As I’ve grown older and (hopefully) more mature, the idea of wasting time irks me more and more. We’ve all heard “time is money” repeated so many times that it’s kind of lost its luster, though the phrase still holds true. For me, time management means so much more than money. It means precious moments enjoyed with family, treasured experiences, making the most of each day. Economic or otherwise, wasting time never produces great results.
Since I’m constantly dealing with financial matters, it’s only natural that I often think of time in terms of investing; invest your money wisely, and it will turn into more money in due time. The same can be said for 10 minutes of your day. A compulsory check of Facebook as a break from a monotonous workday isn’t the worst thing, but that time hasn’t been invested. Meanwhile, sending an email you’ve been putting off actually makes use of the time in a way that could easily pay dividends later.
Before you decide time management means never taking breaks again, I get that we all need minutes to rest and recharge. I don’t view having fun as a waste of time, in fact, I think quite the opposite – a life dedicated to work without attention paid to the finer things wastes more time than someone who’s figured out how to get by on a three-day work week.
When you think about time wasting, you have to think about how your hours and minutes get spent. Do you work 12-hour days because of procrastination or because you have too much to do and not enough help? Do you get to work late because you drive slowly or hit the snooze button too many times?
If time management presents a challenge, I don’t think that’s a chronic issue. With experience comes efficiency, and there are plenty of tricks for getting more out of your waking hours.
You’ll figure out your own tactics as you go, but these five have helped me save countless hours over the years, allowing me to spend much more time away from work.
1. Give Your Brain Breaks
Our minds get conditioned by countless factors. Having recently dealt with sleep training an infant, I was reminded of how we parents instill sleeping and eating schedules in our children. If you wanted to raise a nocturnal baby, you definitely could, though I’m sure you’d end up regretting the decision.
The point is, your schedule and patterns have been etched into your routine over time, and yet you probably have moments when you get upset with yourself for lacking focus or feeling tired. If you take a step back, you’ll see how foolish that is. We trudge through long days, we sometimes eat too much at lunch or skip a needed coffee break, and then wish our brain could just magically “do better”?
When you find your focus waning, you need to identify the reason instead of just demanding mental clarity. Maybe you didn’t sleep well or have another important matter weighing on you; perhaps you just haven’t found the motivation needed to work on a certain project. Whatever the case may be, identifying the cause helps you look for a solution, and the solution should cater to your brain’s best interests.
What do you do if tiredness prevents you from working quickly and effectively? Take a nap! The concept of “powering through” only works when the motivation exists to supply the required power; you can’t “power through” reading a 20-page report that has you bored to tears. If naps were useless or detrimental, Spain’s siesta-taking economy probably wouldn’t rank in the top 15.
If you can’t grab some quick shuteye because there’s no space or the boss won’t let you, you can find another way to give your brain a moment of respite. Exercise increases blood flow and gets more oxygen into your thinker, which is always a good thing. A prolonged water break can offset the effects of too much caffeine while also prying your eyes away from your computer screen.
What do these brain breathers get you? Just like a rested muscle, your mind will return to the task at hand with a little more energy. You’ll read more quickly, write more effectively, make your points more succinctly. That means the work gets done faster, and what’s more invigorating than finishing a project you’ve been toiling with?
You’ve probably heard “work smarter, not harder.” If you like that concept, you need to stop asking your brain to plow ahead when it clearly needs a momentary break. Take care of your mind and watch your time management skills improve on their own.
2. Everything Gets a Time Slot
Ever finished a day of work and felt unclear as to where the time went and why you didn’t get more done? That’s the direct effect of not having a good schedule in place.
12 hours feels like a lot of time at 7 a.m., and then when 7 p.m. rolls around it feels like the day only lasted 20 minutes. Time is cruel this way, seeming infinite and fleeting at the same time. Unfortunately, if you believe you have plenty of time to get things done, you can expect time to pass by with great haste.
You can’t slow the clock down and you can’t realistically do two things at once (more on that in a minute), but you can build a detailed schedule so that time doesn’t just run away from you. Can you schedule every part of your day down to the minute? Not likely. However, if you have time set aside from everything you need to get done and a little cushion to account for the unexpected, you end up with a lot more control over your minutes.
As an example, say you plan to make 4 calls, edit a report and spend a little time conceptualizing a new marketing strategy during a three-hour window. As far as the time-to-task ratio, that all sounds doable. But when you fail to implement a schedule within those three hours, it can easily fall apart.
For starters, which thing are you going to do first? If you don’t decide ahead of time, it’s already 10:10 before you get settled on a starting place. At that point, the decision to do anything will feel like an accomplishment and you might reward yourself with a cup of coffee and a quick chat with whoever’s within earshot. You’re back at your desk and it’s 10:20, but that’s fine! You still have almost the whole three hours.
You make the calls, talk to two people and leave two messages. Boom, one out of three tasks done, it’s 10:40 and you’re cruising. Now it’s time to spend a few minutes choosing the next item off the to-do list. You look at the report for a brief moment but aren’t pressed to do it, because you’ve still got two hours. You close that and open the marketing materials, and just as you’re about to dive in – you get a return call.
This cycle of picking projects and getting distracted will continue until 12:30 when you decide to go to lunch. You’ll leave the office having spoken with 75% of the people you had to call, researched marketing for half an hour or so, and no editing done at all. With a vague timeline, this is how things often work.
