You Suck at Time Management (But That’s OK, You Can Fix It)
Time management is something that everyone thinks they’re good at, but few actually are. There are a number of different reasons for this, and a big one is that time management isn’t actually what we think it is — it has nothing to do with managing time. I know, I know, that doesn't make any sense, but think about it - you can’t actually manage time, can you? It’s going to pass whether you like it or not. What we call “time management” is really behavior management and it’s all about managing your productivity within the time you’re given. For the sake of this blog post, however, we’ll continue to call it time management.
We also suck at knowing how long a task takes to complete, which creates another big obstacle to our ability to manage our time. Have you ever thought “My next meeting is in four minutes. I can’t get anything done in four minutes!” and ended up putzing around at your desk until it’s time to go? Or, my own personal day-destroyer, “Oh, that’ll take me like 10 minutes,” and 45 minutes later you’re halfway done? We’re surprisingly bad at understanding how long certain tasks take us, even if they’re tasks we complete daily.
Fortunately, time management is a skill you can practice and become better at over time - you just need a little information (and a little patience) to figure out where your skills are now so you can figure out what you need to do to get better. So buckle up and grab a notebook - you’re about to have the most productive procrastination session of all time.
Reasons You Suck at Managing Your Time (And What You Can Do About It)
As the reigning Queen of Procrastination Nation, I know exactly how hard it is to get yourself out of the procrastination doom spiral. Newton’s first law states that an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Now, I know that he was talking about objects and physics and other things I only ever learned well enough to pass the test, but I like to think the same thing applies to our brains. If you’re not doing something you should be, it’s easier to continue not doing that thing. On the other hand, once you start doing the thing, it’s a lot easier to keep doing it. So, what “unbalanced force” can you conjure up to get from rest to motion?
1) Create Motivation: One of the key forces that will knock you out of your procrastination spiral is to find something that satisfies you even more than that 20-minute Buzzfeed binge. Set yourself a closer deadline that requires you to get to work sooner, or reward yourself with something you like in order to get yourself moving. I, for example, suffer from severe FOMO, so my motivation tends to be something along the lines of “You can’t check the group SnapChat until you’ve sent this email.” Let me tell you - nothing gets an email sent faster than that blinking light on my phone.
2) Break Down Big Tasks: Big tasks are daunting. There’s just no way around it - the bigger the task, the scarier it is and, often, the harder it is to get started. Breaking big tasks into smaller pieces may seem silly or tedious (and is, therefore, an oft-skipped first step), but giving yourself smaller goals to reach along the way is a great way to find - and keep - motivation for a big, long-term project. “Plan the company holiday party” might be a daunting item on your to-do list, but “research venues and narrow it down to 3 possibilities” is probably a much easier pill to swallow.
Unclear Tasks or Direction
Do you ever read an email and your first reaction is just “???” so you close out of it and pretend it doesn’t exist for a while then suddenly too much time has passed and oh boy, I really hope they didn’t have an urgent deadline for that. No? Is that just me? It’s NOT just me, you liar! Sometimes we just aren’t clear on what someone needs or expects from us, so often we either procrastinate starting or spend a ton of time trying to figure out what to do on our own. The answer to this one is simple but terrifying: ask. Ask for clarification. Ask for more details. Go to whoever you need to and say “Hey, I’m confused about what you need here. Can you help me out?” It’ll save you a lot of time, and won’t go as horribly as you think it will, I promise.
We’ve all read the headlines about how we’ve ruined ourselves with technology and now our attention spans are low (like... really low) and we are now too easily distracted. Work is no exception to this, but our distractions can be a little different. Sure, that coworker with all the hot gossip is distracting as always, but distractions at work are often disguised as, well, work, making them hard to discover and even harder to fix.
Email, chat, and that fire drill phone call you just got are just as big of culprits to your productivity as Facebook is, and you can spend a whole day working but not really accomplishing anything. Figure out what your distractions are at work - both the Facebook and email kind - and then think about how to minimize them. If, like me, you can’t leave an unread email unread, close out of your inbox when you aren’t actively using it (I swear this will change your life). Keep your phone in your purse or drawer, turn off all desktop notifications, or find a corner of the office that’s far away from your chatty neighbor and the AC unit that points directly at your desk.
