Work Smarter, Not Harder: Time Management for Personal & Professional Productivity

So I took another course on Coursera, this time about time management. Let’s begin.

Productive vs. Unproductive Work

Have you ever had a day when you were absolutely busy, busy, busy from the minute you woke up until the minute you dropped into bed and fell asleep? At the end of this super busy day, do you remember what you did? Or was it one of those days where you know you worked hard all day, you know you’re tired, but you’re not exactly sure where the time went? Well, if you worked all day long, and you’re not 100% certain where your time went, you might have been engaged in unproductive work. 

How can there even be such a thing as unproductive work? Isn’t all work good? Another phrase or term for unproductive work could be busy work. You were doing something—you weren’t lounging around—but you weren’t completing work that was really going to further your goals. You weren’t engaged in work that really needed to be completed right at that moment. Sometimes, this means you were distracted by something that was work-related but not related to the task at hand. Maybe you started looking for some information that you didn’t need until later.

Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize!

Each day, it is important to know what you need to accomplish and what you want to accomplish. What you need to accomplish is the priority. What you want to accomplish can be additional work you perform after your priorities are met.

In short, it’s crucial to make sure you know what you’re supposed to be doing. While this sounds obvious and easy, it can also be challenging in some situations. For instance, if you’re new to your job, you may not yet have a good feel for your responsibilities. Know what you want to accomplish and what you need to accomplish and when. Use this information to create your plan.

Plan Your Time

A plan is only as good as what goes into it. In many ways, your plan is your task list. Rather than just write down things to do, you want to organize your tasks. 

Organize them by: 

– Priority 

– Due date 

– Steps that need to be taken 

– Start date 

– Who it is for 

– How long it will take 

– What you need to complete the work.

This is what will help you to stay on track. Consider creating your own template and testing it. See what best supports your needs and helps you meet your goals. 

If you have not done a certain task or type of work before, you might not know how long it will take. That’s completely normal. The best way to find out is to ask! Review your job responsibilities and ask someone who is in the same role or who has previously done that job. Keep good notes and keep track of how long something takes you so that you have a solid estimate that you can use in the future. 

It also helps to take big tasks and break them into smaller steps.

How do you know what your priorities are? Depending on the type of work you do, your priorities come to you from your leadership or perhaps from a customer you are supporting. It’s important to really understand the priorities you are expected to meet.

Work/Life Balance is a Myth

“We often, maybe even mostly, let our schedule schedule itself, ignoring the fact that time, not money, is our only true leadership asset. “ – Tom Peters. 

So, who’s Tom Peters? Tom Peters is a leadership guru who’s known for the books In Search Of Excellence and Brand You. Years ago, he hit upon the idea that we are each our own individual brand that defines us as we move forward with our careers. He continues to write and he continues to blog on leadership. 

What is the one resource you can never have more of? Time! We cannot create time—there are only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, and 365 days in a year. So, it’s important that you spend your time in the most beneficial way possible. And by beneficial, I really mean beneficial to you. Spend your time in the way that will bring you what you want from your life. 

It is time to talk about work-life balance. In fact, if you’re ready, I will share with you the secret formula to work-life balance. Read this carefully. 

The formula is: Work-life Balance = What YOU Make It!

Where Does YOUR Time Go?

The best way to find out where your time goes is to keep track of it. You can do this at work—in fact you might already be required to do so—and you can do this at home. Time tracking is not just for beginners or people who are new to the workforce. I once worked with a group of senior managers who agreed to do a time tracking exercise—and they were surprised by the results. I remember one man in particular who was just shocked at the amount of time he spent everyday driving to and from meetings at various locations. He realized that there was no way that he could do that much driving and still finish other work. Another manager was shocked at how much time he spent with “drop bys,” people who drop by one’s office or cubicle to “touch base” or simply chat. 

If you really want to know how you spend your time, you need to have some kind of time-tracking method. You don’t have to get fancy software or download an app (although you can). You can do it using a simple table. 

Break down your time to intervals of at least 30 minutes. (If you want to learn even more, consider tracking yourself in 15-minute intervals).

