Like Sands through an Hourglass*

Time.  It is the one thing that no matter how rich or poor, how happy or sad, how young or old we are, it is an absolute.  There are only 24 hours in a day; if you have just wasted 15 minutes in line waiting for your half-caf, double shot espresso with soy milk that is 15 minutes you can never recover.

I was thinking about time, as I usually do when we turn our clocks back or ahead, as we just did earlier this month.  It often seems that the more productivity tools we have at our disposal, the more our time seems to be nibbled away in oftentimes seemingly frivolous tasks.  With the limited resource that none of us can change, how do we optimize that resource to best create an effective work-life balance?

To get the sales pitch out of the way early, my initial thought would be to hire a talented team of virtual assistant professionals – Cybertary, of course!  Beyond that, here are some effective tools to try to make the most of one of our most limited resources, TIME.

Tips for more Productive and Efficient use of Time

Punch List or Master List – spoiler alert: I am a list addict of the highest level.  I use lists for everything from my work to tracking progress for the Thanksgiving table.  For the latter, I use a time chart – when to pick up the 2, count ‘em 2, fresh turkeys to when they go in the brine (2 days ahead, in case you were curious), to when each needs to drained from the brine for the method of preparation (herb roasted and fried), to when each enters its respective cooking method (oven and fryer), to the time each is removed, rested and carved.  The invasion of Normandy has nothing on me when it comes to Thanksgiving prep.

Likewise, unless you have an eidetic memory or complete recall, you probably need something to aid you to remember all of the tasks that need to be done.  For contractors, it may be a punch list;  for project management professionals, an exhaustive detailed project plan; for the rest of us, sticky notes on list that may be hand-written, on our Smartphone or tablet, or all three.  Whatever method works for you, use it to keep a running tally of the tasks that need to be accomplished.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize – if you took time management workshops in the 80’s and 90’s, the instructors stressed using some categorization method to identify the most important tasks.  The A’s were the ones we had to do that day, while A1 was the first we needed to tackle.  On the flip side, the C’s and D’s kept moving to following days.  Some of the newer language calls the most critical to be accomplished “Most Important Tasks” or “Critical Path Tasks”.  Regardless of what we call them, the concept is the same:  Identify the 1 -3 things that need to be done and realistically can be accomplished in the day, given all of the other demands on us.

Once you have prioritized, it may be worthwhile to identify tasks that you can delegate.  In an earlier article, we shared a matrix that could help you to determine those tasks that can be handed off to someone whom you trust to accomplish those items in a manner consistent with your own handling.  They may be things that you don’t like to do, don’t know how to do, or plain just don’t want to do.  You must be willing and able to delegate them to get them off of your plate and onto someone else’s.  Did I mention Cybertary? – yes, second shameless plug.

Pick your battles – in order to use the limited resource of time, we need to have a great deal of self awareness.  For instance, what is the time of day when we are most productive?  For some, it is that time before 9 AM, before all hell breaks loose and we can’t get a moment to think;  for others, it is the quiet time after the kids are put to bed.  Whenever it is for you, get to know your own rhythm and use your ‘prime’ time to tackle the most important tasks of the day.

We all have time sinks, the ‘black holes’ of time management, that when we start on those tasks, time just disappears at an accelerated rate.  Managing email is one – if that is your ‘Achilles Heel’, recognize it and vow to do something to tame it.  Regiment time in your calendar to check email only during those times and be disciplined about only following that schedule.  Let everyone know that you only check email during those times with an out of office message or an additional note in your signature.

The one time management tool that does not fit with my personal style is to only handle a piece of paper once.  I am a stacker – I readily admit it.  If I were to file every piece of paper and become a member of the ‘clean desk club’, I probably couldn’t function.  That is back to the self awareness thing.  If you are and can do it, by all means handle that piece of paper once, take action on it and then file or shred it.

Interruptions, whether they are self-imposed (checking Smart phones constantly, traveling through social media la-la land) or external (calls, email, drop-ins) can truly be the banes of our existence.  I was reading a blog this morning that the average person checks their Smart Phone 200 times a day.  Interruption science studies (who knew there was such a thing?) indicates that when we shift our attention from one thing to another, there is a drag on our focus, a residual attention hit if you will.  This drag has been measured and it is suggested by the research that for every loss of focus due to an interruption, it takes us at least 11 minutes to re-focus.  Now doing the math that habit alone results in 150% productivity loss each day, equivalent to 50% more time (36.6 hours) than we have available and at our disposal, even if we don’t sleep.  While that number seems to indicate the research may be flawed, even a 10% hit, close to 4 hours, would be a blessing to recover and put to better use.  To curb the interruption sinkhole, let people know that a closed door means no access unless an emergency, turn your phone off, check caller id, block out your calendar, etc. to regain some control of your time and productivity.

And remember this tip . . . before you try to figure out how to do something faster, check to see if it has to be done at all.  That’s my excuse for not making the bed; what’s yours?

*Attribution believed to be Macdonald Carey