Our daily schedules unravelled during lockdown. Time seemed to meld together until it lost its distinct edges altogether. The idea of being productive while sheltering at home certainly had its moment on social media (“daily yoga practice!”, “launch a business!”), but realistically we were all just in survival mode (and Zooming in our pyjamas). Now, as we timidly return to the office, plan dinner dates and fill our calendars, it’s time to refamiliarise ourselves with time management.
So what does it take to reach productivity nirvana? The answer is more complex than scheduling blocks of your time. We all function differently, peak at different times of the day and respond to different techniques. As with any life “hack”, managing your time effectively is a process of trial and error, and plenty of personalisation.
It’s more than timetabling
You have the planning apps, you know the tips, tricks and life hacks, you even bought the old-school diary. You know the mantra “time is money”, but still find yourself out of sync with your beautifully arranged calendar, staring down the barrel of a seemingly infinite to-do list. If “time management” feels like oversimplified, hackneyed bullsh*t, read on.
Scheduling (including not over-scheduling yourself into a nervous breakdown) is key to managing your time, but there’s much more to being a time lord. Where most of us fall short is knowing exactly where each minute is spent.
Be more conscious about what you’re actually doing with your time. Research suggests some of the biggest drains are tech and meetings (are you draining hours with short bursts of Instagram scrolling that add up?). Because most of us fall short of accurately monitoring ourselves, Eric Dierdorf, Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship at DePaul University in the US, suggests objective self-tracking to measure what we actually do, or get a peer to observe you. The results may surprise you.
Self-scrutiny also helps us avoid procrastination — another big-time squander, especially for those in a post-pandemic slump. Identify the time wastes and see what you can tweak or cull to be more efficient.
Practice your pivot
Nailing time management isn’t about sticking to your to-do list like a robot. Another vital but less-thought-about skill, according to Professor Dierdorf, is the ability to be flexible and adapt to the unpredictable, ever-changing realities of life. This includes adjusting to interruptions, emergencies or changing priorities.
In a time-management experiment, Professor Dierdorf had 1200 people complete a 30-minute micro-simulation managing a freelance designer’s tasks. Most participants struggled with the awareness and adaptation skills; scores for these were on average 24 per cent lower than the time arrangement tasks.
It’s about the ability to be flexible and pivot. How well you adapt to these drives how well you prioritise stuff, Dierdorf writes.
Prioritise the 20 per cent
FOMO and our success-oriented, hyper-connected consumer society compel us to want it all, while the information highway throws more at us than any human brain can handle. In an article for Inspiyr, “The Brutal Basics of Time Management”, Dr Todd Dewett, one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers, says most of us focus way too much energy on the less-important stuff at the expense of what matters (feel familiar?). He suggests prioritising the most important 20 per cent of tasks, projects and relationships and being careful not to overwork — productivity drops off sharply after about 50 hours a week.
Harness your Einstein Window
Have you ever noticed that at certain points in the day you’re more productive than at other times? Dr Dewett calls this mental peak the “Einstein Window”. It’s when work flows and almost feels fun. According to Dr Dewett, typically, it’s a two-to-four-hour window each day. For early birds, it might be first thing in the morning, others might get on a roll in the evening.
When you’re feeling the flow, ignore anything that can’t be left until later and ride the wave. Try to identify when your Einstein Window tends to open, then guard that time and use it to work on the most important 20 per cent. When the creative juices dry up, hammer down the other 80 per cent, suggests Dr Dewett.
Get digitally minimal
One of the biggest time wasters is our tech. Increasingly, we’re slaves to our digital life rather than the other way around, says Dr Michael Axelsen, a senior lecturer at the University of Queensland Business School. Data obesity causes a lot of wasted time by making us sift through information for what’s relevant.
Digital minimalism is about clearing the crap and clutter, the noise and distraction from our tech. Dr Axelsen’s advice? Unsubscribe. Turn off notifications. Delete unnecessary files, apps and programs. To trim your inbox (a common sap on time), he suggests using AI tools to sort emails quicker, tagging those you don’t want as “junk” and detaching attachments so you can delete more emails. Pick up the phone instead of sending yet another email — it’s often quicker too.
Develop good systems
A global study of information workers found 21 per cent of their “wasted” time was spent on document management. Looking for lost files consumed two hours a week alone per person. Small bits of time throughout your day add up, so it’s worth the effort to set up slick systems for storing and locating info.
Keep your files organised and on-hand in a file-hosting system and bookmark pages for quick access. Like a Marie Kondo house, everything needs a place on your computer so it’s quick to find what you want; avoid multiples and if files no longer serve a purpose, archive them.
Know your time management style
Are you a hopper (jumping from one thing to another), a perfectionist, an early bird, impulsive, a multi-tasker or someone who thrives under pressure? All of us manage time differently depending on our personality. Know your weaknesses and work on them.
Invest in you
All of the above is meaningless without good mood and energy levels — the most important drivers of productivity. When we’re tired, emotional, stressed, lonely, depressed, sick or otherwise depleted, there’s a massive knock-on effect on what we can achieve.
In a TEDx talk, Sean Hall, creator of the concept of “energy intelligence”, advises replenishing ourselves regularly with “energy creators”. Fill your tank with what he calls the four Fs — that’s fuel (like sleep, food, exercise and chill time), fire (whatever lights you up), feeling (a positive relationship with yourself and others) and focus (things that help you make good decisions that create more mojo). Unfortunately, we’re liable to put our wellbeing last on the to-do list, if it’s there at all. Time to fill your cup! You got this.
Linda Moon is a freelance health, travel and lifestyle writer and a qualified naturopath based in Katoomba, NSW.