Honesty and discipline are the keys to learning from your time tracking. Remember, you’re doing this for yourself, so don’t lie! If you find yourself spending 30 minutes a day surfing the internet looking at cat videos, write it down. Then you can decide if watching cat videos is the best use of your time, given your goals in life. 

As you keep track, pay attention to anything that could be news to you regarding how much time you spend doing something, like the man who was surprised how much time he spent driving to different locations. This is definitely a situation where knowledge is power. Once you understand where your time goes, you can begin to determine where you can fine-tune your schedule and your approach to work. 

If you really like cat videos, maybe you can give yourself a 15-minute break every four hours to watch some. Set a timer for 15 minutes and when the timer goes off, so do the cat videos. It is critical that you combine your definition of work-life balance with the knowledge of how you spend your time. You have only 24 hours in a day—make sure you use them well.

The Time/Money Tradeoff

Most of us have times when we look at what we want to accomplish and then look at the number of hours available in a day (allowing time for sleeping, bathing, and eating)—and then finally realize that something has got to give. When this happens, it is a good idea to seek help. At work, you might delegate some of your tasks or split up a large task and share it with others. At home, you may be able to offload some of your tasks to other family members. But what if you live on your own? Or what if the rest of your family is similarly overbooked? Consider ways that you can make your life easier. 

For example, can you order your groceries and other essential items online and have them delivered? Can you hire a young neighbor to mow your lawn? Think about what you can remove from your to-do list, and what it is worth to you. If you order the right amount of groceries or essentials, the delivery might be free. A neighborhood teen who is starting a gardening business or a car washing business can save you time for a reasonable amount of money. Of course, you don’t want to put yourself in debt and you probably don’t need a full support staff, but you might benefit from occasional assistance. Be sure to read the item that is included with this week’s readings on personal outsourcing. It will help you decide if/when you should spend some money to save yourself some time.

It’s Still About Priorities

Now that you understand your definition of work/life balance, are paying attention to how you really are spending your time, and are considering whether or not you will spend some money in order to save yourself some time, you need to plan how you’ll spend that time. Last week you created a five-day work plan. Take a look at it. How did it actually play out? You would be wise to consider continuing your use of your work plan. Integrating what you know about what is expected of you with the amount of time that is actually available to complete your work gives you an important advantage. You don’t have all the time in the world! You don’t even have all of the time in the day. Fit your work into your available time in order of priority. (There is that comment about prioritization again!) If you want to meet your work goals and have a life, you need to prioritize. 

A tool to consider using is the Eisenhower Matrix. You may have heard of this as the Urgent-Important matrix. The idea is that your work can be categorized as: 

– Urgent and Important 

– Not Urgent and Important 

– Urgent and Not Important 

– Not Urgent and Not Important.

Strategic reserved time

Time remaining after you have performed your basic job functions.

How Long Will This Take?

Let’s take a look at a few things that can make a big impact on your ability to manage your time and your productivity. Here are a few examples: 

– Correctly estimating how long it will take for you to complete your work 

– Managing communications more effectively 

– Appreciating the value of organization 

– Understanding your most and least productive times of the day.

Let’s start with estimating. We have already covered the importance of having your own plan, having clear priorities, and having a realistic understanding of how you really spend your time. Central to all of this is the ability to make good estimates.

It really pays to keep a log of the work you do and how long it takes to do it. The next time you have to do something similar, you won’t have to guess how long it will take. You might create a log or a table and keep track of the following information: 

– The name of the task 

– A description of the work it requires 

– Your initial time estimate 

– The actual time to complete it 

– The variance or difference between the estimated and the actual time 

– Notes/comments capturing reasons for the variance.

If you do not have an initial estimate, ask a subject matter expert. If you are the subject matter expert, conduct some research. Look up the task online or see if there are any records that exist from the last time someone else in your role performed it. For specialized work, you might be able to find data or compare it to work that is similar in nature and then update your estimate based on the differences. This approach is called analogous estimating

For example, suppose that you routinely create a quarterly customer analysis report. Now you’re asked to create a similar report that covers only a month’s worth of data rather than three months’ worth. The monthly version requires the same number of steps as the quarterly version, so your time estimate for the monthly report assumes that you’ll follow the same steps but include only a month’s worth of data. How would you estimate a task that is somewhat repetitive, such as validating data? Assume that you know it takes about 15 minutes to validate one month of data, so to estimate the time needed to validate three months of data, you would multiply 15 minutes by three, for a total of 45 minutes. 

