Easy Tips for Time Management – er, Maximizing Your Productivity
The Doctor and the TARDIS. Cher’s belief that she could turn back time. Marty McFly in Back to the Future. Bill and Ted and their Excellent Adventures. All these people make the concept of time travel – and by a larger extension, time management – look so easy. They bend time to their will, to fit their place and situation. But is time management really that is easy? No, because it’s a concept that does not exist. Time is finite – you can’t change it. As much as many of us (myself included) would like, you can’t add or subtract hours from the day, or make one hour longer (or shorter) than the next. Thus, we can’t really manage time – it manages us! (Those of you old enough to remember the comedian Yakof Smirnoff are probably reading that last sentence with the words, “In Soviet Russia…” in there somewhere.) Thus, all those “tips for time management” articles really are a misnomer.
But what if you want to get more work done in the hours of the day that we have, with time for eating, sleeping, and relaxing? Don’t think of time management – think of maximizing your productivity. We can’t manage time, but we can manage ourselves – how we think, how we behave, how we react.
Earlier this summer, I had to attend a “Maximizing Your Productivity” session at work. It forced me to throw out this concept of “time management” and look at ways to be more productive. Although I consider myself an expert at productivity, I found a few tips to be very useful:
It’s okay to take a break. The idea of being more productive by working longer hours and skipping lunches is a myth. All you end up being is tired and hungry – and setting a bad precedent for your manager. (We’ll talk about that in a bit.) The break is the reset button, the CTRL-ALT-DEL for your brain. It gives the brain time to rest, away from the tasks at hand. It’s a good idea to take a five to ten minute break every hour, in any form – going out for a walk, getting up for the bathroom, reading mindless Buzzfeed listicles. This reboots your brain, particularly the right side of your brain that holds domain over your creative thinking. That break can bring forth new ideas and solutions to problems.
Longer term, that break will have positive effects on your health. Two years ago, I had a very high pressure job, and thought the only solution to the work day was to work through lunch – not every day, but at least 60% of the week. My body ended up so run down and weak from all that supposed good productivity that I spent my entire Christmas holidays in bed with the flu! My one 2013 New Year’s resolution that I keep to this day? Take a lunch hour. I find I am getting more done, and while I haven’t completely avoided illness, I am taking a lot less sick days as a result.
Finally, look at unexpected opportunities as a sign for a break. Network goes down at work and you can’t access email? That’s a good time for a break!
Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. As much as everyone likes to think that their tasks are important, that just isn’t the case. In turn, rethink how you prioritize. It’s good, of course, to ask managers or colleagues how important they think their tasks are, but inevitably, everyone is going to say their task is important. You have to be the determinant of priority, and here’s an easy way to do it:
List out the tasks you have to do in a certain time period (hour, day, week, etc.). For the purposes of this example, let’s say you have five tasks to be done in a given workday:
A. Finish job application
B. Work on INALJ Blog Post
C. Research conference speaking opportunities
D. Clean the bathroom
E. Update LinkedIn Page
Then, compare each task to the others, and assign it a number between 1 and 5 (or whatever number of tasks you have on your list.) So here, I will compare “Finish job application” to “Work on INALJ blog post”, and assign it a ranking, based on what I know about that task (i.e. deadlines, flexibility on getting it done, etc.) It may turn out that the job application is due before the blog post, so I assign that a “1” and the blog post a “2.” Then I compare “Finish job application” to “research conference speaking opportunities” and assign the same. After you finish comparing your first task (Task A) to the others, then you do the same with Task B to the ones below it (C, D, E), and so on until you get to the last task in the list. The task with the largest number of highest rankings (number 1’s) is the one that gets done first.
It’s okay to say “no.” Our culture is a “yes” culture – we fear saying no for upsetting someone, which could lead to longer term ramifications. At the same time, if we live in a world where everything is the highest priority, then nothing is the highest priority. Thus, embrace the “no.” – reclaim it. This helps set proper precedent with your co-workers and managers – they will have a better view into your workday, and in turn, be able to prioritize their own work more effectively. The word “no” is essential to communication as much as the “yes,” if not more. Use it. Embrace it. Swim in it until your fingers get all pruny. (Bonus points to you if you know the move reference of that last line.)
What are your favorite tips for maximizing your productivity? Share them in the comments?