The most valuable commodity known to man is the most finite: time. In our mile-a-minute lifestyles, it seems we never have enough time to get done all we need to, let alone the things we want to do. But if we learned to budget our time more efficiently, I believe we’d all be pleasantly surprised by what we could actually fit into a day.
The key to making the best use of your time is in your scheduling habits. There are tons of tools available to help you keep track of what you need to do, but even the best scheduling tool ever invented has absolutely no value if you aren’t going to use it consistently. For some people, the easy integration and ubiquitous nature of Google makes their online calendar tool the go-to choice, while others still prefer the feel of pen on paper. Whatever your preference, find a tool that is right for you, that will allow you to manage your schedule in a detailed daily and weekly view, as well as a longer-term overview of monthly and yearly pages.
Once you have selected your scheduling tool of choice, be it an app or a trusty day planner, follow these tips to sensible scheduling:
Make a list of everything you need to accomplish each day, week and month. Note how long you need to devote to this task and then log it on your calendar. (You might find it helpful to use different colored pens to differentiate between personal tasks, client work, etc., and most online tools allow for color-coding of events, as well.) Consider not only how long each project will take you, but how much time you can realistically devote to it in one sitting. You may be spot on in estimating that a job will take about 12 hours to complete, but will those 12 hours take place over three days or three weeks? Be honest with yourself and plot those 12 hours out logically on your calendar.
Prioritize. Populate your calendar first with the non-negotiable items: work deliverables, staff meetings and anything else you need to do to maintain your job, your relationships and your sanity. Start with your high-priority tasks and recurring deadlines, then move on to the items with more flexibility like your next haircut or painting your bedroom. When all of these To Dos are written on your schedule, you’ll have a clearer view of how to fit in your less pressing, but still important goals… like that novel you’ve been meaning to get around to writing. Yes, that goes on the calendar too!
Be realistic about what you can accomplish in the time you have. It may make sense that you could accomplish five hours of work in a five-hour timespan, but it doesn’t really happen that way, does it? Studies show that our brains can only stay focused on one task for about 45-90 minutes at a stretch. For maximum productivity, be sure to factor in 15 minutes every so often to stretch, grab a snack, or return an email or two. That means a five-hour job will actually require six hours or more to complete, so plan accordingly and write it down.
Remember, you cannot manage your time unless you know where you’re spending it. Try out a tool like Harvest or Freshbooks to track your activity while you work. After a week or so, you can look back and see where you might find more time in your day.
Put it ALL on there – even if it’s just for YOU! Don’t forget to book time even for your most regular activities like working out, doing housework or buying groceries. By writing these items down, you are giving yourself a clearer view of the true scope of the responsibilities you must consider when you are trying to “make time” for something new. Putting your personal care on your calendar is also a way to remember that you are a priority in your life… as you should be.
Put every project on a timeline. “Timeline” sounds less threatening than “deadline,” but essentially, by selecting an endpoint by which you intend to have each goal completed, you are more likely to actually achieve it. Work backwards from your target date and you can easily figure out when you need to get started if you want to finish on schedule.
Leave it loose. Allowing time to deal with unexpected occurrences like a traffic jam or a crashed Internet connection will minimize your stress. It also helps to not become overextended by accepting every social invitation you receive. Skipping even the fun commitments once in a while gives you a chance to recharge your battery, and you’ll be more likely to stay on schedule in the days to come.
Don’t Give Up! As with all organizing tasks, maintaining order requires that you stick to it. If you find you’re not using your chosen scheduling tool, assess why it doesn’t work for you and then try a new one.
What have you found is the biggest obstacle to staying on schedule and how have you overcome it? Please share your favorite scheduling tools and tips or your time management woes in the comments below.