Good and Bad News about Managing Your Time

Many — if not most of us — wake up with this first conscious thought: “Let me survive another day!” At the end of a long, interrupt-ridden, deadline-driven day, we might collapse with this final waking thought: “Whew! I survived another day.”

With our myriad of professional and personal to-do’s, we’re busier than ever? We struggle daily to manage the things we have to do, get where we have to be, and handle the volume of information we have to absorb and use. There must be a better way!

Well there is — and there is both good news and bad news about it.

The bad news: You cannot manage your time! “Time management” is an oxymoron, like the terms “jumbo shrimp” or “pretty ugly”. We already have all the time there is: 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

The good news: There are only three critical time management habits, and you are already doing them. Realize that it takes about 21 days to modify a habit – even if it feels uncomfortable for awhile. But change can be worth the temporary discomfort if it improves your life. Consider this definition of insanity: doing things the same way you have always done them and expect different results. So, why not make slight or incremental changes to your old time management habits and get better results?

Here’s your first habit. You already refer daily to a calendar. You might have two, four, even six of them. Modify your habit so that only one master calendar runs your life and contains only information about where you physically need to be at a specific time and place. Do not put down all those to-do’s on the calendar —- only “be there’s”.

Now, for your second habit. You write down to-do’s. On what? Sticky notes, legal pads, scraps of paper — anything you can find. Modify your habit so that you use a series of 31 to-do lists. Why? Because 90% of the things you need to do, you will do within the next 30 days. Have a to-do list for each day that goes out 30 days. Keep a separate “don’t forget” list for tasks beyond 30 days, and plug them in to the appropriate date when they get within your 30-day to-do window.

Finally, your third habit. You already take notes during meetings, conversations, and phone calls. What do you do with those notes? You put them either in a file or on top one of the many piles on your desk or workplace. These piles are stressors and distractors, even if they are visual reminders of stuff you’ve collected. Modify this habit by setting up a filing system (e.g., a drawer with a series of A-to-Z hanging folders that allow you to file this information alphabetically, either by the person’s name, the person’s company or organization, or the topic of your interaction). You will naturally tend to file information in one of these three ways based on how you are “wired”.

As you can see, by modifying your current habits only slightly — using calendars, writing down to-do’s, and taking notes — you improve your ability to plan your day (and future days), focus on goals, keep commitments, track details, prioritize, retrieve information, reduce stress, and manage your life.

The best part about this process is that you can apply these habit modification techniques to any time management tool you currently use, whether it’s a paper planner, PDA (BlackBerry, iPhone, or Palm device), or computer based software. All these tools feature calendars, daily to-do or task lists, and places to write or enter notes. Modifying your habits can vastly improve your productivity.

Let me close with an analogy. The horse that wins the Kentucky Derby has to outrun the other horses by how much? Just milliseconds. But the winning horse’s prize money exceeds the others’ by how much? Thousands, even millions, of dollars. Here, the difference in productivity (prize money for the first-place finish) far exceeds the difference in performance (milliseconds).

When you improve your current time management habits just incrementally, your productivity results will improve exponentially!

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