There isn’t a way to add more hours to the day but, when it comes to managing your time at work effectively, it’s not about how many hours you have – it’s about how you use them
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared on When I Work
If you’ve been struggling to work through your to-do list, or want your weekends back, use the tips below to optimise your productivity and start working smarter – without pulling an 80-hour week.
Delegate, delegate, delegate
You can do anything, but not everything. While it may be possible to reply to an email, answer a ‘phone call, put together next week’s employee schedule and take a look at your budget all at the same time, dividing your attention doesn’t equal better time management.
Instead, multitasking spreads out our limited attention even further across competing demands – leading to poor overall efficiency and performance.
Being a leader doesn’t mean doing everything yourself; it means knowing which responsibilities can be delegated to other employees so that you can give your full attention to high priority tasks and the things only you can do. Sounds simple, right?
Surprisingly, only one manager out of 10 knows how to delegate effectively. Why? One reason may be because it’s hard to let go of control. After all, your name is on the work. But delegating doesn’t mean changing the quality of the work; it means finding the right employees and empowering them to build their own leadership skills.
Trust is vital for delegation to succeed. If you micromanage after handing off a task, you’re just doubling your workload. Instead, try these communication must-haves to keep assignments moving:
- Know what tasks can and can’t be delegated.
- Provide complete instructions for each task.
- Define what it means for the task to be ‘done’.
- Decide how to track progress and status.
- Choose (and trust) the right people for the job.
- Resist the urge to micromanage.
The more you practice delegating, the more comfortable you’ll become with sharing tasks. And soon, you may start to see more openings on your calendar.
Use the ‘Pomodoro Technique’
Sometimes, the hardest part of time management is just getting started. When the work is piling up, it can feel impossible to know where to begin.
Enter the Pomodoro Technique. Created by author Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique breaks big projects or to-do lists down into a series of smaller, timed tasks. Each task is set at about 25 minutes, with five-minute breaks in between tasks. After completing four tasks, you take a longer break of 30 minutes before moving onto another hour of work.
The goal of Pomodoro is simply this: get the work done. Instead of being faced with an eight to 10-hour day and nonstop to-dos, you have 25-minute increments to complete one task at a time. You finish what you start before moving on to something else, or set the timer for another 25-minute interval until it’s done. If you get distracted or interrupted, the interval starts over.
Anyone with a watch or ‘phone can use Pomodoro. Apps like Be Focused also automate the process by allowing users to write out their entire list for the day and adjust their work and break intervals. So, when you start to feel like there is too much to do and too little time, don’t panic; write down every step required, turn on your timer, and get to work.
Schedule everything—even the little things
Everything means everything. Just like with Pomodoro, learning good time management includes getting in the habit of writing things down and scheduling out your workflow. Add breaks, inbox check-ins, meetings, work time, and anything else on your list. If you’re planning to meet up with a client to grab some lunch or send a quick email, add it to your calendar.
Scheduling your entire day allows you to see how much you’re actually trying to accomplish within 24 hours, as well as where you’re over or underestimating your capacity. The better you understand how long certain tasks take, the more accurately you can plan your day.
You’ll also quickly discover where you get side-lined along the way. As the day progresses, see how closely you stick to your schedule. Does that meeting actually take 30 minutes or run over into an hour? Does an unexpected email throw off your afternoon?
At this point, you have two options: adjust your schedule to better reflect your day, or change your day to match your schedule. Staying on schedule requires staying firm about start and end times and knowing when you can’t take on a new task; if you’re constantly getting derailed by last-minute requests, or being pulled into five-minute conversations, then your schedule is not your own.
Sometimes, effective time management means adding new tasks to an open block tomorrow and moving on to everything else you had planned for the afternoon. If there isn’t any room on your schedule, try spreading lower priority tasks throughout your week or scheduling a larger time buffer for each to-do.
We’re all guilty of checking our emails outside of business hours; today’s technology makes it harder than ever to set boundaries on our availability. According to new research, the average worker spends 4.1 hours checking work email each day, totalling 20.5 hours per week – that’s over half the work week just dedicated to your inbox.
While it’s tempting to respond to an email the moment you get a notification, or to be always available for a quick chat with an employee, being too available can do more harm than good.
The Harvard Business Review found that employees who regularly offer to help, or take on more work than their peers, were at a higher risk of ‘generosity burnout’. The more time employees spent responding to requests, the more trouble they had focusing on, and finishing, their own tasks – an effect that carried over even into the next workday.
On the other hand, setting boundaries had almost the reverse effect; employees who made the biggest impact on their jobs by taking on additional requests were also the ones who protected their own time. By making sure they had the capacity to work on their personal goals as well, these employees were still able to offer their help and take initiative without burning out.
Every business owner wants to stay open to new opportunities but valuing your own time, and saying ‘No’ when you need to, allows you to perform at your best and have time to say ‘Yes’ to the things that really matter.
Take a break (or break a sweat)
If you’re struggling to do it all, the key may be doing less. Studies have shown that switching focus to some form of distraction once an hour actually results in better productivity. Just having a few seconds to completely ‘turn off’ your brain and relax can increase resilience and combat fatigue.
What doesn’t help? Watching TV or taking an hour to catch up on Netflix. Next time you feel like there’s too much on your plate, try heading outside or to the gym. Physical movement can jumpstart creativity and productivity for up to two hours after working out and help you complete more work in less time.
It may feel counterproductive at first – why are you leaving your desk when there’s so much to do? Putting your work on pause probably feels like a last ditch effort, but consider this; the human brain is like a muscle. It requires about 20% of all the energy your body produces to function.
The average person can’t run and run forever without breaks – or breaking down. Just as you would rest and recharge after a hard workout, the brain needs time to relax and recharge after periods of continued focus to avoid burnout; taking even a 10-minute nap can immediately enhance performance.
As a workplace leader, your employees are likely looking to you as an example of good time management. You may be legally required to provide breaks, but it’s also important to make sure that employees feel that breaks are encouraged and that breaks are valuable for, not only their productivity, but also their well-being.
Managing your time effectively as a manager or business owner is crucial to long-term success. While you may be tempted to do it all, it’s more important to do what you can well.
Looping in your staff and delegating lower priority tasks will help you get the work done and create a team you can depend on. Additionally, getting a time clock app and using time optimisation techniques, like Pomodoro, can transform an endless to-do list into small, achievable tasks even if you just have 30 minutes.
Scheduling and setting time limits on email goes a long way in creating fair boundaries and keeping you from being ‘on’ after everyone else has gone home for the day.
Finally, don’t put off breaks in the goal of powering through. Take a few minutes – or even just a few seconds – and give your mind the rest it needs to tackle your remaining to-do list. Use your time off to fuel your time on the clock and that elusive work-life balance just might start to feel within reach.