What should a schedule look like in those three hours? Whatever fits your working style. Let’s draw up a sample:
10 – 11: Edit Report
11 – 11:30: Phone Calls
11:45 – 12: Marketing
Most of us have a little more gusto when we first sit down to tackle the day, so try hammering out whatever requires the most focus. If you finish a little early, you can dive right ahead to your phone calls or take that coffee break. Once the calls are made, even if you expect people to call back, you can move ahead with the marketing work and use that built-in 15-minute buffer for distractions.
That schedule might end up totally flawed, but it leaves out the wasted minutes where you decide what to do next. It also gives you a roadmap so you know if you’re running behind. The alternative – feeling like you have more time than you really do – always leads to procrastination and work left unfinished.
Back to a point I brought up earlier: multitasking. Aside from walking and talking, eating and reading, and rubbing your stomach while patting your head, multitasking is mostly a myth. If you try to do two things deserving of your attention during the same time slot, one of those tasks doesn’t get it’s due concentration. If you disagree with me and consider yourself an exceptional multitasker, keep at it. For the rest of you who pretend to get two things done at the same time, be honest with yourself and schedule them separately.
Get started on your scheduling by plotting out your day either before bed or during your morning commute. Don’t worry about making mistakes or misjudging the duration of a certain chore. Build yourself a schedule and eliminate a whole lot of time wasting from your daily routine.
3. Plan for the Unplannable
That’s right. I want you to do the impossible.
As you see in the mock schedule above, fifteen minutes are unaccounted for between 11:30 and 11:45. I mentioned that buffer existing for phone calls, but it wasn’t specific to that scenario. If you try to fill every minute of your workday with actual tasks, there’s no way you’ll get everything done.
Here are minor annoyances that take up time during the day:
Here are bigger problems that take up even more time:
Lunch break traffic
Calls with lenders
Smoke alarm malfunctions
In addition to these, I’m sure you could add another 15-20 examples of things gone wrong that have cost you time. You might not be able to plan for a power outage that steals an hour of your day, but you can at least admit that such things occur.
This time serves another purpose, in addition to helping you sidestep time-consuming problems. There’s a good chance you’ll forget things on occasion when building your schedule. If you have every hour accounted for, something has to get sacrificed. If you have a 20-minute block with no attached task, there’s at least the option to shuffle your schedule around and find a place for the forgotten item.
Setting aside time with no real plan might seem like the opposite of time management. In reality, you have every intention of using the time. If nothing unexpected arises, you get to move through your day more quickly. If you’re the type of entrepreneur with a flexible schedule, you might get to go home early. If you have a busy week ahead of you, that extra half hour can be used to get a jump on the next day’s projects.
You have to keep reminding yourself that time management doesn’t equate constant activity. If you manage time well, you end up with more free time. As you start scheduling unstructured stretches in your day, you’ll likely fill them right away. As you get more efficient, you’ll use those windows to get ahead. Eventually, you’ll start taking the occasional half day just because you can.
4. Automate Appropriately
Tech-savvy or otherwise, there are things you can do to cut down on busy work. There’s a right and a wrong way to do this, however, so you need to be smart about it.
Some people employ every app available, automating anything in their life that relates to an electronic device. If you get too deep into the world of automation, you start wasting time finding new ways to automate. You can direct every bit of communication to your phone or laptop, but you shouldn’t do so just because you can.
What you should do is figure out each and every way to cut back on annoying inputting and transcribing. Depending on what you do, there are lots of content curation tools that can reduce the time you spend surfing the web. Some of these tools offer more advanced features than others, but you can pick from things like Pinterest, Twitter Lists, BuzzSumo, Quora, etc. If you spend time tracking down information and articles online, download a curation app ASAP.
Beyond that, you can automate functions within your email and whatever you do regarding analytic analysis. I respect anyone who has the ability to do math in their head, but I also applaud entrepreneurs who let computers do the work for them.
It’s easy to let certain systems become part of your routine, and sometimes you need to do a quick check-in to make sure you aren’t spending an hour every day doing something that a piece of software could handle in a matter of seconds.
5. Delegate Directly
You can’t cheat time management. If you only delegate tasks to get them off your plate without considering what the end result might be, there’s a really strong chance you’ll be wasting time in the long run when you have to do the work a second time. Delegation has an important place in an entrepreneur’s toolkit, but only when used correctly.
To assign jobs effectively, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of those around you. I’ve built a team full of people with diverse talents who can help me get things done. There are some matters that I would never hand off because I consider myself the best person for the job. With certain writing and research projects, I know one of my colleagues will get the work done faster and the end product will probably be better.
Some people make it their management style to constantly tell people what to do. Without thinking about whom theiy’re directing or what needs to get done, they show their authority by demanding results. Call me crazy, but when it comes to results, I’m interested in quality over quantity. I do favors for no one if I ask for something to get done and then don’t like the way it was handled.
Not only do you need to know the strengths of those you delegate to, but you also have to know their interests. Some people love to write, others enjoy sifting through data and crunching numbers. Maybe you have an assistant who loves to socialize, and will jump at the opportunity to network at events. Know what your team can do, what each member likes to do, and then figure out ways those skills can help your cause.
Streamlining work through assignments makes time management a lot easier. Delegating for the sake of delegating makes everything a lot more tedious. Keep that in mind as you divide the workload.
I take a lot of pride in managing my time because I don’t want to waste any moments of a life I love living. For all the entrepreneurs out there, taking a shot at running your own business and being your own boss, don’t lose sight of the hours in your day. If you feel like you don’t have time for anything except work, there’s a really solid chance you aren’t using your time all that wisely.
Grab a pen and some paper and start writing out a schedule. Improving your time management might seem like an overwhelming goal, but it’s not that tough. It’s a step by step process that gets much easier with each little step you take.