For many of us, there are only a few remaining weeks standing between us and our Christmas and beach holidays, where we can relax and recharge after a momentous year. And while it would be fair to assume the vast majority of the world are keen to see the back of 2020, the last few weeks of the working year are always a mad rush to tick everything off the growing to-do list. Project-end dates loom, final appointments with clients need to be booked in and end-of-quarter targets need to be met. Factor in Christmas shopping and end-of-year functions and December can start to feel like you are constantly on fast-forward.
During such an eventful period, time-management becomes your most valuable asset; the ability to prioritise tasks, effectively arrange schedules and monitor your use of time becomes essential in achieving all you need to before the December 31st cut-off. In fact, time-management is imperative to career success all year long, with many large-scale surveys routinely finding time management skills among the most desired and employable skills. Despite this, time-management skills can be the hardest to find, or even develop.
Luckily, there is no shortage of resources available to help those in their quest to manage and track their time more effectively, from books and blogs to apps and project tracking software. Public Sector People have collated some of the most useful tools and strategies both our team have developed, and what has been recommended by leading research to help those struggling to juggle and complete their multiple tasks in the final weeks of 2020.
Firstly, before you can even start processing all the tasks you need to complete in your allocated amount of time, you need to properly understand what the term means. Productivity consultant David Allen says the term ‘time management’ is a misnomer – you can’t manage time, stop or alter it. It just is. He suggests that people stop putting so much focus on time itself and instead focus more on ourselves, particularly how we manage our attention and focus in relation to a task during a set period (a day, week, month).
Similarly, research from the Academy of Management has identified three key skills that separate time management success from failure:
Awareness: the ability to think realistically about your time by understanding that it is a limited resource.
Arrangement: the ability to design and organise your goals, plans, schedules, and tasks to effectively use time.
Adaption: the ability to monitor your use of time while performing activities, including adjusting to interruptions or changing priorities.
Through additional research conducted by professor Erich C. Dierdorff at the Richard H. Driehaus College of Business, it was discovered that awareness skills were the primary driver of how well people avoid procrastination while adaption skills played an integral role in people’s ability to effectively prioritise activities.
So, how do we become better time managers? The first step is being able to assess what areas you need to improve on or develop; do you have trouble setting goals or sticking to a schedule? Or do you find time gets away from you while performing certain tasks?
Developing awareness skills
Determine how realistically you assess time: When starting a project, make a conscious effort of mapping out how long you think the project will take, breaking it down into separate steps. Then after completing the project, reflect on how long the project actually took. Were there certain tasks that tool longer than imagined? Have you been estimating things to take longer/shorter to finish than in reality- does this need to be adjusted?
Determine the true value of your time: Remember that your time is valuable, especially at work. Every hour you’re at work costs your employer money. Harvard Business Review recommends creating a time budget that details how you spend your hours during a typical week. Are there any tasks within this schedule that are taking longer than they really should- perhaps attending to emails or meetings? Try and categorise your time within your time budget into fixed time (must do’s) and discretionary time (want to do’s).
Avoid time wasters: When you think you might be spending too much time on an activity, step back and evaluate it’s value or importance- (determine how crucial the outcome is, who else will be affected if it’s not finished on time etc.) You should also consider the 4 D’s when facing a time-consuming task; delay, delegate, diminish and delete. Can you delay the task if you’ve got a lot on your plate? Does it really have to be you that completes the task or can you delegate? Can you diminish the task- i.e. limit its scope or finally, can you delete the task? Is it more trouble than it’s worth- and if it is learn how to say no and become confident in doing so.
Developing arrangement skills
Keep your calendar in check: Utilise not only your digital calendar or the calendar built into your email platform but also a physical calendar and notebook where you can add appointments and take notes. Something where you can physically write things down is useful as the act- writing and then actually seeing the words written - can help ingrain the meetings and appointments into your brain and remember them better when future appointments or meetings pop up, which reduces the chances of over-committing yourself.
Categorise priorities: With every task you’ve been set, ask yourself if it’s a high, medium or low priority. Who or what will be affected if the task isn’t completed by a certain date? By categorising your priorities into levels you can better assess their importance and consequently what task needs to be completed first. Once you’ve tackled your highest priorities, you can move on to your medium priority goals and then your low priority goals.
Acknowledge the difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’: Although related, these are two distinct concepts; urgent tasks require immediate action, whereas important tasks might not need to be done straight away, but have more significant and long-term consequences. Tasks that are both urgent and important should be completed first.
Pad out your calendar: Ensure that when you’re scheduling your week you schedule or block out time just for you- uninterrupted time that allows you to catch up on any admin tasks or dedicate yourself to your top priority projects.
Developing adaption skills
Break up activities: If you’re facing a particularly big or daunting task, see if you can break the task up into smaller tasks, that you can look at completing one at a time. This can help in avoiding procrastination, as once a task is split into a number of ‘mini tasks’ it can suddenly appear more achievable. Similarly, you can tackle a big or daunting task by applying maximum effort into the task for 15-to-30-minute increments at a time, so that the task becomes more digestible and again helps minimising procrastination.
Create contingency plans: When embarking on a task, it helps to think about the best/worst case scenarios when you outline the possible outcomes of your project, or any future hurdles that may arise during the project. For example, could there be any issues with technology, or would there be delays if a certain person working on the project became sick? Thinking about possible barriers ahead of time, can help prepare you for them and develop resolutions that you can then use if these barriers arise, which will save you time in the long run.
Work Smarter, Not Harder: Similarly, to the point above, think about your projects ahead of time and develop a plan of action before committing to or starting any work. This will be more efficient in the long run, as you avoid things like jumping into a project before realising halfway through that you’ve gone about it the wrong way and having to start again or realising there was a much more efficient process to tackling the particular challenge. Make sure your efforts in whatever you’re doing aren’t wasted as this will leave you with more room to accomplish other things.
Set SMART goals: Setting goals at the beginning of a task or project will ensure you have direction and purpose when embarking on a task. For example, it’ll allow you to give yourself a deadline as SMART goals are time based, and you’ll be able to determine whether you’ve successfully achieved what you set out to as SMART goals ensure you can quantify your actions and measure your overall success.
Ultimately, time management is a skill that you will constantly have to work on and adjust as your workload changes. However, breaking up time management into the three skills - awareness, arrangement and adaption - and applying them to your to-do list, can make the process of ticking everything off your list more achievable. Becoming realistic about your capabilities, especially within a set timeframe and mapping out what you can achieve ahead of time, will make it easier when racing against time during the mad December rush.