The Only Six Time-Management Techniques That Work for Me

Exhausted and overwhelmed? An Edge for You's Annette Reissfelder outlines some tried-and-tested methods of regaining control of your life

"We have enough time, if only we use it right."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
"After a Thirty Years' War with himself there finally was a settlement. But the time was lost."
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
I have been coaching busy managers and business owners for the last eight years. And among the top three reasons they hire me are "to have more free time" and variations on that theme.

But, for the last eight years I have not been teaching time management strategies. What does that mean -- do I not provide something my clients clearly want? The answer is that I do deliver what my clients want, just not through the means they might be expecting.

As I've written before, I'm not a big fan of traditional time-management programs because they don't really get to the root-cause of a lack of time... you. But, in studying so many of them, here are the ideas that I was able to implement that have helped me. They may work for you, too.

#1: Time chunk

Bunch similar activities up so that you have a few hours a day that you devote to them. (By the way, even "handling email" is considered an activity... For more on this, see #6.) This will keep you from having to constantly stop what you're doing and get ready to do something else. You'll find yourself more productive from this one simple idea.

#2: Schedule activities

Most people find that when they have an appointment, they don't miss it. (They may run a bit late, but they usually keep it.) So, if you have a big project you're working on, set aside specific times to work on it in your calendar, Outlook or Lotus Notes.

You'll find that you procrastinate far less when you have a schedule and you'll make far more progress on your projects.

Scheduling, of course, also allows you to pre-plan your activities and set realistic timelines.

Something that also helps me stay on track is to go offline when I work on a project that doesn't involve lots of internet research. Even if it involves some, I always find that I can do that all in one chunk afterwards. But not being distracted by email and internet helps me focus.

#3: Make a list

This is an oldie, but a goodie.

If you can get all of your ideas out of your head and onto a piece of paper, or into your Outlook/Lotus Notes, you'll be able to relax and you can get a great sense of accomplishment each time you cross something off the list.

For me, looking at my plan for the next day -- not just the big chunks for coaching meetings, but also the little things -- makes all the difference when I close my work day.

#4: Prioritize

With your list, you want to make sure you get the most important things done first.

Of course, if there are a few quick-and-easy things you can do to make progress, get momentum, and get a few things off your list, go for it. But that aside, if you can get clear on the top three to five most important things to work on, and you work on it, you know you will make the greatest impact on the results you want to produce. Plus, sometimes you can ask yourself if this task needs to be done at all -- or if you need to do it.

#5: Get real

I try to never schedule more than six hours per day.

The rest of the day simply takes care of itself: things change, meetings get rescheduled, new work appears out of nowhere, and there isn't a lot you can do about that.

I usually work no more than nine- or 10-hour days.

And with #2 and #3 in place, I am better able than ever before to get the important things done even when I only have an unexpected 10-minute slot -- I can use it productively instead of just rechecking my email.

#6: Control e-mail

Some people still have their e-mail programs produce a beep when they receive email -- even those who have assistants who weed through it for them!

If there is any chance you can have someone screen your email, go for it. And if you haven't done so yet, learn how to set up a folder structure for your email, including rules that ensure that "almost spam" messages -- newsletters, feeds, announcements from clubs and online social networks -- never even appear on your screen, but disappear straight into the relevant folder. You can check these once a week.

Highly recommended: check your email only a few times per day. You may not be able to achieve this every day, but there will be days where this is realistic. As long as you don't become a slave to your inbox, whatever you do is probably OK.

Patiently address the topic of "Cc" and "Bcc" in meetings.

Nothing is more annoying than receiving five emails per day with a 10-page attachment, if you have no idea what you are supposed to do with them.

Have your assistant call the sender of any such email and have them ask him or her to send you a separate email if they ever require a reaction from you, because you won't read attachments to emails that aren't addressed specifically to you, detailing what you are supposed to comment on!

If you don't have an assistant, make the call yourself!

Think for a moment: what would the impact on your life be if you checked your email just four times a day? Find out for yourself.

Here is when to check your email:

1. After you did your #1 priority for the day. I'd add screening your email for any changes regarding this project before you start, just to be on the safe side. Of course you will ignore all other email :-)

2. About half an hour before you plan to go for lunch.

3. After lunch.

4. About one hour before you plan to leave the office.

That's it.

