This is a draft of my next article for Mensa's national magazine. I thought you might like a look. And because it is a draft, I welcome your suggestions for its improvement.
Our most valuable possession is not money. It's time. We get but a limited time on Earth and the value of your life depends on the extent to which you make the most of that time. Less lofty, your career success and feeling at least somewhat in control of your life depends on whether you make the most of your time.
You're too smart for the standard tips to solve your time-management problem: "Only handle a piece of paper once?" Duh.
Or the standard advice doesn't fit your non-standard life, for example, the title of one of time-management guru Julie Morgenstern's book is, Never Check E-mail in the Morning. Right.
There are three steps to improving your time-management:
1. Getting sufficiently motivated to improve your time-management
2. Acquiring three basic skills
3. Knowing some non-obvious tactics.
You may get more motivated simply by knowing I'm not necessarily trying to get you to do more work--you may already be doing as much as you want to. Time-management can be about paring your to-do list so you get done what you really want and need to. Of course, this article will also offer some potent yet not-obvious tactics for getting more done in less time.
Alas, motivating you to take the (ahem) time to improve your time management often isn't that easy. For example, if your life sucks and think it will continue to suck even if you improve your time management, you're unlikely to keep reading this article, let alone work on your time management.
Before you can care enough to work on time management, do you need to improve your work situation, romantic life, or health? If so, stop reading this article and ask yourself, "What one or two doable yet important things could I do now to improve those?" For example, even though the job market is lousy, is it time to tell your boss to take this job and shove it? Your romantic partner to stop being a nag or else? To lose those extra 20 pounds that are making you feel like crap? To make sure you get those seven hours of sleep so you're not dragging all day? To see a counselor or even try meds to address that depression, anxiety, bipolar, whatever? Most people know what they need to do--They just need to take a step back, pick something, and commit to doing it, perhaps telling others of that commitment.
The three prerequisite skills
Whether you're trying to pare your to-do list or to get more done, it really helps to:
• Embrace productivity. Sure, with seven billion people on the planet, none of us are likely to make that much difference, but whatever meaning our life has seems to me so enhanced by how productive we are.
Sure, I could have more fun by spending as much time as possible watching comedies and listening to my favorite tunes but the world will have been no better for my presence. For example, it would be more fun to play with my doggie Einstein than to write this article, but my life feels better-led because I'm writing it.
Most people wouldn't want to be this analytical but I wonder if the value of a person's life could be measured by scoring each hour on The Meter: with -10 (selling crack to kids ,) 0 ( playing with Einstein,) +10 (working to cure cancer.)
Besides, productivity can be so healing. I am a child of Holocaust survivors and got to know about 30 Survivors. Nearly all of them that appeared psychologically healthy focused not on reliving the past but on working hard to create a new life. For example, my dad worked 60+ hours a week, which not only supported my mom, sister, and me, but healed him and made him feel good about his life despite having lost years and family to the Holocaust and being dumped, as a young adult, in the Bronx without a penny or a word of English, only the scars of the Holocaust tortures.
I don't want to be one of those people who's always asking, "Where did the day go?" let alone "Where did the years go?" I want to be one of those people who feel, "I'm making good use of my time. I'm living a life well-led."
• Set goals that reflect a personal mission statement. For example, mine is "Use my coaching, writing, and speaking skills to improve people's lives and to reinvent higher education." From there, I set goals. Then, when I have a choice (not as often as I'd like--life intrudes,) I try to prioritize tasks that abet my mission statement and goals.
Are you ready to create a personal mission statement? Perhaps even take a crack at writing one right now? After that, want to try creating a first-draft set of goals that follow from your mission statement?
• Be time-aware. In planning how you'll do a task, and throughout, ask yourself the magic time-management question: Is this a time-efficient approach? Do you really need to do five interviews to get the information for that report or might a good Google search do? Do you really need to call an in-person meeting or would getting the team's input by email give you the most bang per hour?
This is a buffet of options. Pick even just one or two and you'll likely feel satisfied.
• Cut unwanted time-sucks from your life. Maybe you really feel these things are wise uses of your time: playing golf, pity parties with your hopeless friends, a standing date with a sitcom, traipsing to Topeka for Uncle Gomer's third wedding, the monthly $300 day at the day spa, trying to finally understand Ulysses, staring at steroided athletes throwing a ball around, stuffing your face for eight days and seven nights on the cruise ship Il Stupendo, attending a memorial for your favorite OD'd entertainer, or filing the lawsuit against that sonofabitch. But often we do such things without consciously evaluating whether we'd really rather spend the time some other way.
• Outsource. Companies do it to save money. You can do it to save money and time. You can outsource anything from laundry to errands, writing to webmastering. Place an ad in craiglist.org or find someone at a temp worker site such as www.odesk.com or www.elance.com, which list thousands of people highly-rated by previous employers, eager to work for $10 an hour or less. Even if you're broke, your time is worth more than $10 an hour--hiring someone even for a few hours a week frees you up to look for a job paying more than that.
• Analyze less; act more. Analysis paralysis is not only draining, it's often a formula for failure. Most successful people plan and analyze relatively quickly, then take low-risk action steps and, based on that experience, revise their plan, if needed. They live by: Ready, FIRE, Aim!
• With most sub-five-minute tasks, rather than put it on your to-do list, just do it. That will help keep your to-do list short enough that it doesn't overwhelm you into inertia and procrastination.
• Have a sponge activity, an activity you can use to sponge up otherwise wasted time. We all have lots of dead time: on the commute train, in line at the supermarket, waiting in the doctor's office, even while watching TV--the commercials are endless! I always keep an article, book, or memo pad with me. Why a memo pad? While waiting, I make notes on how to tackle whatever project I'm working on.
• Get clear on your boss's priorities for you. That can help you focus your time on what matters.
• Telecommute? If you can work at home, telecommuting a day a week can be a big time-saver.
• Can you get out of meetings, especially standing ones? Today’s workplace-think is, "Better inclusive than efficient.” But meetings can be huge time sucks. If you’d rather not attend, is it worth asking your boss?
• Keep a time log? If you’re not sure you’re using time as you'd like, on a typical day, log your activities on a memo pad or into your cell phone. Every time you change tasks, write the time and what you’re starting to do. At the end of the day, review your log.
• Get observed. Not sure whether you need to get more efficient or if so, how to do it? Get someone who is time-efficient to watch you for an hour or more.
A time-effective summary: Throughout the day, ask yourself, “Is this time-efficient, and is it consistent with my personal mission statement?”