Effective Time Management #2

Transforming How You Work

Effective Time Management Part 2 is the second of  three articles that aim to help you manage your time more effectively and ensure that you are a highly productive member of the team that outperforms the rest.  If you missed the first episode you can find it here

In the last article we looked at how to review where you are spending your time and how to ensure that you focus on what is key to your role and how you build your career.  You built a list of the tasks that YOU need to be doing and doing them effectively.

Now we need to look at how to change the way you work to be more efficient at what you do.  How we organise our time is a critical factor in achieving optimal productivity.  How great would it be to finish all of your work and know that your evenings and weekends are purely for you ?  Many knowledge workers do not have that feeling.  So let’s look at some strategies that can help us not just manage but master our time effectively.

Like any change, you need to recognise your own challenges, find the change that works for you and then stick with it.  But change is hard !  Many people have New Year’s resolutions to make a positive change in their life, but most have stopped by the third week of January.

Take the list of suggestions that I am about to make about organising and optimising your time and find which ones work for you.  Just because it works for someone else does not mean that it works for you.  We are all unique….  I’m an identical twin, and my twin brother does things completely differently to me in many ways.

Why Use Effective Time Management?

A few years ago I read a summary of a research paper that discussed how we should consider the brain to be similar to a muscle in our bodies.  The paper suggested that we need to take a different approach to how we exercise the brain during the day.

Let’s compare this to going to the gym – something that I will admit that I don’t do very often.  At the gym we will try various machines for cardio and stamina, weights for strength and building muscle, etc..   But we regularly move around and do different things to push our bodies.

Yet when we go to work we often do many repetitive tasks – back to back video calls, hours of emails, all just looking at a screen.  I previously highlighted some research that was performed by Microsoft about the impact of back to back Zoom calls and it clearly shows stress levels increasing which impacts productivity.

A Different Approach

We need to take a different approach to how we approach our work, and there is a simple way to visualise this, which I am sure that you will have heard of – The Big Rocks, which was introduced by Stephen Covey.

Covey asks us to imagine a glass jar on the desk where the empty space represents the time you have to manage. Next to the jar, there are large rocks, little rocks, sand, and a glass of water. These items represent the tasks that you have to get done.

The big rocks represent your main priorities, big projects and longer-term goals.  Next, the little rocks represent your day-to-day work and short-term goals.  The sand represents the small unimportant tasks that keep popping up, and the water represents all of the distractions that prevent you from getting work done.

If you start with the water and the sand then you have no room to fit the small rocks and big rocks.  Most of us will have heard this before and we know that we need to start with the big rocks, then little rocks, then sand and water.  This analogy teaches us that we need to focus on higher-level goals to get more done. If we get stuck in the details then the significant priorities will not get worked on. 


Actually Organising our Time

Organising our time sounds great !  But how many of us ACTUALLY do this ?  How do we make a change and transform what we do?  It starts with planning and understanding what goals that you have.  There is an old saying that if you fail to plan then you plan to fail.  Do you even have a plan for your goals?  A career goal, yearly goal, monthly, weekly or even daily goal ?  How do you know if you are being successful?

Let’s start with a simple change – start using daily and weekly goals.  Have a set point in your calendar every week that reviews the goals from last week and then defines the actionable goals for the next week.

You should review the goals from last week to determine which you completed but particularly which goals were missed and why.  Did you overestimate what could be done ? Was there an emergency that came up, or did you focus on some of the lower priority tasks instead ?  This should be your guide to doing something different next week.  One tip is to give yourself an incentive if you complete your goals, but make sure that you stick to only getting the incentive if you actually complete the goals.

The Big Rocks

Now plan for the next week and start to break down the big rocks into each day.  Add some of the smaller rocks as well.  Use a technique called time blocking, where you block out specific time segments during the day to get specific work done. 

You might want to make some of the time blocks recurring across many weeks so that they are protected time against other meeting bookings.  Time blocking can be used for other items as well – we will come back to that shortly.

As you allocate the time blocks you should be mindful of deadlines and project priorities.  But what is really a priority ?  One tool here is the Eisenhower Matrix.  Prioritise tasks by categorising them using a 2 by 2 grid of urgent and important. The tasks are then categorised as urgent & important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, or neither. This helps in focusing on tasks that truly matter.

You need to decide how much time from each day will be allocated to the rocks.  Remember that there will ALWAYS be other things that need to be done.  Only you can determine how much time to allocate, but you can experiment to find the correct level.  The Pomodoro Technique suggests working in short, focused bursts (usually 25 minutes) followed by a short break.  Why not see if that works for you.

