Does it sometimes feel like your to-do list is playing tricks on you? Your plans seem totally doable at first and get more chaotic the more you plug away at them. Think of time management as a lifelong skill that requires ongoing practice and personal accountability.
These good work habits improve your confidence and help you run your business more efficiently. Produce better business results by trying smart productivity tips from time management experts.
1. Track Your Time for Transparency
Always busy, but never productive? Find out exactly why you aren’t getting things done. Log your activities for a few days or weeks to get a realistic picture of how you spend your time, says Laura Vanderkam, a public speaker and author of “Off the Clock: Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done.” People tend to overestimate their efforts, which enables a poor work ethic, so be honest with yourself.
Time tracking is a tough reality check, because it provides solid evidence that you need to step up your game. Treat the whole experience as a fact-finding mission and ask yourself: What is your thought process when you start working? What routines put you in productivity mode? What throws you off when you’re working? Vanderkam recommends adding detailed notes to your log. By describing factors that lead to procrastination, you can figure out how to create conditions for success.
Productivity hacks free up a spare minute here and there, but they can’t transform your schedule. You have to decide what’s important and devote more time to those priorities. Look at your time log.
Are your days filled with busy work or purposeful activities that bring you closer to achieving your goals? Get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to stop doing things that add no value to your life. Nothing bad is going to happen because you stopped wasting time.
2. Master One Productivity Habit at a Time
Making several big changes at once isn’t practical for most people. Set a manageable goal by engaging in one new habit until it’s second nature. In his Zen to Done model (ZTD), time management expert Leo Babauta outlines 10 productivity goals to work on. He advises you to try each one for at least 30 days. Two of his core principles include collecting and doing:
- Collecting: The collecting habit involves placing all the items you need for work in one single area and keeping the area organized. Scattered workflows are a huge time drain. You delay progress because you’re scrambling to remember your schedule and the items you need to get started.
- Doing: The doing habit is about creating uninterrupted blocks of time for work. Forget about multitasking. Budgeting time allows you to finish small tasks in one sitting. Those accomplishments motivate you to tackle longer tasks and stay focused.
Use step-by-step productivity training to avoid starts and stops. Working inconsistently messes with your concentration and makes you more susceptible to distractions. You don’t have to follow the ZTD list of habits to the letter.
Review your time-tracking data to identify your unique productivity hurdles. Rank the habits that have the greatest impact on your performance in order of importance, and master them one by one. Keep in mind that this process might take longer than 30 days.
3. Respect the Sanctity of Deadlines
One of the best time management tips is deceptively simple: Take deadlines seriously. It sounds easy enough, but how often do you put off finishing a project?
Craig Jarrow of Time Management Ninja urges people to stop thinking of deadlines as mere guidelines. Missed deadlines cause self-inflicted stress. Instead of having time to clear your head and evaluate your work, you’re forced to forge ahead at an exhausting pace. Undermining a deadline is counterproductive for several reasons.
- It makes it difficult to deliver your best work.
- It makes you unprepared to deal with unexpected challenges.
- It hurts your reputation with colleagues and clients.
- It prevents you from taking advantage of surprise opportunities.
Being ahead of time gives you a sense of accomplishment. Use the extra wiggle room to polish your work and make it exceed expectations. If you run a small business, delivering ahead of schedule could lead to more work.
4. Plan Your Workday in Advance
Ever catch yourself using your personality as an excuse for being disorganized? You may prefer to take things as they come, be spontaneous, and switch from task to task to keep your energy up. The only difference between you and your more productive peers is a lack of planning. Planning and structure are scary to many professionals. Plans create unspoken accountability, so you feel defeated when things go off track.
Think of a structured to-do list as an auditing system, not a contract you’re locked into. Take 10 minutes to plan your day. Knock out your most important work first to make sure your top priorities are always on schedule, says Jarrow. Being proactive keeps you agile. You never know when you might have to change direction to handle sudden obligations.
Flexibility is important too. Sometimes, a project takes longer than you expected or complications arise and you have to adjust. Babauta recommends creating a go-to workflow to balance your most important, least important, and deferred tasks.
- Do tasks that are urgent or high-stakes right away.
- Delegate tasks if they can be completed efficiently without your supervision or require another person’s expertise.
- Defer tasks that are stalled, less urgent, or low-impact overall.
- Delete tasks that are finished or no longer relevant to your goals.
Any urgent work left unfinished should become your top priority for the next day. By staying ahead of deadlines, you can easily sprinkle in deferred tasks before they turn into urgent ones. Keep an eye on stalled projects as well. If you’re waiting for input from someone else, try to be proactive and seek out the information you need.
5. Conduct Personal Performance Reviews
How do you know whether your time management methods are working? Self-assessment is crucial to measure performance and keep improving year after year. A performance review is like a playbook for how to manage your time. When done right, it celebrates the value of your efforts, not just the results.
Vanderkam suggests you start with a “prospective performance review.” Imagine yourself 12 months from now. What are the most important professional milestones you hope to accomplish by then? Write down three to five projected goals for your year. Let’s say you want to build a bigger client list. You have to schedule regular time to research and write proposals, so structure your daily, weekly, and monthly planning to reach your goal.
Think long and short term. Conduct mini performance reviews every week and month to stay motivated. Think about the highlights of your day and how your choices contributed to them.
Did you finish a complex project sooner than you expected? Reflect on what you did differently to produce better outcomes. As you move forward, ask yourself whether you’re still on the path toward reaching bigger goals. If you start heading off course, you have a blueprint for success to help you refocus your efforts.
Change your approach to time management to check more goals off your list. You don’t have to be a zen master to drastically transform how you work, but look inward to figure out what you want professionally. You become more productive when you actively make decisions and prioritize, instead of saying “yes” to every obligation that falls into your lap.