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Personal Productivity

Q. I start out every day with a to-do list and a plan for the day. I work really hard, but events often seem to overtake me and I end the day not getting most of my list completed. I need help!

A. We understand. Believe us when we say that we fight the same battles to manage our time and tasks. If you have a to-do list, you are ahead of the pack. But, there are ways to make your list and time management plans more effective. Here are a few tips that will be helpful.

Prioritize the list – Each day we look at our list and mark those items that are the top priority. We like to consider the urgency and the importance of each task. Obviously, things that are both urgent and important will rise to the top of the list. Items that are neither urgent nor important can wait. Items that are urgent, but not important need to be dealt with, but make sure you find time for those things that are important, but less urgent—put them firmly on your schedule for a time in the future.

Use some type of visual reference so your priorities are clear. You might rewrite your list in order of priority. Polly puts a star next to her top items. Doug numbers items in order of priority. Once you have established priorities, follow them. Don’t get sucked into the trap of focusing those things you can finish quickly, so that you can put lots of checks on your list.

Estimate how long each item on your list will take to complete – Often, we find that we underestimate how long tasks take. We fail to include time for interruptions, travel, rework or getting steps approved. What about "pondering" time? Are you building in time to think about the work? Developing or creating takes time. When we fail to include time for these parts of the process, we are doomed to underestimate how long our tasks take.

Use your calendar – Once you get good at estimating how long tasks take, the next step is to move them to your calendar (at least those tasks that will take more than just a few minutes). You have to plan the time to execute your tasks. If you have a calendar that is loaded with items not on your to do list, there is an obvious mismatch—you are highly unlikely to accomplish many of your top priority items.

Don't pack your schedule – Be realistic about what you can actually accomplish in a day. We don't care how hard you work; you can't put nine women on the job and get a baby in a month. Putting too much on your calendar can lead to cutting corners, sloppy work or just being frustrated that you can't get it all done. This leads us to our last tip.

Get help – If you truly have too much work, it may be time to bring in some help. Spend your time on high-value activities. How much is your time worth to the business? Put a dollar value on an hour of your time. Then ask, do you need an assistant to provide administrative help? Entering data, typing correspondence and making travel arrangements might be done by a less expensive resource. How about someone to relieve you of the bookkeeping? Your question should be, if I had ten less hours of low-value work each week, could I fill this time with higher value activities that would more than pay for the cost of an assistant?

Help may come in the form of an employee—full-time or part-time. Alternatively, you might outsource some of your workload. For example, you can hire a bookkeeping service to take care of your accounting issues.

Time is your most valuable commodity and the quantity is limited. Your personal productivity may be the difference between success and bankruptcy. Implementing these tips will help you achieve your full potential.

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