Tick tock – tick! How to win at time management

Time Managment

Illustration: Stephen Cheetham

Who doesn’t dream of having more hours in the day to get stuff done? Sadly, until quantum scientists figure out how to reverse time, we’re stuck with having to manage with what we have.

Trouble is, the world of time management can sometimes seem a bit, well, time-consuming. There are so many different techniques and systems, from sophisticated activity logs and minute-by-minute scheduling, to synchronised software and apps.

Luckily, there are a number of quick and easy life hacks and mental tricks to help blitz your to-do list.

A key thing is to try to be aware of the value of each passing moment. “Remember every task comes with a cost,” says Ellen Hendriksen, host of the podcast Savvy Psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: “Be mindful about what task you are choosing to spend your time on because that is time spent not only on doing that task, but on not doing other tasks.”

Another way to make yourself more aware is to first picture in your head your ideal working day – epitomising optimum levels of productivity and downtime. Then compare it to how your actual day is panning out. This will you give an idea of how and where you’re falling short.

Robert Kelsey, author of a series of self-improvement books, including Get Things Done, says this is where some basic timetabling can be so effective – it helps you get back on track when something or someone breaks into your day. “Timetabling helps you to find time. If you think about units of time, then when someone comes to you with something they think is urgent, you can see what other stuff there is in front of [their request] that you need to do. That way you remain aware when the urgent overcomes the important.”

Kelsey also swears by limiting interruptions from telephone calls or emails; using your travel time efficiently; not overcommitting yourself; and curtailing the time spent in meetings. He also suggests keeping a diary so you can spot where you might be going off-piste. Another, obvious, tip is to delete any social media apps from your phone – we all know they’re like catnip, and a quick scroll can easily cost you half an hour.

Hendriksen suggests slimming down to-do lists to include only small, specific tasks. “If we are staring at 10 huge things, especially a large number of non-specific things, such as ‘clean the house’, ‘finish project’ or ‘figure out work presentation’, then those large tasks will seem overwhelming. So keep your to-do list to more defined things.”

Other simple techniques include tackling trickier or more boring tasks first, like ticking off your business admin, so you finish them faster.

One – arguably masochistic – tip is to replace your clock with a timer – even an hourglass or egg timer – to make your deadline feel more menacing. Or, if that sounds too stressful, use the stopwatch app on your phone and challenge yourself to speed up each time you do something repetitive.

Another approach to time management is to focus your mind not on the value of each passing hour, but rather on the value or importance of each task. Indeed, self-help types often reference a matrix, based on a quote attributed to US president Dwight Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

Stephen Covey, in his 1989 book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, says the matrix comprises four boxes: urgent and important; not urgent but important; urgent but not important; and not urgent and not important. The idea behind it is straightforward: by thinking about where your task sits within the quadrant, you should be better able to notice whether or not you’re wasting your time.

Kelsey points out that it can be helpful to think of time management as something to continually struggle with, rather than as something that can be mastered or cured. “It’s worth noting that I wrote these books from the perspective of being a sufferer, someone who struggles with issues like time management,” he says.

“This is almost like being in AA. You should think of yourself as permanently in this position and try and overcome the barriers it throws up, rather than seeing anything as a cure. So don’t beat yourself up every time you fail but [instead] see that you’re falling into a trap and notice [what you need to do] to get back on track.”

Whatever your business, don’t keep knocking essential tasks to the bottom of your to-do list.

Tailor your business insurance with AXA. It couldn’t be simpler. That’s one less thing to worry about, and more time to spend getting on with business. Get a quote online today.


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