Time management hacks for achieving what matters most
Implementing an intentional lifestyle requires strong adherence to time management. This article is part of a series of articles on 5 Key Principles for Intentional Living, and provides proven time management hacks with the main purpose of aligning your time to what’s most important to you and reducing your stress. Not for jamming more stuff in your day!
These time management hacks can be used in your work, whether you work for yourself or an organization. They can also be used to align your time with the other areas of your life that matter most.
Intentionality plays a role in everything we do, including how we manage our time.
Why traditional time management fails us
Time management is usually taught at work, and the purpose is to make us more productive. Yet, time management in the workplace often fails. This is because our productivity may not be aligned with the goals of our work unit or organization. Time management also rarely reduces our stress at work. If we are more productive, we likely just get more tasks assigned to us.
Another pitfall is we tend to use time management tools to help us accomplish our personal to-dos. We may be getting lots of stuff done, but it doesn’t help us reduce stress or make our lives less busy. We recognize that no matter how much we get done, our to-do list never ends. It is also likely that many of our to-dos are not aligned with the things that matter most to us.
To learn more about the pitfalls of time management, Oliver Burkeman wrote a wonderful article titled Why time management is ruining our lives.
A society of doers
We live in a society where most people have less and less freedom over their personal time. We have given up control of our time to the norms of society. Busyness is the new status symbol. “Busy” is often our response to “How are you?” Even if we find ourselves with some extra personal time, we often cram it with catching up with chores and our never ending to-do-list. Does this ring true for you?
I remember a time when this was me. I juggled working full-time work, helping my husband with his business, managing a household, making time for fitness, pursuing passion projects, and spending time with family.
Unfortunately, time management hacks can be used to make our busy lives even more busier. Time management is important and can be beneficial, but only if we approach it the right way and in an intentional way.
How I got to be good at time management
About 10 years ago, I stumbled upon the book Never Check E-mail in the Morning by Julie Morgenstern. This book is full of great time management hacks, and it began my quest to be great at time management. I learned other time management hacks by reading more books and signing up for training. I re-designed how I organized my work day and kept revising as I learned what worked and didn’t work for me. I found myself focusing on the things that would get my work products completed and pushing aside the other less important tasks. I started meeting my deadlines, rarely worked more than 40 hours a week, and felt much less stressed at work.
At some point, I decided to implement time management hacks in my personal life. I found that when I wasn’t at work, I was often busy with my personal to-do list. I realized my to-do list was never ending, and I was being ruled by it. I often felt overwhelmed.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being busy, and I thrive on it. If I’m not busy, I’m not living. Yet, after implementing good time management tools in my personal life, my busyness became more relaxed and less overwhelming. I’m also more focused on what matters most to me, and less focused on the BS.
7 Tried and true time management hacks for achieving what matters most
Here are seven time management hacks I have found to be the best for living an intentional lifestyle and creating a more carefree and stress-free life. The trick is to make time management work for you. These time management hacks also ensure you are working on the right things. Whether at work or in your personal life, your activities or tasks are aligned with what matters most.
Time Management Hack #1: Organize your life into containers of time
The first time management hack is to create containers of time for each or your important areas of life.
Have you noticed that when you only have a certain amount of time before a deadline, you find a way to get it done? For example, you have a team meeting in 20 minutes and you have that much time to create an agenda and jot down your accomplishments since the last team meeting? Or, you have 30 minutes to clean your guest bathroom before your guests show up? Yet, if you started either of these activities with an hour or more to spare, you tend to use up that amount of time to get the task done.
When we designate specific time constraints for working on certain tasks, we can get more done. Even more importantly, we have time for all our important containers of time.
Our work containers apply to our bigger containers of time, like our work day. This is easier for those of you who have specific work schedules. Your containers of time at work are from 8 am to Noon and 1pm to 5pm on weekdays, for example. For those of you who are self-employed or who are salaried employees, creating containers of time at work requires more intentionality.
For those of you with a bit more flexibility in setting your work schedules, consider the idea that whether your work containers add up to 40 hours a week or 50 hours, you will still get the same amount of work done. In fact, after 40 hours of work, your productivity goes way down. This makes sense, because the more hours we work, the less mental energy we have for focused work.
Yet, if you limit your hours to 40 (or less), and you implement the time management hacks detailed below, you will reach optimum productivity.
When you restrict your work container to 8 hours a day (or less), that leaves plenty of time for the containers of time for the other important areas of your life.