The Little Rocks

Next we need to look at some of the other major demands on your time. There are three major challenges that need to be addressed – meetings, email and messaging and then social media.

Meetings are an amazing work avoidance scheme if you are not careful.  It is easy for someone to set up a meeting and invite anyone that might be interested, and BOOM – you just lost 30 minutes or 60 minutes of your day.

Be firm on meeting invitations.  Is there a clear agenda and defined outcomes ?  Do you NEED to be there ?  Could you delegate it to someone else.  Maybe it could be a 15 minute meeting that gets quickly to the point ? Could it actually just be a shared document that people contribute to and then review at a later date ?

Two great suggestions for meetings that have to happen : Do a standing meeting.  No-one sits down (as long as they are able to stand).  It makes people get to the point VERY quickly.

The other suggestion is walking meetings.  This is great for 1:1s or a very small group.  You hold the meeting while taking a walk in a quiet space like a park.  No office distractions and the added advantage of being good for your physical and mental health.

Next let’s look at email and messaging.  Email, Messenger apps, Slack, etc. are amazing communication tools but they are terrible for being able to concentrate on getting your important tasks done.  These apps are designed to create a sense of urgency for you to use the app, but are the notifications REALLY urgent – usually not.

So the fix here is to create time blocks for responding to emails and messaging apps.  Make sure that you do not get pulled into quickly responding to an email – use the time block.  You could also set a Do Not Disturb setting on your devices when you are working on your primary goals.  

Other Little Rocks

Finally there are the social media apps.  You need to be aware that these apps are designed to keep you engaged inside the app.  They are a major productivity killer.  That one notification about a friend could end up in a 30 minute waste of time.  

One suggestion is to remove social media from your work devices, but this is not practical for most people.  However, pausing notifications from them during the work day is something that most devices will allow you to set up.  You will be amazed how much time this gives back.

By the way, don’t forget to build breaks into your day.  Coming back to the gym analogy, you give your muscles a break, so make sure that you give your brain a break. Oh – and don’t forget to hydrate it as well !  Why not think about using a mindfulness app in those breaks as well.  

And remember, effective time management is a personalised journey. Experiment with different strategies and adopt those that align best with your work style and goals.


Optimising our Time

Technology can really help us when it comes to optimising our time.  There are some really amazing time management apps out there.  Some are full blown time tracking and reporting apps, some are project management and some just straight tasks managers.

In my experience you need to be careful about which app to implement.  Some force you to use their methodology for managing projects and tasks.  This is great if it fits with your style and role, but you need to be careful not to try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

You could use a free trial or free version of the app to try it, but be very careful to review how the app works and how it might force you to change your method of operation.  Also, is there a tool that could be integrated into your team and so shared tasks and projects can be visualised ?

I have tried a number of solutions in this area.  My personal experience has been that most tools like Notion, Trello, Asana, Monday, etc. do a good job but you only get back what you put into them.  Try to make sure that the tool that you use also allows you to integrate into your calendar and the time blocks that you have already set up.

The Sand

Next, think about some of the smaller items that you are hit with – the sand in the big rocks analogy.  There is a simple rule that you can apply – The Two Minute rule.  If a task takes less than two minutes, do it immediately. This rule prevents small tasks from accumulating and consuming more time later.

Again, block out some time to look at these smaller items and just get them done.  You will be amazed at how satisfying it can be ticking off a long list of smaller items.

Aligned with this is the idea of creating a time block for completing similar tasks.  Forcing the brain to regularly switch contexts and think about widely different topics can be difficult and also very tiring.  A simple approach is to create time blocks for completing similar tasks.  The brain does not need to switch context as much and so executes faster and you become much more efficient.  There is an added benefit in that you are less tired by the end of the day due to context switching.

As you start to create and use the various time blocks, one additional area to consider is to ensure that your time blocks are regularly scheduled for the same time and same day.  This consistency also allows the brain to work subconsciously to prepare for the tasks that you are about to give it.

The final point to consider in optimising our time for effective time management comes back to the requests that hit us unexpectedly.  We have all been there.  Your manager suddenly asks for something, a colleague needs you time right now or a message arrives in an app demanding your time.

This is all about how we learn to say NO and is the third article in this series – The Art of Saying No.


Blog Links:



Video Links:

Time Management Part 1 : https://youtu.be/uNJKIpfq6xs

Time Management Part 2 : https://youtu.be/AYSmH869ji8

The Art of Saying No : https://youtu.be/S3j2-YYy8lNext, t

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