How to Manage Your Time

This article originally appeared on Microlearning, our bite-sized online solution for leaders and individual contributors.

Most people wish for more time, but what would you fill it with? If your answer is more of the same — more projects, more interruptions for requests from others, more checking email — then that’s like saying the solution to your cluttered garage is a second garage to fill up.

Instead, you need a system that lets you organize and use your time more effectively so you can, as one professional described to us, “maintain progress on your longer term goals while balancing the fires that occur on a daily basis.” It is possible — even for busy people.

 

1. Develop questions to help you determine the importance and urgency of tasks.

You face dozens of possible ways to use your time every week. How you judge those options is critical. The more you struggle to distinguish one task from another, the more likely you are to fall into the common traps of trying to do it all and failing to do much of anything well, or simply reacting to whatever tasks come your way rather than proactively setting your own agenda.

Instead, here are a few questions worth considering to help you judge a task’s importance (impact on results) and urgency (when it truly needs to be done):

  • How much will doing this help me, my team, or my company meet an important goal?
  • If I do this now, how big will the payoff be in a week, a month, or a year?
  • How long could it wait before it needs my attention — a week, a month, a year, forever?
  • How much am I drawn to this because it feels comfortable or easy for me?

In running through these kinds of questions, you may determine that it’s well worth dropping everything to share a critical update with your manager, since the new information impacts your team’s work on a key goal. Or you may decide to do that favor for a peer now, since next month you’re going to need time from them to complete a necessary piece of a project.

On the other hand, maybe you come to realize that you’re flooding your week with “quick win” tasks that really won’t win you much of anything in the long run. Or that you’re favoring an individual project because it leverages skills you are good at.

 

2. Use the Time Matrix to focus the bulk of your time on important work.

FranklinCovey’s Time Matrix (pictured) can help you visualize how you’re spending your time — and open your eyes to how you’ll need to change if you want to get more important work done.

So, how does your current workload rank on the axes of “important” and “urgent”? As you map common tasks onto the Time Matrix quadrants, consider:

  • What in Quadrant 2 should you invest more time in? It is easy to focus on Q1 and put off tasks in Q2, but investing more time in Q2 will make you more effective and help you achieve the results you want.
  • What problems in Quadrant 1 might you have been able to avoid with better planning or communication (i.e., more time spent up front in Quadrant 2)? Let’s say a peer shows you a draft of a report due soon to the executive team, and it’s way off base. You’ll spend the next two days (and nights) helping them fix it. But what if you had explained the guidelines and goals more clearly at the outset?
  • What could you reduce or eliminate from Quadrants 3 and 4? This may mean saying no to certain kinds of requests, batching small tasks to reduce interruptions, or working on breaking time-wasting habits. If you’ve relegated required but often maligned tasks like weekly meetings or performance review questions to these quadrants, how could you change them so they move squarely into Q2 and reach their potential?

Some tasks don’t fit tidily into the quadrants, and sometimes it’s hard to tell ahead of time where they belong (e.g., you may assume a meeting is important and discover halfway through that you didn’t need to be there). Still, keeping the Time Matrix in mind can help you make better decisions about where to spend your time.

 

3. Don’t neglect to prioritize your well-being.

If you’re constantly giving energy to your job without replenishing it, you’ll end up depleted — and ineffective. Instead, talk to your manager about a learning goal in your next 1-on-1 and take assess yourself to see how you’re doing managing your prime sources of energy.

 

4. Regularly spend time reviewing and scheduling your three to five most important tasks (then fit in other tasks around those).

It may sound counterintuitive to spend more time planning and scheduling if you’re already so busy you can’t even get your most important work done. But research suggests that if the important stuff gets planned and scheduled, it’s far more likely to get done. Try this process:

  • 30 minutes once per week: Identify the three to five most important things you can do in the coming week to be effective. Consider your goals, what could set up your team or manager for success, and important personal activities like exercise. Schedule these priorities on your calendar for the coming week.
  • 10 minutes each day: Review your progress and adjust your calendar as needed. Even with your best intentions, you may get pulled away for emergencies not on your list, or maybe an important task takes you longer than anticipated. Here’s your chance to recommit and book more time for what’s important.