Specifically, Data Validation Time = (15 minutes) x (number of months of data being validated) = 15 minutes x 3 = 45 minutes. This process is called parametric estimating. Be sure to write this formula down in your estimating table so you can refer back to it. When you improve your estimating, you will improve your productivity. With good estimating, you know how much you can accomplish within a specific day. Now, take this information and integrate it with your knowledge of how you spend your time and how much strategic reserve time you have, and you will know what you can accomplish as well as when.

Communications: When to Answer, When to Wait

There is no doubt about it, communication takes time—but it’s time well spent. It also could be an area where you can improve your effectiveness and productivity. Maybe you’ve had days where you felt like all you did was answer texts, messages, emails, and even voicemails. To be productive, however, it pays to have an approach for handling your communications. 

Most of us want to read every text message or email as soon as it arrives. We hear that beep or buzz and we just have to know what it says. But do you really have to know? While there are times when you are on call for a specific project or issue, or as a parent you want to stay in touch with your children, aside from a few high-priority situations and individuals, some things can and should wait. For instance, you can easily lose an hour or more texting your friends about weekend plans, but those texts can wait until after the workday (and also after dinner with your family). 

If you can, try not to look at your messages every time a new one arrives. Try to set up a specific time—or times—during your workday to handle these communications. And if your work environment doesn’t allow you to do this, at least try to avoid looking up every time a new message arrives. Wait until you have several of them stacked up, review them, and then go back to your work. David Allen, the productivity guru and author of Getting Things Done, recommends these criteria for determining what to do: 

1. If the message you receive is informational and you think you should keep it, then e-file it. If the message you receive does not require any actions from you and you do not need to take any action, delete it. 

2. If the message you receive does require action on your part and you can take care of it in less than two minutes, do it. 

3. If the message does require you to take action and that action will take more than two minutes, flag it for action or place it in a “take action” e-folder. Make sure that you place this item on your task list and if it has a due date, consider placing it on your calendar too. 

4. Have a flag or e-folder for items where you are waiting for someone else to respond to you. 

5. Have clearly marked folders or use a color-coding system that makes sense for you. For example, I have red flags for required follow-up, green flags for client communications that I am saving, and orange flags for student communications that I am saving. I set aside time in my work schedule to handle red-flag items so I don’t overlook them. 

Let’s take a look at a few examples to see how this might work. 

You’re working on your computer and suddenly a message arrives—it’s a request for a specific document. You have a copy of that document on your computer and know exactly where it is stored. What do you do? Since you can fulfill this request in two minutes or less, simply do it! 

Not long afterward, an announcement about a new payroll policy pops up in your email. You don’t need to do anything about it because the announcement is purely informational. In this situation, you should file the message in case you want to refer to it later. 

Next, you receive a request for a special report that’s due in one week and you estimate that it will take about 30 minutes to complete it. Since this task is actionable but can’t be completed in less than two minutes, you place the request in a special “action” folder and then add it to both your work plan and your calendar so you don’t forget it. 

Finally, you open a message from a coworker regarding some information you requested. She says that she will respond to you by Friday. You place the message in your “pending” or “follow-up” folder, and add a note to your calendar for Friday to remind you to look for the information at that time. 

When you organize communications as they come to you, you take control of your time and your effectiveness. For more, be sure to read the item this week on how effective internal communication can boost employee productivity.

Keeping it All Together

If you type, “How much time do workers waste looking for things?” into your favorite search engine, you will probably be surprised by the results. You will find studies reporting that people spend anywhere from nine to twenty-one percent of their time looking for lost information. That is a lot of time—time that you can put toward being productive so you can achieve your work/life balance goals. 

How can you be more efficient when looking for information and physical objects? Start by keeping similar kinds of items together. For instance, keep all your contact information in one easily searchable and accessible location. Also, put your glasses or sunglasses, keys, purse, wallet, etc. in one place as well. Why should you spend your precious time and energy looking for the same things over and over again when they could always be in the same corner of your desk? Similarly, whenever possible plan your work so that you perform similar tasks together. 

