Last month we covered the first essential of successful time management: the calendar. As you will recall, there are two rules that you must follow. The first is that you can only have one calendar. Having information in multiple calendars is not wise, and will eventually lead to mistakes and missed opportunities. The second rule is that your calendar must be portable.
As you can imagine, a calendar becomes a lot less useful if you can't access your information.
While a great tool, a calendar is only one-half of the equation. To be a successful time manager, you must have a useful to-do list. How do you create a to-do list that will help you rather than make you feel bad about how much you have on your plate? Follow these steps and we are confident that your to-do list will become your new best friend!
Write to-dos, not short- and long-term projects! The biggest mistake we see with our clients' to-do lists is that they write down projects, rather than tasks. For example, they may write, "Plan sales meeting" on their list. However, planning a sales meeting is a project not a single to-do. It will take hours to properly plan this meeting and include dozens of tasks. For instance, you might need to write an agenda; determine a meeting place; write an e-mail inviting attendees; send out the invitation and collect RSVPs; plan refreshments; develop presentations and the list goes on. Each of these tasks may be one or more items on your to-do list.
For a to-do list to be helpful, you should break down larger projects into manageable chunks. Most of us cannot handle tasks that take more than two hours to accomplish. In fact, most of us perform best when tasks are broken down into very small increments - periods of less than 45 minutes. This is especially helpful if you tend to work in short bursts, are prone to procrastination or work in an interruption-rich environment. Put only those tasks on your to-do list that you want to accomplish in the next week. You will see an immediate difference as you begin to chip away at big projects and accomplish your goals.
Estimate the time needed to accomplish each task. We never write a to-do without putting an estimated time next to it. This is a tip we learned from one of the Gurus of time management, Julie Morgenstern. As example, you write, "write and send e-mail inviting attendees" on your to-do list. Your next thought should be, "How long will it take to complete this task?" Do you need to collect the e-mail addresses or are they already in a distribution list? How long will it take you to compose and edit the e-mail?
Let's assume you plan 30 minutes for this task and write this next to the to-do. This will help you in several ways. First, as you move through your day, you can pick out items that will fit into the time slots you have available. You should choose high priority tasks, but more on this later in the article. Second, if you find an unexpected gift of time (i.e., a meeting is canceled or postponed, etc.) you can quickly choose something off your list that fits the time allotted. Finally, you will become better at estimating how long tasks take, as you compare your estimates to the actual time it took to complete. We create many of our own time management issues by underestimating how long it takes to accomplish our work.
Prioritize your tasks. If you have ever gotten to the end of the workday with the sick feeling that you did not complete the one thing you needed to accomplish, you are not alone. The urgent will always overtake the important if you let it. Don't fall victim to this time management trap! At the beginning of each day, determine which three tasks are the most important to finish. Do these first before beginning any other work.
Often, people will put off their more important tasks in favor of those that they perceive as easy or quick. "Let me get these few things done first, and then I will dig into that project." Another mistake is to wait until late in the day to get started. "Wow, it is already 3:30 p.m. I should wait until tomorrow to drag out all that stuff. By the time I get everything out, it will be time to put it all away." Sometimes the excuse is, "I am too tired to work on that now. I should wait until tomorrow to get started. I will feel much more rested in the morning."
Draw a star or other mark by the three most important items on your to-do list to give you a visual reminder of their importance. If you use an electronic task list, develop a color coding system or click and drag the three tasks you have chosen onto your calendar. Once a task is on your calendar, work very hard to let nothing deter you from its completion.
We all get the same 24 hours each day. We can choose to fill our hours with tasks that fulfill us and help us reach our goals, or we can let them fill up with less productive and less enriching activities. Using your to-do list correctly will help you to make better choices.