Here is my own four-step approach to top time management, some of it inspired by Maureen York, the ‘Calm Coach’ (click here to see Maureen’s time-saving tips).
1. Set Aside Some Planning Time
This is vital, particularly for those of you who usually hit the ground running. The trouble with many jobs is that it is easy to let the tasks manage you: you arrive in the office and a customer is waiting to speak to you, your boss is demanding a management report and you have yet to even glance at your steadily swelling inbox – aaaaghhh!
My proposed solution is to negotiate ten minutes or so at the beginning of your day to plan your time: ask if your colleagues would cover your phone, ignore your in-box (see steps 3 & 4) and hold back on starting any reports. Of course, this may not be practical in all jobs or at all times but if you’re honest with yourself you might realise that it is your desire to look conscientious and avoid conflict that lies at the root of your approach.
So what will you do in that ten minutes?
2. Prioritise Your Tasks
Whether at the office, working as a freelance or managing the household, this strategy is an ideal way of creating a structure that you can adhere to throughout the day. You will feel more in control of your time and more relaxed.
First, write down a list of all the tasks you want to complete by the end of the day. Then, create a rough table with three columns labelled A,B and C.
In column A, write down those tasks that are urgent, that is, those tasks which will lead to negative consequences if they are not done on time. This might be running an MI report, renewing your car insurance or paying an important supplier.
In column B, note those tasks that are important; there will be some mild consequences if you don’t complete these on time. Examples could be returning a colleague’s call, changing the bedding or updating your portfolio.
The rest of your tasks go into column C. While you would like to complete these tasks, you probably won’t get sacked, go bust or disgust your family by leaving them for a less busy time. This might include writing up your meeting notes, polishing the brass or tidying your stationary cupboard.
Depending on the time you have and the complexity of our schedule, you may want to organise tasks within the columns as well though I find the straight A,B,C method is adequate.
Remember you are creating a flexible schedule not a straight-jacket; sometimes an urgent task will pull you away from your list. The value in this method is that you will instantly know where you need to be once the emergency has been resolved.
3. Use Autoresponders and Limit Your Email Sessions
Again, this may require negotiation with your line manager but if at all possible, set up an autoresponder on your email account. This is an automatic message that is fired back to anyone who emails you. Mine says the following:
Thank you for your message I will respond personally within 24 hours. Please note that I am frequently away from my desk and may not be in a position to respond immediately. For urgent matters, I recommend contacting me on my mobile: +44 (0)7762 906818 Best Regards Neil Hocking www.nhwriting.com if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well
Next, limit your email reading time to 1-3 sessions a day (depending on the importance/volume of emails you generally receive). For example, you may read your emails at 10am,12pm and 2pm.
This looks professional to your customers/clients, takes away the pressure of an immediate reply and enables you to sort the wheat from the chaff by following my final step.
4. Make Use of Email Folders
Most email applications (e.g. Outlook Express, Gmail, Squirrelmail), enable you to set up sub-folders in your in-box. Before rushing headlong into answering every message (or even all of those ‘conveniently’ prioritised for you by your unbiased customers), set up one or more folders: You will at least want to set up an ‘urgent’ folder but you may also want an ‘important’ or ‘medium priority’ folder.
A quick scan of each email should be enough for you to assign it to one of your folders. Then you can simply go through your folders in order of importance so that each email session becomes yet another exercise of your newly created efficiency.
Obviously, every situation differs but try some or all of the tips above and repair your relationship with the clock.