Once time for key tasks is booked, you can fill in the rest of your calendar with update meetings, one-off requests, responding to email, and other tasks. Or for tasks that are important and urgent but don’t make your top-five list, you may decide to adjust your investment in them by giving them “good enough” treatment and save your best effort for higher priorities.

 

5. Talk about your top priorities with others.

Several great things can happen when you share your priorities: better goal alignment with colleagues, more accountability for your most important work (you’ve said it out loud, so you better deliver), and others adopting a similar focus.

  • Your manager: Even if you know what’s important to your manager, it’s worth checking often to be sure you’re in sync. Try sending a weekly update of your top priorities, so they stay informed. And whenever your manager piles on a new task, clarify where it should fit on your priority list so you stay on track and so your boss better understands everything you’re juggling. For example: “I want to be sure I’m prioritizing correctly. When does this need to be done? I also have those two other important projects on my plate and may need to adjust deadlines if I do this first.”
  • Your peers: You don’t want to make a project a top priority, only to discover that another team you’ll rely on for a critical piece has plans to focus elsewhere. When sharing your priorities, ask peers about theirs, too — you may surface new ideas for goals after getting more big-picture context of priorities across teams.

 

6. Develop ways of saying no to requests that aren’t a good use of your time.

If you’re a helpful person by nature, you may find it hard to resist a colleague’s plea for help. After all, if you say yes, the person will be happy. You will have built goodwill. You’ll feel relevant and involved. But if you say yes too often, you’ll lose control of your own time and effectiveness.

There are plenty of ways to say no without coming across as a jerk. For example:

  • In a positive tone, thank the person for asking“Thanks for asking, and it sounds like an important project” signals respect and will soften the blow of the no to follow.
  • Explain the impact the request would have on you or your team“We have a big launch next Thursday, and this would cause me to miss my deadline by several days.” Often, askers don’t realize the trade-offs that would be required to do what they’re asking.
  • Provide another solution if you can. So you don’t have time to fulfill the request, but do you have a connection who might? Your ideas may be just as valuable.
  • When you feel tempted to say yes, ask for time to think it through. A simple “Could I get back to you this afternoon?” might save you from a hasty yes when you’ve been caught off guard.

 

7. Experiment with productivity tactics to help you work more efficiently.

There’s no best tactic that works for everyone. Try experimenting in an area where you feel the most pain.

  • Procrastination. Commit to doing just two minutes of a task you’re putting off — research suggests just getting started is the hardest part. Still don’t feel like it? Try structured procrastination, a technique to shift your energy to complete other important tasks.
  • Unnecessary/long meetings. Schedule blocks of working time on your calendar (see No. 5) to prevent others from booking every hour of your day. And make your meetings more efficient with good agendas and prework expectations for attendees.
  • Managing email. Spending too much time checking? Try picking one day this week to check email only three times. Spending too much time writing? Aim for shorter emails, summarizing the purpose in the subject line and structuring your main points in list form.
  • Late/long hours. Work has a tendency to fill as much time as you give it. Try setting a specific end time to your workday, then plan your day backward from there. You may find you’re able to be as productive in fewer hours. Or, if the issue is more that you feel pressure to be available at all hours, try setting a work/life boundary that you explain to your colleagues: “Irina, to better pace myself, I don’t respond to emails in the evenings anymore. If you send me something, I will respond in the morning.” Research finds that people often fall into a trap of working more hours not because they want to or because it makes them more productive, but because they don’t want to be seen as slackers by their peers and boss.
  • Too many interruptions. Maybe you could find a less distracting place than the office to work for a few hours a week.

Be sure to let your manager know how you’re experimenting, so they know your availability and can offer feedback on how your new ways impact them.

 

8. Frequently assess your time management system.

Whenever your organization changes or you complete a big project, your priorities — and what’s important and what’s urgent — almost certainly should change, too. Use the steps above to recalibrate what’s important now and what’s not important going forward.