Time Management Series, Part Two - How to Accomplish More

If you have not yet read the first article in this series, But I Don't Have Time for Time Management!, please do so now, because it's important.  We'll wait... 

Now that you are in the right frame of mind, we'll begin looking at how to get more done with the time you have.  This article will address task management principles which are equally useful in the workplace and at home. 

Keep yourself healthy.  You are the center of your task management system, so it follows that keeping yourself in good operating condition will enhance the effectiveness of the system.  Therefore, invest some time and energy in taking care of yourself (nutrition, exercise, rest, regular stress-relief, etc). 
Streamline physical movement.  Your workspace will save you time if it is organized in such a way that your most frequently used items are within easy reach.  In an office for example, this means that the file cabinet you get into five times a day should be within arm's reach of your desk.  In a home environment, the items that you use most regularly should be located where you use them, rather than in the next room or down the hall.  Saving yourself a few steps many times per day will add up.  Take note of any feelings of annoyance as you work on a task.  You will probably discover that you are feeling the waste of time in some manner.  Then you can look for ways to adjust the physical setting to make that task run more smoothly.  This could involve remedies like rearranging some furniture, reorganizing supplies, or alphabetizing files. 
Reduce the need to search.  Clutter is your enemy in task management.  It slows you down because it's in the way, and it hides things you need when you need them.  We all know the frustration of impatiently pawing our way through "stuff," looking for a needed item.  Make any change you can that will help you know where everything is, including a bold confrontation of any pack-rat tendencies you may have.  Time spent searching is time wasted. 
Break down big jobs.  By breaking a task down into its component parts and then tackling those, one at a time, you reduce the psychological impact of the job at hand.  Very large jobs can feel overwhelming, which tends to lead to procrastination, thus wasting time while increasing anxiety (very bad).  By taking one step at a time, you get to savor little victories along the way.  When people climb mountains, each base camp along the way is a success; climbers get to feel like they are accomplishing something long before they actually reach the summit.  When you apply this strategy to tackling a complex task, the same big job will get done, but with much less depletion of your energy.  When you are more energetic, you work faster and enjoy it more.
Plan ahead.  Do tasks ahead of time whenever possible, to avoid the last minute crunch.  A common example is laying out your work clothes the night before you need them (thus avoiding the discovery that something is badly in need of ironing when you need to be out the door in two minutes, and everything else is in the laundry).  It could also mean packing supplies you will need for a trip in your spare moments the day before, rather than ten minutes before you need to leave.  When you have a lull in your time (don't laugh), look for ways to make the tasks of tomorrow or next week easier; that way, they will go more smoothly when their time comes.  This saves time because you're clear-headed and relaxed as you do the task, rather than harried and rushed.  The saying, "Haste makes waste" is very true -- you make more mistakes when you rush.  Mistakes and oversights have to be fixed, which always takes more time than doing it correctly and calmly in the first place.
Be realistic about your priorities.  We all have a to-do list as we go through our day, whether in our head or on paper.  Lists are useful tools as long as they are kept to a manageable size.  A to-do list with 20 items on it is a recipe for disaster: feeling overwhelmed, procrastinating, etc.  A good list will probably be around six or seven items, listed in priority from most to least important.  If you can't get your list down to this size, it probably means you are over-valuing too many tasks.  A good home example is housekeeping; many people make this more important than it really is.  As long as your home remains conducive to healthful living, it is likely that you have more important ways to spend your time.  If you feel like everything you need to do is equally important, you immobilize yourself.  Why?  Because no matter what you do, you'll believe that something else you should be doing is being neglected.  It's important to accept that you can't do it all, so you need to be selective about those things you identify as must-haves.
Let others help.  We frequently become overburdened because we don't trust others to do things the way we would do them.  Remember, we're talking about your time here.  You will have more of it if you adjust to the ways that others approach certain tasks.  The end result is all that really matters, so if the end result is workable, is it worth your time to worry about how it came about?  The only way you can have everything done the way you want it, is to do it all yourself.  A little flexibility and trust will free up huge amounts of your time if you let it happen. 
Let go of perfection.  "Perfect" is almost never required, yet many of us strive to attain it, at a cost of vast amounts of time and energy.  Consider the concept of "good enough."  “Good enough” means not that it’s barely adequate, but that it solidly meets all the basic requirements.  Once you have attained "good enough," going for "perfect" will produce no useful result, because remember, you already had something good enough.  Yes, we need to be conscientious and make a good effort.  No, we don't need to fine-tune it forever.  Perfectionists like to think they are very effective, when the reality is that they waste lots of time doing work that is unnecessary.  Perfectionism is also a prime driver of procrastination, because perfectionists will put off doing anything on a task until they have time to cover every last little detail.  The time seldom comes, so a needed task may remain completely unaddressed.
Just say "no," or at least, "maybe."  People like to be nice and help others out, and thank goodness for it, because we all need some help sometimes.  You can get yourself into trouble though, if you often say “yes” before you consider whether you can afford the time at all.  If you say “yes” when you’re already fully committed, the only choice is to speed up the pace even more, to keep squeezing in everything and everybody.  Burn-out is the inevitable result.  It helps to maintain an awareness of the "rush factor" in your life.  If you feel like you are rushing all the time, you probably need to reduce your commitments.  This will involve some tough decision-making, but nobody can afford to get burned out because then nothing will get done.  If the rush factor is okay, then take on new commitments carefully and with thought.  Get used to saying, "I need to think about that; I'll let you know."  This will allow you time to decide whether it makes sense to say yes, and to determine what, if anything, you need to let go of to make room.
The concepts above, practiced consistently, will help you to identify those tasks you most want to get done, and to accomplish them more efficiently.  They involve some philosophical shifts that may feel difficult at first, but you will find that they increase your sense of effectiveness and control once you get used to them.  Good luck.
Copyright © 1998, Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW.  All rights reserved.

Related articles: 

Time Management Series, Part One: But I Don't Have Time for Time Management!

Time Management Series, Part Three: How to Live More 

Finding Time Where There Is None


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