We’ve all experienced the woes of time management at work. You wake up hopeful and optimistic—not only will you meet all your deadlines, but you’ll hit the gym and make a healthy home-cooked meal, too.
Then life happens. You leave late, you hit traffic, and you arrive at your desk already frustrated with the world. Sitting down to finally knock out that project you’ve been procrastinating for weeks, you realize you’ve got back-to-back meetings until noon—and yes, you’re already late for the first one. You finally walk out of the last meeting, and you start wading through emails when you get pulled into a meeting with the VP. He has a last-minute request for you. “It should only take an hour,” he says. Try three.
1. Create a daily schedule—and stick with it.
This step is absolutely crucial for learning how to manage time at work. Don’t even attempt starting your day without an organized to-do list. Before you leave work for the day, create a list of the most pressing tasks for the next day. This step allows you to get going as soon as you get to the office.
Putting everything on paper will prevent you from lying awake at night tossing and turning over the tasks running through your brain. Instead, your subconscious goes to work on your plans while you are asleep, which means you can wake up in the morning with new insights for the workday.
If you can’t do it the day before, make sure you write out your list first thing in the morning. You’ll find that the time you spend creating a clear plan is nothing compared to the time you’ll lose jumping between tasks when you lack such a plan.
2. Group similar tasks together.
Save yourself time and mental energy by trying to complete all of one type of to-do before moving on to the next. For example, create separate chunks of time for answering emails, making phone calls, filing, etc. Don’t answer emails and messages as they come in, as doing so is distraction at its finest. Turn off your phone and email notifications to completely eliminate the temptation to check at an unappointed time.
3. Assign time limits to tasks.
Part of creating your schedule should involve setting time limits on tasks instead of just working until they’re done. To-do lists are great and wonderful, but sometimes you might feel like you never check anything off.
If you’re looking to set a steady pace to your workflow, the Pomodoro Technique can help you check off your to-do list in 25-minute chunks, taking short breaks between each stint and a longer break after completing four. This technique balances a narrow focus with frequent breaks, reducing mental strain and maintaining motivation.
If you’d rather set your own pace, timeboxing allows you to block out varied amounts of time. Use your time log (step #1) to get an estimate for how long an activity will take you. Once you’ve spent the designated amount of time on that task, move on to the next important activity. You’ll find your productivity skyrocketing and your to-do list shrinking when you have these parameters in place.
4. Learn to say no.
You’ll never learn how to manage time at work if you don’t learn how to say no. Only you truly know what you have time for, so if you need to decline a request in order to focus on more important tasks, don’t hesitate to do so. And if you take on a project that is obviously going nowhere, don’t be afraid to let it go.
Rather than doing a lot of tasks that yield little or no value, complete fewer tasks that create more value. Remember the 80/20 rule—80% of your output comes from 20% of your inputs. Focus your efforts accordingly.
If you can’t say no, delegate it. While delegating can be a hard skill to learn, it can work wonders for your personal time management. You’ve put together a talented team, so determine the tasks you can pass on.
5. Eliminate distractions.
Social media, web browsing, co-workers, text messages, instant messaging—the distractions at work can be limitless. A key to personal time management is being proactive about getting rid of them. Shut your door to limit interruptions. Close all tabs except the ones you are currently working on. Turn off messaging notifications and leave your personal phone calls for lunch.
Take baby steps. Identify your top two distractions and focus on conquering those for two weeks. And remember that getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and eating healthily can all help you stay focused during the workday—especially when that afternoon slump hits.