These are the only "time management" strategies that I actually use with any consistency. They help, but they certainly aren't what freed me from the race of time. So back to the real issues:

Time for Honesty About Your Life

Chances are you have already heard of most of the techniques I just listed. You may have tried some of them in the past, and might be being using others right now.

If so, you'll probably agree that they were helpful, but did they really help you get a handle on this area of your life? (Probably not, or why would you still be reading this?)

If you really want to enjoy your time and your life, and take control of this situation once and for all, you're going to have to dig deeper and approach things in a whole new way. I really recommend starting out with some of the six principles listed above.

What else am I talking about?

How do you know when you're successful in the first place? Is it when you're famous and work with top clients? Or when you're making a certain amount of money? When you have reached a certain job level? When you win that bid over a competitor? Or when you can take lots of time off and can work as much or as little as you want? Is it when you get lots of recognition from clients or your boss? Or is it something else entirely?

As much as these may be things that you want to achieve, these are not "success" per se. There is a very simple alternative to defining success -- and bear with me here if this sounds a little clichéd to you: Success is enjoying the journey.

While you're on the path to achieve all of the things I listed at the beginning (doing the "dirty work" to make it happen), it is very easy to get caught up in working hard and making deadlines, and you can end up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.

That's not enjoying the journey and that's not success -- even if you achieve everything on your list! Some would say that achievements are worth the sacrifice of hard work, struggle, working lots of hours, and not having a life. But for what?

Consider this: "Nothing Can Make You Happy".

Some people will probably take it to mean I am saying that it isn't possible to be happy. But what I am really saying is that nothing can make you happy: you can be happy from nothing. Just like you can have everything and not be happy.

So if you want to be successful in the long run, learn to make yourself happy now, even while you have all that work to do, all of those goals to achieve, and all of the pressure that comes with it.

Like most things, easier said than done!

Why do we get caught up in trying to work harder, faster, multi-tasking -- are we machines? No! So why are we trying to turn ourselves into one?

If you aren't a machine, doesn't it make you wonder if you're better suited to doing something different? You are! You can achieve much better results when you stop trying to make yourself a "productivity machine" and instead get yourself into "the zone".

The zone is the flow state where you're totally centered, peaceful, and enjoying what you're doing.

When you're in the zone, you're at your best and you make the biggest impact on the results you want to produce. And, since you're enjoying the journey, you are therefore an "overnight success".

But how do you keep yourself in the zone and avoid falling into the trap of hurried, worried, rushed, overwhelmed and exhausted? What does it take to feel peaceful in the face of relentless demands on your time? How can you work on one thing at a time, relishing every moment of it?

Unfortunately, making the shift from overwhelmed on a regular basis to "cool, calm, and collected" on a regular basis probably isn't going to happen overnight. It has taken a long time for you to get yourself to think and act the way you do today. So it is probably safe to assume it is going to take a little while to reverse all that.

But you can have a taste right now. Here is a little activity that will challenge your concept of time and help to transform your mindset about how much time you have.

Find a comfortable chair and a watch or a clock that has a second hand. When you have it in front of you, just sit and watch the second hand go around one time. This will literally take just one minute, so go ahead -- just do it. After you're finished, here are a few questions for you:

1. How long did that minute seem to last? Did it go by quickly or slowly?

2. Did you notice that some of the seconds seemed to last a hair longer than others? Why do you think that is?

When you watch the second hand go around, you may notice that one minute is actually a very long period of time. Maybe we have a lot more time than we realize.

And if you noticed that some of the seconds seemed to last longer than the others, that is because your sense of the passage of time isn't dictated by the external, it is dictated by your mind. You can "warp" time to fit your life and warp your life to fit time.

But most people have warped time in such a way that they never have enough of it. And on the few occasions where they do, they are bored, so they rush to fill it back up with as much activity as they can.

So remember to take a minute a day to watch the second hand; as you do this, you may wish to breathe in time abundance, and breathe out stress, anxiety and a lack of time. Spending a minute a day managing your relationship with time is a very well-invested minute indeed!

I hope you found the information in this article helpful and inspiring. If so, please share it with others.

If, as a result of this article, you feel that you are ready to clear these issues out of your way, let's set up a few meetings!

Remember: There is no reason to keep these issues with you for the rest of your life! And time flies... :-)

Think of what good old Lichterberg wrote in the 18th century.

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