our work. So, if you do only the most important 20 percent of your tasks you still get most of the value. Then, if you focus most of your efforts on those top value activities, you achieve much more than before, or you will have more time to spend with your family.

Prioritising is about making choices of what to do and what not to do. To prioritise effectively you need to be able to recognise what is important, as well as to see the difference between urgent and important. The important, or high priority, tasks are the tasks that help us achieve our long-term goals or can have other meaningful and significant long-term consequences.

At first glance, many of the tasks we face during a day seem equally urgent and important. Yet, if you take a closer look, you will see that many of the urgent activities we are involved in are not really that important in the long run. At the same time, things that are most important for us (like improving ourselves and our skills, getting a better education, spending time with family), are often not urgent.

Prioritising principles can be applied to both planned and unplanned activities. For planned activities, like the ones included in your ‘to do’ list, you can mark each of your tasks with ‘A’, ‘B’, or ‘C’, depending on its importance. The ‘B’ tasks should be done only after you are finished with all the most important ‘A’ tasks, the ones that just must be done. If you have time after you are finished with the ‘B’ tasks, you can move on to the ‘C’ ones.

When you set priorities in ‘to do’ lists, also keep asking yourself if any of your tasks can be eliminated or delegated. When you prioritise unplanned activities, you often need to make quick decisions, and you don't have time to analyse the situation in full. It is best just to keep in mind your goals and rely on your instincts. Your effectiveness in such situations depends very much on the clarity of your goals.

Planning

Planning is one of the most important project management and time management techniques. Planning is preparing a sequence of action steps to achieve a specific goal. If you do it effectively, you can reduce much of the necessary time and effort of achieving the goal.

A plan is like a map - when following a plan, you can always see how much you have progressed towards your project goal and how far you are from your destination. Knowing where you are is essential for making good decisions on where to go or what to do next.

Planning is also crucial for meeting your needs during each action step with your time, money, or other resources. With careful planning you can see if you are likely to face a problem at some stage. It is much easier to adjust your plan to avoid or smoothen a coming crisis than to deal with the crisis when it comes at you unexpectedly.

Writing An Action Plan

When writing an action plan to achieve a particular goal or outcome, you could do worse than follow these guidelines:
- Clarify your goal. Can you get a visual picture of the expected outcome? How can you see if you have reached your destination? What makes your goal measurable? What constraints do you have? (e.g. limits on time, money, or other resources).
- Write a list of actions. Write down all the actions you may need to take to achieve your goal. At this step, focus on generating and writing as many different options and ideas as possible. Take a sheet of paper and write more and more ideas as they come to your mind.
- Analyse, prioritise, and prune. Look at your list of actions. What are the absolutely necessary and effective steps to achieving your goal? Mark them somehow. After that, what action items can be dropped from the plan without significant consequences for the outcome. Cross them out.
- Organise your list into a plan. Decide on the order of your action steps. Start by looking at your marked key actions. For each action, what other steps should be completed before that action? Rearrange your actions and ideas into a sequence of ordered action steps. Finally, look at your plan once again. Are there any ways to simplify it even more?
- Monitor the execution of your plan and review the plan regularly. How much have you progressed towards your goal by now? What new information you have got? Use this information to further adjust and optimise your plan.

Delegating

Delegation skill is the ability to effectively assign task responsibility and authority to others. Or, in other words, delegation skill is your ability to get things done by using work and time of other people.

Effective delegation is a critical survival skill for managers and supervisors, and this is what many delegation training resources are about. Yet, what is less often emphasised is that understanding delegation skill and knowing how to use it right is an important personal time management skill, irrespective of whether you have subordinates or bosses, or if it is at work or at home.

The delegation process normally starts from asking yourself if you are the right person to do the task, and then asking who is the right person for the task? A common trap here is adopting the old maxim ‘if you want anything done right, you have to do it yourself". Such thinking is a sure way to stay overloaded with the same kind of work.

The first important component of the delegation skill is choosing the right person to delegate the task to. If you have subordinates, can any of them do the task at a lower cost than you? If you are concerned that they may not perform the task as well as you, ask yourself if they could do it at least 80 percent as well as you would - or could you train them to do so. If the task requires making decisions that you are not authorised to make, it may be appropriate to delegate it to your boss.

