I’m sure we’ve all been there: You have a to-do-list as long as your backside, virtually no time to do it all in and all you want to do is sit on the sofa with a cup of hot chocolate in one hand and the remote with the wrong side of Youtube access in your other. You tell yourself it’s impossible to do it all anyway, so you might as well do nothing and end up watching 10 videos on cats going crazy. By the time you look at the clock again, you may as well go to bed. The next day arrives and now your list is even longer and you ask yourself what on Earth you were thinking. Cue ever-increasing stress.
When I was working on building up my own business, I invested a lot of time in working on time management. Even as I type this it sounds ironic – spending time on learning about managing time? But I have to say, it was some of the best use I could have put my time to. A lot of what I have learned comes from an audio book released by Brian Tracey, whom I consider somewhat of a guru on effective time management. And don’t get me started on that voice!
And while I’m by far not perfect and certainly still have the odd day where I am learning more about lizard people and cat antics than is healthy, I have certainly internalised a lot of time management techniques, which have helped me cross off an awful lot of that to-do list in a day and lower my stress levels overall.
1. Make a to-do-list
I’ve written about this one before, but it is such an important step that I want to repeat this here. If you are faced with thousands of demands on your time, it is so easy to get lost and confused as to what you have to do and without a list, you will be likely to forget at least one or two important things. A to-do-list acts as a gentle reminder throughout the day, a little nag in the back of your head that Grumpy Cat will have to wait until after you have hung that laundry up. And the satisfaction and motivation you get from crossing off yet another task make it all worthwhile. A to-do-list is like a mother and a life coach all in one. You can make a list as you go, but I have found the most effective time to make your list is the night before the next day. That way, your subconscious will keep on working for you during the night and you will start the next day much more focused.
2. Eat that frog
I am shamelessly quoting Tracey here. This is one of the most important things I have ever learned about time management. Eating that frog refers to ordering your to-do-list into priorities, then take your least favourite (but most important – it’s funny how the two often go hand in hand) task and doing that first thing. This is because we tend to procrastinate the most on tasks we least like to do. It is incredible how tidy and clean the house can get when I have a pile of marking to do. Or how interesting learning another language looks when I have letters to file. At the moment, my least favourite task of the day is exercising. I hate it with a passion. Even though I know that after 5min on my bike it gets easier and I actually start to enjoy it and after my 15min are done I feel good about myself as happy hormones are flooding through my body, the first 5min of dragging myself onto that exercise bike are hell. So I get up early and get on that bike first thing. And you know what? Once I can cross it off my list, it’s a fantastic motivator to keep going. After all, the worst is over and done with. Even that marking pile is starting to look friendlier.
3. Time stretches or contracts according to the number of tasks you have to complete
I cannot for the life of me remember the name of this principle. I vaguely seem to recall that it was an Italian philosopher who said this, but I may very well get it confused with Pareto’s 80/20 rule or the Pomodoro technique. No idea. The important thing is that you can spend an hour doing one task or the same hour doing three tasks, it just depends on how much you actually have to do. If you have one hour to put the laundry away, you may well spend an hour carefully arranging your laundry into piles, colour-coding it and possibly put it away neatly folded and well-arranged. Or you can spend the hour putting the laundry away, doing the washing up, sewing on name labels for your children and helping them with their homework. Our brains are incredible adept at procrastination and will fill any time we give them with whatever task. They are also very good at prioritising. Where in the first example, your extra time is spent on carefully re-arranging your clothes and working slowly, in the second example you may not be as neat, but you get a lot more done – the priorities have shifted. All this is subconscious; you don’t have to do a thing. But the next time you tell yourself it is impossible to do all your to-do tasks, think again. Your brain will help you through this. Kind of comforting, isn’t it?
4. The Pomodoro technique
This links in with what I have just described. The idea is to break your one big task down into smaller, more manageable chunks, work like a maniac on them during the time you have given yourself, then spend a few minutes doing something else before going back to your original task. It works well in conjunction with ‘eating that frog’, simply because our biggest tasks tend to be the ones we want to start the least. The shorter periods of working make your task seem less insurmountable, you have a definitive end rather than a vague one and you can concentrate better when you have incorporated short breaks. The important thing is that this technique relies on self-discipline. There is no point in taking a break if that break is unlikely to ever end, so only use this if you know that you can adhere well to a timer.
5. Pareto’s 80/20 rule
Lastly, look at your huge to-do list and consider this: 20% of your time will be spent completing 80% of what is important and the other 80% are spent doing something that is less important, even if it still has to be done. The 80/20 rule is about looking at your productivity levels and applies across many areas. In a workplace, 20% of people tend to do 80% of the work; at home 80% of your time may be spent dealing with petty issues, while the other 20% actually get down to the nitty-gritty. You may or may not be able to do something about this, but bearing that rule in mind helps you identify your time-wasters and cut them down to the minimum, while you also look at re-prioritising your list to identify what the 20% of your efforts are, which make up the 80% of your productivity levels. It makes a huge difference if you can shift that percentage even slightly, say to 22%/78%. You waste less time are vastly more productive. Pareto’s rule takes time to identify and time to change. It’s why this is last on my list. But once you have done all the other 4 steps, take a look at your life and see what really matters. In the long term, making even small changes will have a massive, lasting impact on how productive you are and how satisfied you feel with your life.