Many people mistake time tracking for time management. They religiously keep track of everything they do each day, for weeks or even months. And then they stop doing it because they haven't realized any positive changes. Sure, they've eliminated a few events and prioritized some others. But they haven't managed anything; they've just rearranged it. At the end of their day, they're still frazzled and frustrated.
But keeping track of how you spend your time isn't time management. Time management is about making changes to the way you spend your time. For effective time management, you have to apply a time management system that will help you see where changes can and should be made... which means that the first step of time management is to analyze how you spend your time so you can determine what changes you want to make.
Use Categories for an Effective System
How do you manage time? The secret of an effective time management system is in the categories. Look at your calendar for tomorrow. It's probably already full of events and activities that you're hoping to accomplish.
As you work or afterward, you’ll be filling in the blank spaces with details on what you did. At the end of the day, look at the list and label each task and/or event with one of the following categories. How much time during your working day did you spend:
Putting Out Fires
An unexpected phone call. A report that's necessary for a meeting that should have been printed yesterday. A missing file that should be on your desk. How much of your day was spent in crisis mode? For most people, this is a negative category that drains their energy and interferes with their productivity.
Dealing With Interruptions
Phone calls and people dropping by your office will probably top the list when you’re assigning events to this category. Once again, for most people, this is a negative category because it interferes with (and sometimes kills) productivity.
Doing Planned Tasks
It is the most positive use of time during your workday. You are in control and accomplish what you intended to accomplish. Planned tasks can include phone calls, meetings with staff, even answering an email—if these are tasks that you have put on your agenda.
You may not be working on a task you had planned to do, but you are getting to accomplish something, and for most people, this is a very productive, positive work mode.
Those times during the workday are used to re-energize and regroup. Lunch or a mid-morning break may count if they're uninterrupted. If you're lucky enough to work with a company that offers on-site work-out facilities or nap rooms, that would count, too. Everyone needs a certain amount of uninterrupted downtime built into their day to be productive during their work time.
A Week of Your Past Is the Key to the Future
Now that you understand the categories of this time management system, it’s time to use them to analyze your "typical" workweek. Using whatever calendar system you use for listing appointments and activities in your daily life, go back and select a recent typical week.
Go through the entries of each working day and categorize them according to the time management categories above if you haven't already. Keeping a running total at the bottom of each day will make it easy to see just how you've spent your working time each day.
Now you have the data you need to make changes to the way you spend your time at work. Are you spending too much time putting out fires? Then you need to make the organizational or physical changes to prevent or defer these constant crises. Clean up and reorganize your desk, for example, so you can find the files you need easily, and establish a routine of putting the files you need for the next day out on your desk before you leave for the day.
Not getting enough uninterrupted downtime during your working day? Then you need to schedule a time for you during your workday. For instance, stop eating lunch at your desk and physically leave the building for your stipulated lunchtime.
Or schedule a 10 to 15-minute "recess" into your afternoon to snack and stretch in your office. Scheduled downtimes don't have to be lengthy. Just five minutes spent doing something completely non-work related can be enough of a refresher to boost your productivity and to your well being.
You Can Effectively Manage Your Time