This time, like all times, is a very good one, if we but know what to do with it.” So wrote the essayist, lecturer and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson more than one hundred years ago and his words ring as true as ever. The issue of how to use our time as effectively as possible remains a great problem for many of us, particularly in this age of instant communication and round-the-clock connectivity.

The first thing to realize is that essentially time management is nonsense. However smart you might be, you can only work with what you’ve got, and that’s 24 hours in a day. What you actually need to work on is managing yourself. The time you have is finite – that’s the deal – so all you can change is the way you interact with the time you have.

So how can you do that? The first thing is to identify your “time thieves” – the things that occupy you so you don’t do what you need to do. Procrastination is indeed the thief of time and it can take many forms – Internet surfing, Facebooking, chatting to colleagues, making personal calls. All of these activities can steal our time, sap our energy and enthusiasm and significantly reduce our productivity.

To combat this, some people take a day or two to track exactly how they spend their time. There are free assessment tools on the web that can help you do this such as www.toggl.com (or you can just use old-fashioned pen and paper). Just quickly jot down every half an hour how you’ve spent your time. It can be a real shock to the system to realize how much time you actually spend on activities that simply don’t contribute to your bottom line or indeed make you feel that great about yourself and your day.

That’s not to say that social networking, shopping on the web or chatting to your friends can’t make you happy. But there’s a time and a place. If it’s at the expense of the quality of your work, or if you end up putting yourself under extra pressure to meet a deadline because you’ve wasted time during the day, then try to knock these things on the head during work time.

This leads onto the next tip. Once you’ve identified where you’re wasting time, plan and prioritize ruthlessly. Take a look at the broader picture – look at your own personal and career goals in the short term and long term. Are you spending your days doing things that support these greater goals? Or are short-term, urgent tasks using up all your time and taking you away from your true priorities?

Stephen Covey in his masterpiece on personal effectiveness “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” suggests that change starts within oneself, emphasizing my initial point that time management is really about learning to manage oneself. Covey believes we need to focus on important but non-urgent activities, such as preparation and planning, relationship-building, learning, self-development and so on. These help not only how we spend our time day-to-day but enhance the integrity of our lives as a whole.

So it’s worth taking some time to check that the activities we are undertaking day-to-day are supporting our longer term goals and that we aren’t driven by a reactive, short term agenda.

Weekly planning is a really helpful time management technique to support this end. Try taking some time once a week – for me it’s a Sunday evening – to do some serious forward planning and note some lessons from what you’ve learned the week before, again using online tools or a paper planner if you prefer.

I swear by Covey’s weekly planner, available online in pdf form, which not only helps you plan and prioritize weekly goals and day-by-day activities but also includes a section on social, emotional, spiritual and physical development. Covey calls this “sharpening the saw”. He believes that unless you schedule in some time for these broader elements of life, as well as work-driven activities, you will not be making the most of your time and your existence. And certainly we all function better with some sleep, good nutrition, social interaction and a bit of exercise – so schedule it if you aren’t getting enough of it.

During your weekly planning time, see if you can break down your long-term projects into a series of short-term goals and schedule some time for these bite-sized chunks into each week. That way you feel you’re chipping away at them little by little and major long-term projects seem more manageable.

Take time to seriously evaluate what will be filling your week ahead. Challenge habitual tasks that you may undertake because they’ve “always been done that way”. Work out what you really want to be doing in your job and think about ways you might achieve that more consistently. Look at processes and systems – is there a quicker or a more efficient way? Are there tools you can find online to improve the way you do things? Are there books you can buy to learn how to sharpen up your skills? Make a list. Take responsibility for your own life and career and don’t expect it to be given to you on a plate. Start asking more questions to see whether deadlines really are as tight as people state – find out what their real needs and expectations are.

You may immediately find you can reduce your non-essential workload and concentrate on the real value-added tasks, which will give you more satisfaction within a more manageable timeframe.

Alongside your weekly plan, which should guide the overall direction of your week, take ten minutes every morning to plan out your day before you get going and prioritize your to-do list. Remember to include planning and preparation time for longer-term projects as well as the more immediate, short term tasks. Then, the key to your day is quite simple. First things first, and one thing at a time. Get going as soon as possible and try to tackle your most important tasks first. It often helps to work in short, focused bursts concentrating on one task at a time then taking frequent breaks to get some air, have some water and change your scenery.

If possible, allocate three to four blocks of time per day to check and reply to emails rather than constantly monitoring them. This admittedly doesn’t work for all businesses, for example those in logistics and so on where speed is of the essence. But going backwards and forwards on email traffic can be a terrible time thief so don’t give into the temptation to spend all day fielding emails rather than actually producing something tangible (particularly when getting up and walking across the room might solve the problem more quickly).

It’s important to ask yourself whether the respondent actually wants an immediate response or a considered response. Sometimes, in a crisis situation, responses have to be immediate – but more often than not, habit and precedent dictate email behaviour rather than necessity. I recall one client saying to me: “I’m not impressed when someone sends a dashed-off email by return from their Blackberry. I don’t pay you guys for immediate, off the cuff advice. I can do that myself. I pay you guys to think on my behalf.” A good lesson.

Sometimes daring to be slower and taking a bit of thinking time can be more impressive than being the first out of the traps.

Delegation is another key skill in becoming a better manager of yourself and your own time. No matter how small your business is, there’s no need to be a one-person show. Try to pinpoint which tasks you’d be better outsourcing or delegating to allow you to focus on the areas where you can really add value. In order to maximize your own personal ROI (which is essentially what you’re doing by improving your time management skills) you need to do the things that really matter, not the peripherals that someone else could handle for you, however enticing they might be to avoid focusing on the more difficult stuff. And people tend to respect you all the more for it.

And don’t waste time waiting around and twiddling your thumbs. We all find ourselves sometimes with time to kill stuck in a cab, on the tube, in an airport lounge and so on. So always have something with you to pass the time and carry a notebook for your planning and ideas. With the plethora of electronic devices and e-readers available, you can reduce your email box, read some interesting articles you’ve been meaning to get around to or dip into the latest business thinking. 

Finally, if you want something to kick start you into some action, then try this quote for size. Remember though that we all have to start somewhere – so first things first, and one thing at a time. 

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Louis Pasteur, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
(H. Jackson Brown)

Deborah Done, the author of our Big Ideas, is founder and director of Nab Communications, a freelance public relations agency which provides sensible and value for money PR advice to regional and national businesses.
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