Other important containers
Additional containers of time may include workout time at the gym, time for planning for and preparing healthy meals, quality time spent with family and friends, time carved out for hobbies, and time carved out for household and personal to-do’s.
It is also important to recognize that our to-do list is never ending, especially our work and our personal to-do lists. Whether we stick within our containers of time or steal from our other containers, our to-do list will always have more on it. The trick is to enjoy each moment as we work on each task, and to quit when it’s time to quit. That way, we ensure we have time for everything that is important to us and everything that creates a fulfilling life.
Creating containers of time for everything that is important to us, puts us directly on the path of living an intentional life.
Take a few moments to write down your containers of time based on the most important areas of your life. Next, create time frames to put around them. For help in identifying your most important areas of life, read my article How to create your personal strategic plan and align your actions toward what is most important to you.
Time Management Hack #2: Focus on one thing at a time
The second time management hack is to focus on one thing at a time for maximum and efficient results. When we focus on one thing, we can enter a state of flow, which provides the benefit of being more productive and having a satisfying experience at the same time.
I don’t think I need to beat this dead horse, but I can’t skip mentioning that multi-tasking does not work. Multi-tasking does the opposite of what you think it will. It reduces productivity. Multi-tasking can also reduce focus and concentration, which results in needing more time to get things done, not less.
Why doesn’t multi-tasking work? Because what you’re really doing is switch-tasking.
Whatever you're doing, whether you’re at work or working on your personal to-do list, what is the next one thing you can focus on? If you can, keep working on only that one thing until it is completed or until you come to the end of your container of time.
Time Management Hack #3: Focus on the right things
Even better than focusing on one thing at a time (time management hack #2), focus on the right one thing. Do what matters most in each important area of your life.
Gary Keller, in his national bestseller The One Thing, has us ask the question “What’s the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary.” Keller tells us to ask this question for every important area of our life.
Focusing on the right things also relates to the 80:20 Rule. This rule’s main principal is that you should focus on the few things that get you the most benefit. Typically, 80% of unfocused effort only generates 20% of the results. Thus, you should focus your time and energy on the tasks with the highest payoffs or the most benefit. I use this rule in helping to identifying the right tasks to work on.
If we focus on the things that matter most, we will make the most of our time and achieve extraordinary results. We will intentionally get what we want out of life.
For each of your most important areas of life, ask yourself: What’s the one thing I can do today to move myself closer to achieving my goal in this area?
Time Management Hack #4: Do your Most Important Tasks first
Supposedly Mark Twain once said “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.”
Similar to focusing on the right things (time management hack #3), it is critical that you do your Most Important Tasks (MITs) first.
Most Important Tasks are those tasks that get you closer to completing a goal. At work, the goal would be a work product or other deliverable. If you are self-employed, the goal would be completing a product, delivering a service, or making a sale. In your personal life, implementing time management hack #4 will move you closer to achieving your personal goals.
Instead of our Most Important Tasks, it is easy for us to tackle the little and the simple tasks. We usually want to get those out of the way. Our Most Important Tasks are often the most difficult and take the most mental energy. These are also the tasks we least like to do. However, it is better to tackle the difficult and least fun things first so we make sure we have enough time and energy to get those things done. Doing the hard things first also gives us a feeling of accomplishment and momentum for the rest of our day.
For each of your most important areas of life, what are your three biggest frogs (Most Important Tasks) that if you were to complete, would get your closer to achieving your goals?
Read more: ZenHabits post Purpose Your Day: Most Important Task (MIT)
Time Management Hack #5: Letting go of the less important stuff (The 4 D’s)
In her book Never Check E-mail in the Morning, Julie Morgenstern outlines the 4 D’s - time management hacks for determining what to do with the things you don’t have time for:
To determine if you can delete a task from your to-do list, ask yourself What’s the worst that will happen if this task isn’t done? Also, does this task move me forward in achieving my goals? If not, maybe let it go.
For each task, ask yourself Can this be given to someone else to do? If you are a lead worker or supervisor, can you delegate certain tasks? If you are self-employed, can you delegate to an employee or virtual assistant?
Some tasks may be important but there is no deadline or immediate need to get them done today. Ask yourself Can this task be put off?
Similar to delaying a task, perhaps the scope of a task can be reduced. Ask yourself What’s the minimum needed to for this task? Or is there a short-cut to getting the task done faster?
