Words by Kate Lenehan, The Monday Coach
When did ‘being busy’ become a badge of honour? The prevailing misconception is that if we are not busy, we are not working hard enough. But what if this badge that we wear with pride is in fact self-defeating? Stick with me here. We get busy in pursuit of success, yet being busy could be the very thing that stands in our way of achieving that success. Do you follow?
You see, many of us convince ourselves that we are effective time managers because our calendars are full and we are constantly running from one place to another (or clicking from one Zoom to the next). The problem here is that we confuse being efficient with being effective – and yes, there is a sizable difference. While efficiency refers to getting a lot of tasks done (i.e. having a full diary), effectiveness relates to getting the right tasks done.
Good time management is among the most desired competence in the workforce, yet it is the rarest to find. It is what enables you to work smarter, not harder, and distinguishes the effective from the merely efficient worker. Time management proficiency not only drives higher quality of work at a more productive rate, but it also leads to lower levels of stress and anxiety, improved quality of life, more opportunities for career growth, and increased time for leisure and recreation. Are you sold yet?
If you consider yourself a poor time manager, my guess is that until now you have viewed time management as a single skill, one that you have attempted to master by downloading the latest scheduling app or through excessive use of coloured post-its. I want to pose an alternative game plan. You see, research consolidated by Harvard Business Review points to three distinct skills that separate time management success from time management failure. These skills include awareness, arrangement and adaptation. The key is in attacking each skill individually and equally. So, that’s what we’re going to do. Stay close, as there are activities to carry out along the way.
Skill 1: Awareness
‘Awareness’ refers to thinking realistically about your time, acknowledging where you spend it and understanding that it is a limited resource. It has been repeatedly proven that effective people focus their time on ‘high priority’ tasks that could easily be postponed for their lack of apparent urgency, but which will greatly benefit their lives in the long term, such as developing relationships, defining our personal mission statement, and exercising. Tasks that distract us from carrying out these types of activities are known as ‘time stealers’. They appear during a crisis (e.g. responding to urgent emails or tending to a sick child) or when we are simply avoiding high priority tasks due to low energy levels (e.g. admin for the sake of admin or scrolling through social media).
- List the high priority tasks that are most relevant to your personal and professional life.
- Next, list your most common time stealers.
- Over the next few days, keep a log of the amount of time spent on high priority tasks versus time stealers.
Most people who complete this exercise (myself included) are shocked to discover how little time they actually spend on high priority work. Remember, these are the important tasks that will lead to long term success. Granted, urgent activities are unavoidable and unplanned, meaning we should instead focus on maximising the value we get outside of crisis mode.
With that in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that time-management is not just logical, but emotional. High priority activities generally require us to be firing on all cylinders, meaning these tasks are avoided or poorly performed when we are lacking energy. Instead, leverage your peak performance period (i.e. the time of day when you are at your most productive) in order to carry out high priority activities. Are you an early bird or a night owl? I can’t tell you the amount of people that identify as early birds, yet start each working day with activities that would elicit just as successful an outcome during a lower energy period (e.g. mindless emails or admin).
Activity: Identify your peak performance period.
Skill 2: Arrangement
‘Arrangement’ relates to designing and organizing your goals and tasks to effectively use time. Many of us are familiar with this skill, getting a kick out of investing in a new planner, or spending hours colour-coding our calendars. Be aware, however, that time management success is reached when all three skills (awareness, arrangement and adaptation) are mastered equally. This explains why sole focus on scheduling and planning is unlikely to move the needle towards being a strong time manager.
The goal of the ‘arrangement’ skill is to keep your time sacred. Not only does blocking out tasks in your calendar help to keep you on schedule, but it also prevents colleagues from popping last minute Zoom calls into your diary.
Activity: Plan out your week, scheduling high priority tasks, breaks & time-stealing activities (see further details below on how to do this).
- Choose a low opportunity cost time to plan out your week. In a typical desk job, this might be a Friday afternoon when people are winding down and email traffic is slow.
- During this time, list out the high priority tasks that you want to complete over the next week.
- Schedule these tasks into your calendar during your high energy time periods.
- Be specific in labelling each scheduled block with the exact task title. Better yet, set yourself an agenda in the meeting notes.
- Breaks should also be blocked out as a non-negotiable. Across our lifetime, we rack up an average of €40,000 in unpaid work during lunch time alone. The next time you consider skipping lunch, think about earning that money back!
- Lastly, block out your calendar for dedicated time-stealing tasks (e.g. 2 x 30 minute blocks to answer emails each day).
Skill 3: Adaptation
‘Adaptation’ is all about adjusting to interruptions and holding yourself continuously accountable to improving your time management. We all know that it takes consistent learning and reward in order to build a habit. This is why the final non-negotiable that I would recommend you add to your weekly calendar is a 10-minute Time Management Reflection appointment.
Activity: Reflect on your time management progress on a weekly basis. Ask yourself the following questions during this time:
- How would you rate your time management over the past week (from 1-10)?
- Is this up or down versus your score from the previous week?
- What helped you to stay on track?
- What threw you off track?
- What did you learn about your time management skills over the past week?
- What changes will you make going into next week in order to improve your time management?
- What will you reward yourself with when you improve your time management score next week?
Well, we made it through the three skills. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, get out there (or over there to your home desk) and turn that futile busyness into effective time management! I’m always here for a chat to help you along this journey. Simply get in touch through themondaycoach.com or @themondaycoach Instagram.