Some time-management tips seem designed to help you fantasize about an alternate reality rather than to get things done in this one. From shaving a few seconds off your morning coffee run to scheduling your time so aggressively that your day falls apart if you stop to sneeze, the advice can be far removed from the unpredictable world most of us live and work in.
Instead of aiming to transform yourself into a time-management machine who never wastes a nanosecond, try these five humble but effective tips for making better use of your time.
1. Jump the gun
The desire for better time management is often fueled by anxiety about falling behind. Nothing can ease your mind about the day ahead more effectively than getting a head start on it.
Setting aside a half hour to an hour of uninterrupted time each day — either before or after you’re available to others — can dramatically lighten your worries. Use this period to get started on the biggest item on your agenda or to knock out a small but pesky task that’s been hanging over your head.
2. Ditch the extensive to-do list
An ambitious, elaborate to-do list can give you a fleeting sense of accomplishment: “Look at all the stuff I’ll get done!”
Then, the day starts. The first task takes longer than expected, an urgent new project arises and you’re asked to fill in on a conference call for a colleague who’s out sick. At the end of the day, you’ve barely dented your list, so you feel like you’ve failed and can’t appreciate what you did accomplish.
A shorter, simpler list that leaves room for inevitable twists and turns can be more effective. Break down larger assignments and be specific about the actions you can take. The more narrowly defined an action is, the less daunting it will seem. Also keep in mind that leaving an item off your list — even if it’s just temporarily — doesn’t mean it won’t get done.
3. Expect interruptions
Some of the most attractive time-management advice conveniently overlooks a central fact about typical workdays: They tend to involve other people. Sometimes a lot of them, and not always the ones we expect.
When your boss or a colleague — or your child’s day care manager, for that matter — needs your input, you can’t exactly say that you’re busy adhering to your strict new schedule. Approaching your day with rigid expectations about how it will unfold is one common barrier to maximizing your productivity and becoming a great team member.
At the same time, be careful not to create interruptions for yourself. Does that email really require an immediate response? One of the simplest and best ways to manage your time better is to set aside periods in which you check your email rather than distracting yourself with them throughout the day. In most cases, business etiquette demands a response within 24 hours, not an instantaneous reply.
4. Keep tools simple
A million tools exist to help you manage your time. No doubt many of them can be extremely helpful. But they can also work against you if taken to the extreme. Constantly checking and updating multiple calendars, lists and apps can take more time than the task you’re trying to track.
Going overboard with these tools can also heighten a sense of being surrounded by unfinished work. Minimize the methods you use. For example, keep all your to-do items in one place, whether that’s an online calendar or a sticky note on your desk.
5. Catch your breath
Jamming your day with wall-to-wall tasks and meetings may seem like the most responsible, productive approach to scheduling. But if you’re distracted or tired during those activities, you’ll likely create more work for yourself down the line. A hasty decision made during a hectic, exhausting day, for instance, can necessitate weeks of correction or rework.
Building breaks into your day — whether or not they can happen at predictable times — is one of the best things you can do to protect your long-term productivity. When you take a walk or just a trip to the break room, you’re not shirking your responsibilities. You’re protecting your ability to execute them.
Time management is a highly individual matter; no single method works well for everyone. Even a system that makes perfect sense to you intellectually might not turn out to be the most effective one in practical terms. Trust your experiences, not your expectations.
After a couple of weeks of trying a new approach, do you feel better about your workload? Are you getting more things done, and done well? If not, try something else. If you focus on simple, sustainable habits rather than unrealistic goals, you’re bound to find yourself taking better care of your time in no time.
Robert Half International is the world’s first and largest specialized staffing firm with a global network of more than 400 staffing and consulting locations worldwide. For more information about our professional services, visit www.roberthalf.com. For additional career advice, view our career bloopers video series at www.roberthalf.com/bloopers or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/roberthalf.