Time Management Tips: Free Advice For Busy Professionals

By employing a few simple time management strategies, you can use time more wisely, accomplish more and enjoy work again.

We are all given the same number of hours each day. No matter what you do, you cannot make more time in your day or "find" time to fit in everything you want to do. Why, then, does it seem that some professionals are able to accomplish so much more during the day, while others are constantly frantic, scurrying to meet last minute deadlines? If you find yourself wondering at the end of each day where your time went, here are some tips to help you recapture that lost time, accomplish more and breathe easier.

Organize. The number one time waster is disorganization. If you are regularly spending 15 minutes or more looking for a document that you know was "just right here a few minutes ago," then it is time to take a close look at your organization system. A messy, disorganized desk is distracting and is not conducive to productivity. The good news, if you are not naturally organized, you can learn to be. Organization is simply a matter of creating a system for processing paperwork, a system that works for you. There are many good books on the subject of organization. Find a system you like and implement it immediately. Take a Saturday if you have to and get your office in shape. It will be well worth the effort. Make sure that you have separate file folders for each separate project, as well as for forms, inner-office memoranda, personnel documentation and the like. For loose paper, purchase a number of inexpensive wire baskets for incoming and outgoing mail and/or projects, for work in progress and for organizing mail. Make sure supplies, such as pens, paperclips and notepads, are easily accessible.

Once your organizational system is in place, set aside a specific time each day to go through that day's incoming mail and projects. The goal is to touch each piece of paper one time and one time only. As you review each piece of paper, take immediate action. Right then and there, assign it to one of three baskets: First, place items that are going to require some action or response on your part into your "to do" basket. Second, place items that are informational and require no action into your "to file" basket. Finally, separate junk mail or items that you will have no use for in the future into a third stack. Immediately toss this third stack into your trash can so that it does not end up cluttering your desk. You will feel a great sense of accomplishment just knowing that you have dealt with each piece of paper on your desk, even if it was just making an executive decision to throw it away! Then, once a week, set aside time to finalize any items remaining in your "to do" basket and to file the items in your "to file" basket. Initially, setting up your file and organization system will take some time. But, once in place, you will find it takes no more than 15-30 minutes each day to stay organized.

Evaluate. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, or if at the end of the day you feel as if you have accomplished nothing and still have that same stack of paperwork in front of you, chances are you are letting valuable time slip through your fingers. Before you go any further, take a close look at how you are spending your time. Purchase a special appointment calendar to use just for this project, one that provides sufficient space to keep detailed track of your appointments each day, from first thing in the morning until evening. Then, for a week or so, write down in this calendar each and every little thing you do throughout each day. For example, if you spend one hour checking and responding to e-mail correspondence from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., mark this in your calendar. If you spend half an hour looking for a file from 10 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., write it down. If you are interrupted with a phone call from 2:15 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., jot this down in your calendar as well. If you are occupied with a staff meeting from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., write it in your calendar. By the end of the week, you should be getting a clear picture of exactly where your time is really going.

At the end of a sufficient period of time, at least one week, evaluate the way you are spending your time each day. Take a good, hard look at the ways you may be contributing to your hectic schedule. Take responsibility for making necessary changes. Are you wasting time checking e-mail or voice mail numerous times throughout the day, when checking once or twice a day would be sufficient? Depending on your circumstances and responsibilities, you may be able to limit yourself to checking e-mail and voice mail once in the morning, once after lunch and once at the end of the day. Are you interrupted throughout the day with telephone calls? Perhaps you can set aside a block of time each day where you will work undisturbed and allow all non-urgent calls to be transferred to voice mail. Do you find yourself procrastinating or going back and forth between several projects, never really accomplishing much on any of them? If that's the case, then it is time to take the next step and . . . .

Prioritize. If you want to accomplish the maximum amount of work in a given time, there is absolutely no substitute for prioritizing. For this purpose, lists are invaluable. Set aside time each morning, or perhaps the evening before, to list each and every task you want to accomplish for the day. Once the list is complete, go through and number each item in order of priority. Then, take a few minutes to re-write your list neatly, starting with the number one most important task and continuing in number order. When you are ready to begin work for the day, start working on item number one and do not stop working on that task until it is complete. Do not allow yourself to be distracted. Do not abandon task number one because it seems too difficult. Stay on task. Do not skip down to item number five because it seems like more fun. Once you have completed item number one, cross it off your list move on to item number two and stay with that task until it is complete. Then move on to item number three, and so on and so on. At the end of the day, you may not have completed every item on your list, but you will have completed the most important items and, by staying on task, will have accomplished the maximum amount of work possible in the given time. Crossing items off a list feels good and lets you know you are accomplishing something. The next day, move the remaining items from the previous day's list onto your new list and add any new items that have come up. Again, prioritize the tasks in order of importance and get busy! You will be amazed at the amount of work you are able to complete each day utilizing this simple method.

Compartmentalize. If you are constantly bombarded with telephone calls, voice mail messages, e-mail correspondence or questions from co-workers, it is a good idea to compartmentalize these tasks so that they do not interrupt your work flow each day. Set aside a specific time each day to respond to all phone messages, rather than answering them in a scattered fashion throughout the day. Check voice mail and e-mail at set intervals, rather than doing so whenever it seems more fun than the task at hand. Set aside a block of time when you will work undisturbed each day. During that time, have all but the most urgent telephone calls transferred to your voice mail and notify co-workers that you are not to be interrupted except in the event of an emergency.

Delegate. For busy professionals, the saying "time is money" is particularly true. Take a good look at what you do each day, again utilizing the time evaluation calendar you created. How much of what you do could be done more efficiently, and perhaps better, by someone else on your staff? Do not be afraid to ask for help. Be willing to allow others an opportunity to show off their own skills and talents. You may be surprised to find that there is someone else on your staff who is better suited to a particular task than you are, or who enjoys doing something that you find nothing but a boring waste of time. Successful business people surround themselves with a staff made up of competent people whom they trust. Hire good people and trust them to do what they have been trained to do. Let your staff help make your business a success and, in the process, give them a chance to shine.

Set boundaries. If you want people to respect your time, you will have to teach them to do so. If co-workers know that you will drop whatever you are doing to help them, then they will take advantage of that. Be firm in letting people know that your time is valuable. Do not encourage or allow interruptions. When someone interrupts you, let them know that you are otherwise occupied and will not be able to help them, or that you will help them later, when it is more convenient for you. Become comfortable with the idea of taking time for yourself, whether that means locking your office door so you can get an important project finished or letting the answering machine pick up at home so you can take a few minutes to unwind after a busy day.

Most importantly, do not allow your schedule to become cluttered with activities and events that are not important to you. For example, if you are going to set aside time to volunteer for something, make sure it is for the right reasons, because the charity or organization is something you believe in strongly. Learn to say no to things that are of no interest to you. Do not tie up large amounts of your time doing things because they are expected of you, or because you have trouble saying no, or because you feel obligated. Responding with a yes to every request is a habit that can be broken. Practice saying no and it will soon become second nature to you. In fact, you will find that, as you begin to set boundaries and learn to say no, you will feel empowered, in control and more alive. You will soon feel that sense of being overwhelmed begin to lift from your shoulders.

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