A few months ago – April 14th, 2016 to be exact – I received a very nice note from a former student. It read:
Good morning Justin,
I am ardent follower of your blog – Art of Advice. We all in consulting look at you like super human when it comes to time management and productivity. You are managing so many things ranging from client work, teaching and serving on nonprofit boards. I think it would be helpful for all new consultants if you could share some of you favorite productivity tips. Looking forward to hearing from you.
I nearly fell out of my chair with a combination of laughter and surprise. “Time management!?!?!?” I thought… Holy cow, that has to be one of my greatest challenges and perpetual struggles.
Well, I’ve had a few months to ponder George’s note and, though I disagree with his “superhuman” assessment, I thought about some tips and tricks I have used to stay on top of things and help keep my head above water. These may not work for everyone and mileage will vary based on your unique circumstances but I’ve found these tips to help me manage my time effectively.
Makes lists. Use lists. Repeat.
I love “to do lists.” You can almost feel the stress melting away when you consolidate your action list versus struggling to remember all the demands on your time and attention. I’ve gone back and forth between paper-based systems and apps. Right now I am using an app since I always have my phone on me, but a pen and paper system works great as long as you use it. Whatever the system, get one and use it.
Use the calendar. Always.
Just about everyone uses a calendar but some people use it better than others. There are a few tips I’ve learned about using a calendar wisely:
- Block unavailable time. Whether it’s lunch, taking a walk, studying, breakfast with the kiddos, or a hobby, put it on the calendar so that time is yours and doesn’t get scheduled.
- Schedule personal time. Often we look at calendars as a way to interact with others. Don’t forget the most important stakeholder who often gets neglected; YOU!
- Just say no to double booking meetings and appointments. When I started my career I remember looking at my boss’s calendar only to see day after day of double, triple and even quadruple scheduled meetings. When asked how he manages it he told me: “I assess it every 30 minutes for the meeting that is most important and I attend that one.” That just doesn’t work! Think of all the meetings that may need to be rebooked because he wasn’t there. One meeting per time slot… The two exceptions I can think of are overlapping meetings where you make it clear to the organizer that you will only make part of the meeting and in cases where you are optional or included as an FYI.
- Give yourself time to get to and prepare for the next meeting. If it’s worth having a meeting, it’s worth getting there on time and being prepared. Be careful of the back-to-back meeting trap, especially if meetings are live and geographically dispersed.
9-to-5 is a myth.
No matter how hard I try, I just can’t fit everything into 8 hours-a-day. Navigating time zones and global calls alone means getting up early or staying up late. It’s a reality in our global economy and contrary to popular belief, the world does not revolve around US time zones.
But aside from time zones, it’s just plain impossible to attend to all the business of the day between the hours of 9 to 5. Open yourself to the possibility of after hours chats, breakfast meetings or even weekend catch-ups if you’re into that sort of thing.
Strive for 0 emails and stay responsive, my friends.
Let me start by saying I know this is controversial and highly debated. You’re either a “zero inbox” type-of-person, perpetually striving for no unattended email, or an “inbox archivist,” who never files, rarely deletes and keeps everything in the inbox. For me, emails are either informational or require some kind of action. Once the information is digested and absorbed (or in some cases just filed for reference), it is filed or archived. If it requires a decision or action, I make it and then the email is then filed or archived.
For those emails that require some kind of action, responsiveness is key. So often, the sender just needs a quick confirmation, reply or basic piece of direction. Don’t leave them hanging. Respond as soon as you can. For those emails that require a little more thought and contemplation, try for a response within 24 hours. If something is going to exceed 24 hours, let them know that the email was received and give an approximate deadline for response.
Teaching, mentoring and coaching is the next best thing to cloning.
Doing everything yourself is just impossible. Teach, mentor and coach others and delegate, delegate, delegate! It’s easy to say and hard to do; especially since it may take longer to show someone how to do something than it would if you did it yourself. But I promise you: it is well worth the investment.
Outsource the non-core competencies in your life.
Time is one of the most precious commodities. Once it’s gone you can never get it back. Wasting time on things that can be “outsourced” takes time away from the most important things in your life. For example: I travel 4-5 days per week and my wife works a demanding full time job. Our time on the weekends is precious so we have outsourced dry cleaning, landscaping and snow removal, for example, so we can maximize the time we spend with each other and our loved ones. Laundry, house cleaning, groceries, and meal prep are all easy-to-outsource things (especially with today’s apps) that could help you make time for the most important people and priorities in your life. Now, of course if you love to cook, clean and do laundry by all means do it! If you don’t and you’re short on time, outsource it!
Plan weekly and daily goals and objectives.
Many of us sit down and plan our yearly goals at work but how many of us break it down by month, week and even day. Try to find 10 minutes every day to plan your objectives for the day and the week. Yearly and monthly goals are great but it’s important to get tactical and look at what you want to accomplish every day. Oh, and yes: write it down in a list.
Establish your “non-negotiables.”
Determine the things that will not be put off, rescheduled, or de-prioritized. Little league, TV shows, and important events should not be dismissed if they are important to you. Given these are different for everyone, no one will tell you that you must prioritize these things. It is up to you to define your own non-negotiables and make sure they come first.
If you think you’re communicating too much, communicate more. Going to be late? Text them. Plans change? Send an email. Emergency come up? Give them a call. Heading out on vacation or holiday? Tell those depending on you about it. Assuming your colleagues know the contents of your calendar is a recipe for disaster.