It’s Friday, my favorite day of the week. I walk into my office with a piping hot Green Tea Matcha Latte from Starbucks and sous-vide egg bites, sit my things down at my desk, and open my planner to see what needs to be knocked out for the day — to my surprise, it’s about half of my weekly to-do list.
I could have sworn I was on a trajectory to complete at least two projects this week.
Raise your hand if this has ever happened to you: You make an overly ambitious to-do list on Monday morning, only for Friday to roll around and you ask yourself, “What exactly did I accomplish this week?”
It’s a terrible feeling to realize you may actually suck at time management. When this epiphany hit, I was in denial. I had a conversation with myself, “You get to places on time, you submit things before they’re due. How is it that you can’t make it through a to-do list?”
So, I decided to do some digging. And by digging, I mean Googling. I researched every project management software you can think of such as Asana, Monday.com, Trello, and Airtable to help get me on track.
I read just about every article on how to maximize time, reduce distractions, and become more efficient.
Didn’t move the needle.
At this point, I was wondering: what is wrong with me? I quickly learned that my lack of time management couldn’t be answered externally. I needed to go inside and figure out what the issues were. ‘Lo and behold, I found three.
Putting Too Much on My Plate
Monday mornings were the days I threw spaghetti at the wall — and my to-do list. It wasn’t unusual to find 20 to 30 items on my list covering various areas of my work and my home life. I didn’t realize that I was setting myself up for failure. Instead of putting everything down on my list, I decided to limit my priorities to three big items per day: this required looking at the week ahead, identifying my top three goals, and working backward. I know that if nothing else gets accomplished, those items will because they take priority.
Having three primary items per day on a to-do list can seem counterintuitive because you instinctively want to pile on as much as you can. But with three big items, you’re forced to focus.
You may look at this list and think, “So, what about answering emails or following up? Do you add that to your do-list?” No. In my mind, responding to emails is intuitive. However, if there is a particular ask that comes from a colleague, I make sure to communicate a deadline and add it to my list as a small item, but not part of my “big three.”
Spending Too Much Time on One Project
In addition to too many items on my to-do list, I have been known to invest a lot of time on one project in one sitting. If you’re anything like me, you like to do “deep work,” which is uninterrupted, intentional, and distraction-free. This is the type of work where you’ll catch a nice flow and not want to stop. While I wish every day had that type of energy, there are multiple things that need my attention at a given time. To help, I started using time-blocking. Timely writes,
“Time blocking is a time management method that schedules your day into set, controlled units. Finite portions of time are pre-planned for specific tasks, so that you can go about your work day without interruptions or distractions. Instead of simply making a [to-do list] and simply ploughing through, time blocking maps out dedicated controlled spaces for your work.”
If one of my tasks is to find photos for video, I will block off one-hour to find photos or videos. If I don’t find what I need during that time frame, the task will get pushed to another day. If you’re wondering how much time you’re spending on a set of tasks, I recommend that you use a time-tracker software such as Toggl. As you begin the task, start the timer. When you have completed the task, stop the timer. You’ll be amazed to see how much time you’re investing in a particular area of your work.
Letting Distractions Reign Supreme
Out of the three issues listed in this article, distractions is one of the top two. Distractions are typically categorized as actions like watching Netflix, checking social media all day, and catching up with your colleagues at the coffee bar. I don’t think people realize that your email notifications going off every five minutes is a distraction; every time someone comes up to your desk is a distraction; and if you work in an open floor plan, overhearing someone else’s conversation is a distraction. Each time you stop to answer someone else, you are disrupting your workflow and hindering productivity.
According to Lifehacker, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task. Think about it. For every email you receive and respond to, it could take you 23 minutes just to get back into your workflow. Couple the emails with questions you may receive each time someone stops at your desk, and you could lose half a day.
To help eliminate a few distractions, I’ve implemented the following:
Turn off email notifications. I’ve decided to check my emails three times per day: when I get in the office, before lunch, and before I leave for the day. I figure if someone needs something done urgently or needs to discuss an important matter, they can pick up the phone and call.
Put on headphones when working. Sometimes wearing headphones works and sometimes it doesn’t. For the most part, it’s an implicit signal you’re focused, and don’t want to be disturbed. Most of my colleagues know that when my headphones are on, I’m in deep work mode, and they will usually follow up with a chat message or an email.
Put my cell phone in my work drawer. Our minds are designed to protect us through distractions, and my biggest one was my cell phone. As explained by Wired, “Researchers found that in between those bursts of attention, we are actually distracted. During those periods of distraction, the brain pauses and scans the environment to see if there is something outside the primary focus of attention that might be more important. If there is not, it re-focuses back to what you were doing.”
Time management looks different for everyone. I highly encourage you to think about where you can improve and look for things that are currently eating up your time. And, after reading the article, you find yourself thinking, “My job won’t allow me to only check email three times per day,” or, “It’s literally my job to answer everyone else’s questions all day. I don’t think these apply to me,” then you’re right: these specific examples might not apply. Instead of following the action items listed in the article to the “T,” use it as a guide to inspire you to get on the right track. Here’s to reclaiming our time!