Ask any working professional what they could use more of, and you’ll probably keep getting the same answer: time. In the frantic pace of the digital age, time is something everyone seems to be short on now. (It’s almost laughable that we once thought technology would help create more leisure time!) But if people could figure out how to make the most of their waking moments, they could be far more productive and happy regardless of their time constraints.
Success at work and in life often comes down to one thing: developing better time management skills. Our minutes have become hot since time is so scarce these days, and we toss them away without a second thought. The truth is, we are always going to have obligations, deadlines and responsibilities, but if you learn how to handle your hot minutes, you can work with the clock instead of against it.
The following are tips to help you make the most of your time (no matter how little you have!) and achieve a healthier and happier work-life balance.
Prioritize sleep so you can function when you’re awake. If you do nothing else, prioritize your sleep needs. You will be more productive and feel more ambitious when you get the rest your body requires.
I suggest scheduling sleep like any other daily activity on your to-do list. Pencil in a stopping point in your day and stick to it without fail. Then wind down with a book or another relaxing bedtime ritual to help you drift off to sleep.
Establish what the “workday” means to you and the people you work with. As an employer, it may be your practice to call or email employees after hours; conversely, you may be at the receiving end from other stakeholders. Whether to be off-duty on nights and weekends should be the individual’s choice — although at the leadership level not always feasible — and parties should respectfully address “workday” limits upfront so everyone is clear on the boundaries.
Don’t stay on your email all day. Constantly checking your inbox is distracting and slows you down. Designate a few times in your workday to check email so you remain in control of your schedule and aren’t being reactive to new messages as they appear.
Choose human connection over technology. Though technology has improved our lives, it comes with its own set of problems. Emails and texts are convenient, but they create room for confusion and miscommunication. Whenever possible, talk in person in order to get your message across clearly.
Learn to say no and mean it. It’s OK to turn down invitations, cancel plans or disconnect from the outside world every now and then. Saying no is a skill that will benefit you throughout life, so allow yourself to politely start bowing out of unnecessary commitments right now.
Set achievable goals each day. Even the most thoughtfully constructed to-do list will be useless if it is too ambitious. What’s the point of writing down unachievable tasks? We’re not superheroes and shouldn’t try to be. Make your daily goals small enough that you can actually get them done. Remember that you can always do more if you have the time.
Give multitasking the axe. Multitasking is ineffective and counterproductive. People work best when they give focused attention to the task at hand. So aim to work on only one project at a time and give yourself permission to forget about other priorities until you are done.
Listen up! Active listening consists of being present and engaged when communicating with another person, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s very common to forget to listen after you speak your thoughts in a conversation, and you often lose important information as a result. When you are talking with a co-worker, manager, employee or anyone else, be sure you turn off that pesky inner monologue and focus when it is the other person’s turn to speak.
Don’t be a sheep. While maintaining the status quo is often a good thing (especially at work), there may come a time when it is advisable to stop following the herd and innovate in the name of productivity. This is true at every level of the workforce, whether employer or employee: If you can envision a way to work smarter and better, you may just create new best practices for your place of work that will save time and increase quality.
Stop shuffling papers. Most of us waste a lot of time shuffling papers from one pile to another. Chances are, your desk is full of paper you don’t know what to do with. Stop this maddening cycle by touching each sheet of paper just once and figure out the appropriate action. Either put it in a to-do pile so you can deal with it immediately, a file (for documents you must keep), or the trash. This keeps the papers moving and keeps you sane!
Step away from the Internet. Surfing the Web is a huge time waster for most people. An innocent little break often turns into an hour (or more) of wasted time that you can’t get back — especially when you should be working or headed to bed to get some rest. I advise shutting off access to the Internet at a certain time each day to avoid getting lost in cyberspace. I also recommend breaks from recreational Internet use — about a month — to focus on other aspects of your life that may need attention. If the withdrawal too great, at least start with a week and work your way up to a month. The point is to reconnect on a human to human level with all our senses in play and not just our fingers and our minds. Non-verbal connections are powerful.
Have some fun along the way. It’s important to remember that stressed-out people aren’t all that productive. You have to relax and schedule “recharge time” into your life to avoid burnout — especially if you have an intense work environment. Be sure to build in time for fun on the weekends and on some evenings, but try to make work fun, too. If appropriate at your office, find ways to infuse a little lighthearted play into your workday.
Practice breathing and mindfulness. Imagine how productive you could be if you could focus, calm all anxious thoughts, and truly be present. You can find out by practicing mindfulness.
Breathing is a tool for achieving a relaxed, clear state of mind. There are multiple methods for achieving this state, including tai chi, meditation, yoga or simple breathing exercises. Find one that resonates for you and practice it daily.
Stop owning other people’s stuff. How often do you hear yourself saying, “Never mind, I’ll do it myself”? Probably more often than you’d like, and this habit takes up your precious minutes in no time. The solution is to hold others accountable for their responsibilities. This includes your colleagues and employees, and, yes, your children and your spouse. Let “never mind …” be the exception instead of the rule.
Let go and delegate. Learn to know when to let someone else handle a task. It can be hard to relinquish control, but it is also necessary to delegate, especially if you’re in a leadership position. Remember that delegating is not admitting you can’t handle your responsibilities — not at all. Rather, it’s about maximizing the potential of your entire workforce.
Remember that you have two choices when trying to manage your time. You can either let your priorities and obligations run your life, or you can take charge of your minutes and let them work for you to achieve your goals in a timely manner. While you won’t ever succeed long-term by racing the clock, you can drop your bad habits, improve ineffective practices and kick stress to the curb so that your whole life improves.
Jackie Gaines, M.S., R.N., author of Wait a Hot Minute! How to Manage Your Life with the Minutes You Have, is a senior executive with Studer Group, which works with healthcare organizations in the United States, Canada, Australia and beyond to help them achieve and sustain exceptional improvement in clinical outcomes and financial results. Gaines has more than 38 years of sustained leadership and accomplishments with major health systems and organizations, and has dedicated most of her career to the advancement of quality healthcare programs throughout the United States, particularly those focused on the care of the poor and underserved. Gaines lectures all over the country and has received numerous awards along the way. Other books she has written are Believing You Can Fly; The Yellow Suit: A Guide for Women in Leadership; and Destination Infinity: Reflections and Career Lessons from a Road Warrior.
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