Outside the standard boss-subordinate situation, a key component of the delegation skill is the ability to find a win-win deal, and still delegate the task to someone. A common win-win situation is when delegating the task saves your time and gives a valuable learning experience, skill training, or interesting opportunity for the delegatee.

One more situation is task or service exchange, when someone does a task for you in exchange for you doing another task for her/him. Finally, it may be more effective just to buy some particular service from outside, or delegate the task to technologies, for example, to some special software.

For your delegation skill to work, make sure that you will be able to monitor the progress of task execution and know if the task is actually completed. When you delegate, normally you are still responsible for that the task is completed. Avoid delegation when you are unable to monitor the completion status. {mospagebreak}

Time Logs

A few minutes of writing and analysing your time and activity logs will eliminate many hours of wasted time. Unless this has already happened to you before, your time log is more than likely to surprise you. You will see how much time is wasted in many unexpected ways. Often it appears that the busier you feel the more time is wasted.

Another important discovery is how much time things really take. One of the most common problems in personal time management is underestimating the time needed for each specific activity - this is one of the reasons why planning and scheduling do not seem work well for some people. If you always expect much more than you can fit in your time, then writing plans and ‘to do’ lists just gets you more stressed.

Get a realistic picture of your time and you will feel much more in control. In fact, you will move much faster with less stress. You don't need to keep writing a time log permanently. It is sufficient to do it for 3-7 days, and repeat this procedure time after time. Yet, when you write a time log, make sure you don't miss out any activities, not matter how minor. So as not to waste much time on writing time tracking records, take a little preparation step. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into columns named: Time, Activities, Scheduled, Interrupted, Urgent, People (involved).

Then continue with activities you would normally do that day. On the way, update your time log. Do it either every time you switch to a new activity or at short time intervals, like 10-20 minutes. Add entries to your ‘Time’ and ‘Activities’ columns, and try to put marks like ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in the ‘Scheduled’, ‘Interrupted’, and ‘Urgent’ columns. Where relevant, make short notes on what people you spend time with too.

When you have your time log written, you can move to the most important part, the analysis. Review your records and try to get answers to the following questions:
- What percentage of your time is spent in each of the different areas of your life?
- How is it divided between Work, Business, Family, Recreational, Spiritual, Health?
- What percentage of your activities are important?
- What percentage are urgent?
- What people do you spend more time with?
- What percentage of your activities go as planned?
- What are the main interruptions?

Then think of possible adjustments and action steps:
- Are there any activities you can cut back on?
-  Is there anything you can delegate or simplify?
- Can you save time by grouping related tasks, like shopping?
When you discover how you really spend your time, and do it yourself from your own time log, you will feel much more comfortable when changing your time management attitudes and habits.

‘To Do’ Lists

A written ‘to do’ list is a simple technique that can increase your productivity by 20 percent or more, if you don't use it already. It also has extra benefits of clearing your mind and saving you energy and stress.

Try to spend 5-10 minutes each day on planning your activities with a daily ‘to do’ list. Start your day with it. Even better, every evening write a plan for the next day, listing your daily things to do. It is important that you actually write down your tasks. Some people are more comfortable doing it on paper, while others prefer using a computer. Try and see what works better for you.

After you've listed all your tasks, review your ‘to do’ list and decide on the priority of each task. Give higher priority to the tasks that get you closer to your goals.

A proven simple technique is an ABC rating of your priorities. Mark the tasks on your ‘to do’ list with ‘As’ if they are critical for your goals and simply must be done that day (or else you face serious consequences). ‘Bs’ are less urgent but still important tasks that you should start right after you are done with ‘As’. ‘Cs’ are ‘nice to do’ things that you could do if you had any time left after ‘As’ and ‘Cs’. Those tasks can be safely moved to another day.

One important tip to keep in mind is that, if, during a day some new unplanned task comes up, don't do anything until you put that new task on your list and rate it by priority. See it written among the other tasks and put it in perspective. The more you let go of the urge to skip that simple step, the more productive and satisfied you become.

When making a ‘to do’ list, break down your complex tasks into smaller manageable pieces, and focus on one at a time. Finally, after completion of a task take a moment to look at the result and feel the satisfaction of the progress.

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