How to Make Time Work for You
A young, upwardly mobile professional was driving his sports car out in the country one weekend when he happened upon a farmer in an apple orchard. What attracted the city slicker was that the farmer was holding a pig up to the tree, allowing the pig to munch on an apple, and then moving the critter on to the next piece of fruit.
Frustrated by the inefficiency, the man stopped his car, walked up to the farmer and with exasperation fairly dripping out of his mouth, said, “You know, you could save a lot of time if you put the pig down, shook the tree and let the apples fall down on the ground where the pig could eat what he wanted.”
The farmer shifted the pig to the next apple, looked over at the young man and said, “What’s time to a pig?”
Too many people manage time like that farmer. You’ve heard the complaints:
- “So much to do, so little time.”
- “There are just not enough hours in the day or enough days in the week.”
- “Time just got away from me.”
- “I lost track of time.”
- “I don’t have time to do the things I want to do.”
- “Sorry I’m late.”
The excuses flow faster than sands through an hourglass.
The answer lies not in trying to make the pig eat faster, to get an earlier start or to try to hold another pig. The trick is to learn to shake the apple tree. Here are effective ways to start shaking:
- Set your priorities. Spend some time to determine who you are, where you are going and where you want to be. Factor in all the elements of life—the professional, the family, the social, the intellectual, the spiritual, the emotional and the physical. The goal is to understand what’s important in your life and to make those things a priority. Focus on those areas you can control and don’t waste time worrying about elements beyond your control. Setting priorities allows you to live life with purposeful intentionality.
- Plan your time. Begin each week by building a schedule, in writing, that includes each of your key priorities. Honor those commitments. At the end of each day, reflect on what you accomplished for the day and give yourself the appropriate “attaboys.” Then take a look at what needs to be accomplished in the days ahead and make any adjustments to your schedule. When you come in tomorrow, check in with yourself and validate your course. If you fail to plan or if you don’t honor these commitments, you will find yourself responding to all the people, events and things that squeal for your attention but that may not be important.
- Look before you leap. Think about what you are doing; don’t just do it. Remain in control of your schedule. There’s a great saying that hangs in many a cubicle: “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an automatic emergency on my part.” Live it.
- Think small. Start your day with some small challenges that you can quickly cross off your to-do list and build some momentum. Motion creates motion and small victories add up to large ones. Some people start their day with exercise. Others by reading the paper. Still others with a short team meeting. Whatever works and falls within your priorities, just do it and move on with a winning attitude. If you start the day with a major project with no end in sight, your strength, spirit and results will evaporate. Break down big projects into smaller bite-size pieces.
- Cluster activities. Plan your day so that you cluster similar sorts of activities at the same time. For instance, carve out blocks of time to return phone calls and emails, administrative tasks, proposals, research and the like. Break up brain-draining activities such as writing reports with less demanding but still important tasks such as your daily reading. Use other activities as a break. For instance, you may find it effective to spend two hours researching a report, followed by responding to emails and voice mails, followed by three hours of writing the report.
- Anticipate interruptions. No day goes entirely as planned. There are constant changes, surprises and interruptions. How you handle these will go a long way to determining how you stay within your time budget. Think about those events, actions or people that could derail your momentum. Anticipating these changes and developing a plan to deal with them will keep you in the driver’s seat. Always ask, how important is this? Does it really need to be done now? Do I need to be worrying about this? Without being rude, you can offer your help by saying something like: “It’ll take me about 30 minutes to finish this up, and then I’ll stop by—or we can schedule another time.”
- Deal with people. When you’re dealing with things like projects, reports and meetings, you think efficiency—30 minutes for this, an hour for that. Remember the vacuum theory of time management: you will fill whatever time you allot to a project. With people, the reverse is true. Say one of your people is not performing up to his or her abilities. You cannot block off 15 minutes to deal with it. You will have to take whatever time you believe necessary to deal effectively with that person.
- Remove distractions. Structure your environment for productivity. Everybody works differently and what works for one person may be absolutely terminal for another. Think about the environments that stimulate your performance: what tools and resources do you need? What pictures inspire you? What music motivates you? To the degree possible, deal with each piece of paper or email one time. Quit delaying action by shifting it around your desk from pile to pile. Speaking of piles, get rid of them. All they do is serve to distract.
- Say “No” to homework. Agree not to take work home for the evening or over the weekend unless absolutely necessary. Workload “sprawl” can be the result of lazy time management or a need to have others think you’re busy and therefore important. Learn to be efficient during the workweek so that you can reserve your personal time for refueling and personal fulfillment.
- Ask for support. Don’t try to do it all. If you’re overloaded, ask your team to help pitch in to get a project done. Or, maybe there are others who can offer suggestions on how to accomplish your task more efficiently. You’ll never know unless you ask.
- Take the long view. Everything doesn’t have to be completed this minute, or today, or even this week. Check in frequently on timelines and deadlines when priorities are conflicting. Identify when you’re artificially accelerating a deadline for no good reason.