If we’re talking about distractions, it is important to mention that it’s OK to take breaks - it’s actually better for your brain! The average North American worker can focus on their job for about 7-11 minutes at a time, after which our brains need a break or we start to fade.
Have you ever concentrated on something for a long time, like deep-diving into an excel doc for an hour, only to feel like your brain is mush for the rest of the day? Yeah, that’s because your brain is actually (well, metaphorically) mush. You’ve asked too much of it and now it needs a beer and a blanket. There’s a fine line between breaks and distractions, though, so just make sure you’re able to get back to your task after a break (otherwise you’ll end up in a procrastination spiral and back at square 1).
Prioritization can be a huge barrier to productivity. When you have 45 things you need to do, how do you even know where to start? Proper prioritization can be that unbalanced force that gets you in motion, but it’s a skill so many people - myself included - find difficult. Your number 1 priority can be pretty easy to identify, especially if it has a firm deadline, but after that sometimes the lines get blurry. After all, your priorities are probably different from your client’s priorities, and might even be different from your bosses priority (though, unfortunately, theirs usually takes precedence). The best way to start determining priority is to consider whether something is urgent, important, both, or neither. Important items are usually the ones that will be the most productive use of time and will help you accomplish your goals, both long-term and short-term. Urgent items are, of course, those that require immediate attention. If you can figure out where the items on your to-do list fall along these options, you can figure out how to prioritize them (or even delegate or delete them, if possible), and from there you can get yourself in motion and start working through your list.
How to Figure Out Your Biggest Time Wasters
If you’re trying to improve your time management skills, you have to start by identifying what your biggest time wasters actually are. The best way to do that is to keep very detailed track of your time. Track what you did, when you did it, how long you spent on it, and where it fell on your priority list. When you say you spent an hour on a task, what does that look like? Did you stop to check your email or to chat? Did you spend five of those minutes digging up all the related documents? Did you take a call somewhere in there or stop to answer a coworker’s question? Keep a detailed log of your time for 3 - 5 days and make sure to track everything, including those little interruptions that take your brain off your task, even if only for a minute or two. Be honest in your log - nobody is looking at this but you, and you’re doing it to make yourself better at something.
After you’ve logged a few days, analyze it. How much of your day is going where? Are you as focused as you thought you were? What are your most productive times? Least productive? What time are you getting to your priority items? Not including lunch or meetings, how long was your longest uninterrupted work period? How much of your day was spent answering one-off questions someone Slacked you, or digging around for documents that you need to complete a task? Knowing the answer to these questions will help you figure out what your biggest pitfalls are and what you need to work on.
Once you’ve found your biggest time wasters, it’s up to you to figure out how to fix them. This post has a few suggestions (tried and tested by yours truly), and you can trial and error other solutions until you find what works for you. Here are a few tips that might help get you started.
Time Management Tips & Ideas
- Don’t check email first thing in the morning. Start your day by creating your to-do list instead. You can always update it once you’ve checked your inbox, but this will help you think about what your priorities are for the day before you start digging through everyone else’s priorities.
- Don’t check your email constantly. Check it once an hour or less. Add any new items to your to-do list and close back out of it.
- Live and die by your to-do list.
- List your items in priority order.
- Check in on it periodically. Has something come up that requires updates?
- Add time estimates to your items (even though we suck at them).
- Add actual times when you’re done. This will help you better understand how long certain tasks actually take.
- Keep checking in and adjusting throughout the day. Just make sure you’re keeping your goals in mind when prioritizing new items.
- Organize your folders and files, or schedule time regularly to clean them out and get rid of the old or obsolete items.
- Take advantage of our generation’s fear of human contact by “going dark” and turning off your chat if you need to get stuff done. Chances are whatever someone needs isn’t urgent enough for a desk drive-by.
Time management is a skill and, like all skills, it’s something you can work at and continue to improve on. If this FOMO-suffering procrastination queen can learn it, so can you! So stop procrastinating, start tracking everything you spend your time doing, and go kick some time-management ass!