When I was working as a design engineer many years ago, with deadlines approaching to release a new product to market, I met with my manager and asked for his help with prioritizing my work. The design team had a lot to accomplish in a short time, and if we were to hit the launch-to-market date, we would need to either scale back the scope or increase the number of design engineers. I went into the meeting prepared: I had a list, prioritized tasks and a time frame in which to complete each task. My manager’s shortsighted response was direct: “Do it all.” The response to my colleagues was similar.
Well, we went for it. Long days, evenings and weekends. Unfortunately, although not unexpectedly, that strategy didn’t work. While some stretch in goals is good, unrealistic goals inevitably lead to a predictable outcome: failure. The project was subsequently delayed twice before finally getting to market six months later. Was this result inevitable? Maybe, but the human cost was hardly worthwhile.
The lesson for me? You simply can’t do it all. Good managers recognize this fact and manage their time and tasks, and those of their employees, with purpose and with the use of SMART goals (goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely).
The following list of guidelines, compiled from interviews with managers, entrepreneurs, customers, and executives, can be applied together for maximum result or individually, depending on your needs and the degree to which you manage your time today. One thing is certain, though, as you review this list—your time is yours to allocate. Do so purposefully.
- Prioritize tasks based on how they are aligned with your core values and business priorities. These values must come into play when you’re deciding where to focus your time. Every week (Sunday evening or Monday morning), write out your tasks for the week. Do the same on the first of each month. Assign a category and a priority and work the list.
When I was the general manager for a large equipment dealership, my top priority was always employee safety, followed by customer and employee needs, personal items and miscellaneous tasks. My daily tasks were then prioritized accordingly. I’ve found it helpful to set up and use a bullet journal.
- Set SMART goals and refer to them often. Ask yourself daily: Is what I’m doing contributing to one of my SMART goals? If not, why am I doing it? If it’s not SMART, it’s noise.
- Manage your energy levels. Energy levels vary throughout the workday and workweek. For a typical 8–5 workday, peak energy is usually 9–11 a.m. and 3–4 p.m. During the workweek, Tuesday and Wednesday are often the days where your energy and focus are at their peak. Schedule demanding or critical tasks during these periods and, conversely, schedule tasks or decisions requiring less of your energy outside these core productive hours.
- Manage your communication. The enemy of time management is distraction. Nothing disrupts your focus quite like a buzzing phone or an email pop-up when you are trying to get something done. One way to carve out a communication break is to set aside your mobile phone (or set it to do not disturb) and avoid checking email and social media during core productive hours or when you really need to focus on a specific task.
- Make time for yourself. When you’re an entrepreneur or manager, the demands on your time are significant, and I can state with absolute certainty that these demands increase the higher you climb the ladder of responsibility. Carving out time to unwind, decompress or reset is as important as the job you do every day. If you want to be better at your job (with less stress), you need an outlet of some sort. Get a hobby! In addition, it may be beneficial to take a personal retreat once per year to disconnect from distractions and focus on the things that matter most, both personally and professionally. I have found this helps immensely.
- Take good notes. I was 10 years into my career before I settled on a note-taking format. I have experimented with engineering pads, pocket notebooks, bullet journals, Outlook calendar and task entries, OneNote and a variety of iPhone apps. You might think, with all of this experimentation, that I eventually found the perfect solution. In a way, perhaps. The perfect solution is the one that works for you—consistently. Pick something and go with it. For me, my primary note-taking tool is a bullet journal. I like to put pen to paper (or consider a hybrid approach).