At a minimum, set yourself up this way: 

– Keep your desk free of clutter. Recycle or shred unneeded documents. 

– Organize files on your computer in a way that makes it easy for you to find things. Use obvious and intuitive naming conventions. 

– Keep your calendar current and accessible from multiple devices to avoid double-booking yourself and missing deadlines. 

– Make sure that your cell phone and your tablet sync with your work computer. 

– Consider placing documents you need regularly on the cloud. Of course, follow your corporate security requirements. 

– If you use your vehicle or a company vehicle for work, keep it clean and organized—just like your desk. 

When you are organized and have it “all together,” you are adding four to eight hours back to your week, just like that!

Focus is a Competitive Advantage

The ability to focus without distraction is becoming increasingly rare, yet the ability to focus is what will move you toward career success. Three out of four employees cannot act as high-performers because they are dragged down by distractions. This means that they cannot complete their work on time and/or their work is full of errors. Instead of being able to move on, they spend time making corrections. 

Your goal is to be that fourth employee—the one who is focused, works on the correct priorities, completes their work on time (or early), and has virtually no errors. 

If you go to your favorite search engine and ask about the habits of highly successful people, you will read about individuals who come across as superhuman. They are able to accomplish more in a single day than some of us do in an entire week. Why? Because they avoid distractions and they focus on what is most important to their mission. 

For instance, an article from Inc. magazine includes the following key characteristics of highly successful people: 

– They use structured to-do lists 

– They eliminate distractions and stay focused 

– They focus on being productive rather than on simply being busy (Daskal, 2017).

These are just three of the 12 ways presented in the article that allow successful people to accomplish more than the rest of us. 

Similarly, an article in Fast Company magazine introduces nine habits that can help lengthen one’s attention span (Tigar, 2018). These include: 

– Creating and sticking to a strategic schedule 

– Hiding your phone 

– Using productivity apps on your smartphone 

– Determining your most productive time of the day 

Do these tips sound familiar? They should! In this course, you have been considering each of these tips and finding ways to make them part of your regular work life. If you truly want to be more productive and you really want to work smarter, then you need to learn how to focus. This is a learnable skill that can be improved with repeated practice. 

Be sure to complete the readings this week and learn how a diverse set of successful people consistently maintain their focus.

Multitasking is Madness

“To do two things at once though, is to do neither.” – Publilius Syrus. 

Are you a good multitasker? Probably not. You really need to see for yourself what happens when you skip around from task to task. 

Suppose you are in your office working on a project and your manager suddenly comes in and asks you to work on a different task. You might respond by saying, “No, I need to finish this first. You’re causing me to be inefficient!” But in reality, this may not be such a good idea! Instead, you need to prepare for the new task by making an effective transition. Write down some notes about where you’re leaving off on the current task and how to pick it back up later. For example, if you’re in the middle of writing something, leave a note at the top of the document or on your desk to help you remember where you left off and to provide some instructions for getting started again. Needless to say, switching from one task to another takes time as you have to remember the last thing you did and then refocus your thinking on what you need to do next. This lost time is called a switching cost. The more times you start and stop, and then restart a task, the more time you lose. 

Task switching introduces another problem: attention residue. You may think your attention is fluid, easily flowing from one task to the next. But Sophie Leroy, a business professor and researcher at the University of Minnesota, would argue otherwise. And she has the evidence to back it up. In a set of studies conducted in 2009, Leroy discovered that your attention acts more like molasses than like water (Leroy, 2009). Although you can redirect it, a sticky “attention residue” stays behind, fixed to the last task you were working on. In other words, even though you’ve switched to working on a new task, you still have the previous task in mind. This residue is particularly thick when you don’t complete the previous task before moving on to the next one. However, even when you do manage to finish the first task, your attention continues to stay fractured. 

Leroy found that the effects of attention residue on participants’ productivity were unambiguously negative: “People experiencing attention residue after switching tasks are likely to demonstrate poor performance on that next task. The thicker the residue, the worse the performance” (Leroy, 2009). 

When you have a choice, make an effort to work on one thing at a time. When you are writing, just write. When you’re talking on the phone, turn your back to your computer and just talk. The end result is that you will be more productive and feel less fragmented, and you will make fewer mistakes.

