A journalist friend of mine who works from home recently received an unexpected call from a colleague at head office. After a brief hello, this minor management figure told her he was about to invite someone else into the call – without asking her if she had time for a conference or what it was about.
My friend has a reputation for going with the flow, to the point where she’s often taken for granted. But she had just got herself in the right frame of mind to write an article, she was in the zone. So instead of putting her needs on hold, she told her colleague she was working on something and could she call him back in 30 minutes? He was surprised, even shocked, but he agreed.
“It was amazing,” my friend told me. “I thought it would take an hour to write that article, but I did it in half an hour then called him back. I thought he’d be ticked off, but he seemed grateful that I’d called back and apologised for springing the phone conference on me.”
It’s a story that reveals something key about time management – it’s about setting limits, not only time limits, but limits on the kinds of interactions you have with colleagues, and limits on your responses to daily stimuli like email and smartphones. It’s about deciding what’s important right now, and what can wait until later. Time-saving begins with you.
Only you can decide if it needs doing now
Let’s say my friend had agreed to the conference call instead of sticking to her plan to write the article. The reason for the phone conference turned out to be that the minor management figure, who was new, wanted the company’s project management system explained to him. It took my friend 40 minutes to instruct him over the phone, because he was too embarrassed to ask someone in head office. Instead, she prioritised and got the job done.
As a general principle, you should prioritise your day into A, B and C grade tasks, then start with an ‘A’ no matter how unappealing it may be. It doesn’t need to be the most important task of the day, it just needs to be substantial enough to qualify as top ranking. Tempted to start with a ‘C’ task? Think about what that means for your day. Instead of things getting easier as time passes, you will have the spectre of that unpleasant ‘A’ task hanging over your head. Think of ‘C’ tasks as rewards to look forward to later in the day.
In between these three categories you can slip in a little extra something in the form of a two-minute quickie. If it’s going to take two minutes to copy over the contents of a folder, or add a new name to Contacts – do it. That small sense of completion, of achievement even, gives you a confidence boost that helps you tackle harder tasks.
Switch off your phone, you can do it!
You do not have to be reachable every minute of the day. It’s okay to go off-line for an hour or two if it means you are going to achieve a task more quickly. If you think it’s going to take you an hour and a half to complete a report, put your phone in flight mode, or sleep mode, or whatever mode you like as long as you can’t hear it ringing. If not, you’ll find yourself being jolted out of your thought process every time it rings.
A few years ago, Harvard researcher Professor Leslie Perlow conducted research on six business professionals who were who were caught in what she called the “cycle of responsiveness.” They were always alert to the demands of their phones; in effect, the phones exerted a kind of tyranny over them. Perlow persuaded these business consultants to designate a few hours a week as phone free. To their surprise, the participants found they were motivated and more satisfied. The absence of phones had given them something back – the space to think for themselves.
Inbox zero vs inbox 2,537
‘Inbox zero’ is both a goal and a concept. The goal is to have nothing in your email inbox. The concept is that by doing so, you have a sense of accomplishment and a sense that you are on top of things. The danger of inbox zero is that you pounce on messages as soon as they come into your pristine inbox in order to ‘zero’ the situation, and shoot off a speedy reply without thinking things through. Processing the email becomes the goal, rather than absorbing its meaning and responding to it.
The solution is to find your own inbox number – it could be zero, it could be 15, it could be that point at which your server warns you that enough is enough! Whatever you choose, don’t let the inbox take over.
Another strategy to save time is to put your fax machine on eBay. There’s no need for it, not when you can use your computer as a fax. With a virtual fax number from a provider like eFax, you can use email to fax technology. To fax, open a new email, address it to the recipient’s fax number, attach the document and hit send. The document arrives at the other end just like a regular fax, and with the eFax app you can scan documents and fax them from your smartphone, bringing the dream of the paperless office a step closer.
How a tomato can help you save time
The next time you’re in a kitchenware store, you can pick up a time management tool that’s been used since the late 1980s. The Pomodoro Technique got its name when its Italian inventor, Francesco Cirillo, decided to use a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to improve his study technique. In 2012, Lifehacker reported that 37 per cent of the 2,032 readers polled named it their number one time management technique. The Wall Street Journal has covered it favourably, saying, “its' simplicity is deceptive”.
The idea is to set the timer for a 25-minute segment – known as a ‘pomodoro’ – and concentrate solely on a particular task during that time. No conversations, no phone calls, no distractions. After one pomodoro, you take a five-minute break then do three more ‘pomodori’, after which you take a longer break. It works on the belief that frequent breaks improve creativity, and it’s so popular you can buy a Pomodoro app for your smartphone.
The amazing properties of a piece of paper
Going one better (and cheaper) than the tomato is the humble ‘to do’ list. Write down a list of things you hope to achieve; not a manifesto, just a few words. Here’s an example taken from the notepad of a Brisbane PR consultant:
Rhonda B – new photos
James Street Gallery
Mark – please explain
Each item stands for complicated tasks, or a series of complicated tasks, that the PR said would take her ages to explain in detail, yet without these simple prompts she admitted she would have forgotten the tasks completely. Of course, if you don’t believe anything is real unless you are reading it off a digital device, you can get a ‘to do’ smartphone app that will signal when a task is due, or an appointment is cancelled.
The goal: Create a system that works for you
My brother takes photos of favourite recipe pages with his phone so he can consult them at the supermarket. He works long hours, and has little time for cooking, so he’s invented what he calls ‘compartmentalising’. He keeps ingredients needed for a specific meal together in a fridge container, even if that means doubling up. For example, he has a pizza box with tomato paste, zucchini, mushrooms and anchovies but the pasta box contains its own tomato paste and mushrooms too. “I never have to waste time looking for ingredients,” he says. “They’re right there in the box.”
Admittedly, he cooks the same three meals in a monotonous cycle (curry box makes up meal three) but it’s a system that works for him – and that’s the point of any time-saving technique, whether it’s for the office or home. It doesn’t matter whether you use a smartphone, a ticking tomato or a fridge box, when you find a time-saving technique that works for you, let it become a habit no matter how peculiar it may seem to others. Because once good time management becomes a habit, you won’t even be aware you are doing it.