Another way to create efficiency with small tasks, is to batch similar tasks together. For example, paying the bills, making phone calls, and running errands. Ask yourself Which of your tasks can be batched and completed together?
Review your to-do lists (work and personal). For each item, ask yourself the questions outlined above. How many items were you able to remove from your list? Do this every day.
Time Management Hack # 6: Identify your biggest time wasters
The sixth time management hack is to identify your top time wasters. Morgenstern talks about controlling your time nibblers, the things that waste your time the most. The average person loses 1 hour a day to wasted time. She outlines the top four time wasters as:
Perfection is the enemy of progress or the enemy of done. Sometimes good enough is in fact good enough. Depending on the work product, ask yourself if it needs to be perfect or if done is better.
Procrastination is the issue of getting started on a task or project. Procrastination is tricky, especially if it involves a creative task. Sometimes I’ll procrastinate starting on a creative task, but what I’m really doing is unconsciously processing the best way to do something. However, procrastination can hinder you from making progress toward a goal.
Creating self-imposed deadlines can be a tool for combatting procrastination. If you don’t have a built-in accountability structure, create your own. Ask someone if they’d be willing to hold you accountable for certain deadlines.
Another way to tackle procrastination is to just get started with a series of micro-tasks. Before you know you have begun. SARK, in her book Make Your Creative Dreams Real defines a micromovement as “a very tiny action… It’s 5 seconds to 5 minutes in length.” Examples of micro-tasks are:
- Lining up your tools, such as grabbing a pen and paper or opening the software program
- Reviewing the purpose of a task and what the result should be
- Entering the first transaction in your bookkeeping software
- Writing the title, header, or writing the first line of a written document
Lev Yilmaz’s Procrastination, is a fun 91 second video on the trap we can get into preparing to get our stuff done. I highly recommend this short video for some laughs.
This is probably one of the worst time wasters. It takes time to start a task and get into the flow needed for focused efficient work. When we get interrupted, we break that flow and essentially switch to a new task represented by the interruption. It is best to block out at least 30-50 minutes of focused time. However, it may not be culturally acceptable in your workplace to block out interruptions from co-workers. I have learned some organizations expect you to read and respond to incoming emails immediately. If you have more flexibility at work or if you are self-employed, block all calls and computer notifications for set blocks of time, so you can get your Most Important Tasks done.
Meetings can be big time wasters if not intentionally planned for efficiency. If you can influence how your business or work meetings go, planning is the key. The most important things for planning and facilitating meetings are to:
- Ensure each meeting has a specific objective or desired outcome, or a decision to be made
- The objective and an agenda are provided at least 24 hours ahead of time
- Only invite individuals who need to be included
- At the start of each meeting, review the objective and agenda
- Designate a facilitator to focus on one agenda item at a time and maintain the focus on that item, tabling any other items that need discussed for a later time
- At the end of each meeting, summarize decisions and action items
Another time waster is e-mail. There are many time management strategies for dealing with email. If possible, the best way is to only choose a couple times a day to open your email and fully process it. This is not always possible in certain work places. Even if you must check e-mail often for important messages, pick one or two times a day that you fully process all emails. This means to either send a quick reply, delete or archive the information only ones, create a calendar item if needed, or add a task to your to-do list for the e-mails that may require more time on your part to send back information or a deliverable.
Think about and write down your top 3 time wasters. For each of them, ask yourself: Why do you do this? What is the risk? What can I do to control this time waster?
Time Management Hack #7: Your last task of the day is to plan for tomorrow
The final time management hack is to set aside time each day for the next day. Do this at work and at home. Planning ahead allows you to get started on the next day's Most Important Tasks first thing.
At work: Make time at the end of each day to determine tomorrow’s Most Important Tasks. Remember to focus on those tasks that move you closer to your goals. Review the other items on your to-do list and see if you can delete, delay, delegate, or diminish any of them. Review tomorrow’s calendar and block out any chunks of time between meetings to created focused work time.
At home: Make time each day to plan out your personal activities. Identify your personal Most Important Tasks. Schedule your day to fit in the areas of your life that matter the most. For each important are of your life, determine the one thing you can do to make that area more fulfilled and/or to move you forward in your personal goals.
If you haven’t already, take the time to complete the activities in italics at the end of time management hacks #1 through #7.
For additional reading: You can’t go wrong with Never Check E-mail in the Morning. Another great book on time management that I highly recommend is What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam.
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