Overcoming Common Distractions

It’s not just interruptions and multitasking that derail our productivity, it’s also the distractions that we have surrounded ourselves with. In fact, a 2018 study conducted by Udemy found that 69% of employees felt distracted at work (Udemy, 2018). 

What causes this distraction? 

1. Talkative coworkers – 80% 

2. Office noise – 70% 

3. Meetings – 60% 

4. Social media – 56% 

Most of the survey participants said that while they didn’t need social media to do their jobs, they felt they couldn’t get through the day without it. Facebook was the biggest distraction. 

It is likely that you are facing distractions, too. 

Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, reminds us that distractions start in our own minds. He tried tricks such as using a flip phone that had no apps and using a word processor without an internet connection, but found that he was still distracted, though in a different manner.

I recommend a combination of making both your mind and your workplace as distraction-proof as possible. Plan your time with the knowledge that you will end up talking to coworkers and attending meetings. While you can probably eliminate some of these interactions, you don’t want to eliminate all of them—after all, you do need to build relationships with your colleagues. Perhaps you can create some sort of “do not disturb” sign or notification to use when you’re not available for casual visits. Is your office noisy? 

Consider using noise-canceling headphones or engaging in tasks requiring more concentration when the office is quieter. By paying attention to the rhythm and flow of your office work area, you’ll be able to identify the times of day that are usually the quietest. 

Regarding social media, accept the fact that you will use it. However, set aside specific times of day to do so. 

Your computer is itself a source of distraction. Make sure your desktop is uncluttered and that social media apps are hidden. (You definitely don’t want social media to be just “one click away.”) In addition, avoid keeping multiple files and apps open. Finish something and then close it right away. Some people even consider making their screen saver as bland as possible. 

Another source of distraction includes notifications. Turn off as many as possible—do you really need to know every time a message arrives? You definitely don’t want to check each new message as soon as it arrives, which means you don’t need to have notifications on. 

Now consider your web browser. How many tabs do you have open simultaneously? If there is something you want to get back to later, cut and paste the URL and place it in a document or on a notes page for reference. 

And don’t forget that there are apps that block other apps or that remind you when it’s time to transition to another activity. Most of all, never forget that you have more power over distractions—and your reaction to those distractions—than you think.

It’s All Up to You

We have discussed estimating, keeping similar data together, and performing similar tasks at the same time. We have even considered the impact the time of day can make on your productivity. Together, we have covered a lot of ground and looked at several factors that impact your productivity. Now all that remains is for you to bring the information together and leverage it in your everyday life. 

You can start by creating a plan that supports you and your goals, and helps you use your time in the best way possible. That is what this course has been all about. Naturally, putting into practice what you’ve been learning requires you to make personal changes. Change is hard, but a plan can help you succeed. Set some clear priorities and then select one to three changes that you think will be the most helpful. Don’t try to tackle more than three changes—it’s too much and not very fair to you. 

Let’s see how this might work by looking at a case study. 

There was once a business executive who was always late for meetings. She felt self-conscious about this but was especially embarrassed when she overheard a colleague commenting that other than her proclivity for tardiness, she seemed like a true professional. This comment hit hard and the executive decided to take action. 

So here’s what she did. First, she set the measurable goal of being on time for 95 percent of her meetings. She always carried around a work plan and calendar, so if she was on time, she placed a star in her calendar next to the meeting, and if she was late, she gave herself a checkmark. She had to hold herself accountable to accurately keep track. 

At the end of each week, she counted the number of meetings she attended along with the number of stars she had awarded herself. If meetings with stars comprised 95 percent (or higher) of all her meetings, she allowed herself to sleep in an extra 30 minutes on Saturday morning. Otherwise, she didn’t give herself extra sleep time. 

You can do something like this too. Set a goal, make sure it’s measurable, and give yourself support. To get to her meetings on time, the business executive had an alarm set with buzzers going off to ensure she had plenty of time to arrive early. Keep track of your progress and give yourself a reward when you meet your goal. However, it’s important to avoid beating yourself up if you don’t. Just look at your results to see if there’s something you can do differently. And then try again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.