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Time Management - Which Advice to Follow?

By Charlotte Burton

There are so many books on Time Management published every month that it is difficult to find the time to read and digest them all. What happens to most people is that they buy a book on time management, read it, decide that some parts of it may suit them, but then fail to adequately integrate the system into their lives. This is partly due to inadequacies in the system itself, and partly due to the inherently difficult nature of learning a new system - the equivalent to learning a new habit. What the books don't tell you is that each different time management system is not necessarily suitable to all people or for all uses for which people need them. Finding the right combination of the basic methods is entirely individual depending on both the nature of the tasks that are required to be done and the nature of the individual who is implementing the strategy.

This is where an overview of the basic systems is useful. There are few books that give such an overview, but one that does is Get everything done and still have time to play by Mark Forster. After outlining the basic methods, he goes on to describe one system that may be useful to some - but is rather complicated and which would not suit everyone.

Basic Time Management Systems

  1. To-Do Lists. Write a list of things that need to be done and then do them in that order. They can be distinguished from Checklists that are wonderful for breaking a project down into smaller tasks that can be ticked off regularly (which boosts motivation). Pros: can be used for many different types of tasks Cons: not useful if you have a schedule to keep to; can proliferate rapidly causing overwhelm

  2. Prioritisation. This is pretty simple - you write down the list of things you have to do and then put them in order of priority. Then you do them in that order. Pros: very good for office tasks, home chores, emergencies Cons: can become cluttered and disorganized unless you make separate lists for different projects

  3. "Do it now". A favourite with people who handle a lot of paper - this is basically a preventative measure for procrastination. If you need to do action something, you do it now. Pros: Very good for procrastinators, and also for spring cleaning (of both the office in tray or your home), routines and tasks which are vital for function (e.g. filling the car with petrol) Cons: Not useful for a multi-faceted life where there are a lot of different aspects which need equal attention, as here you can end up spending all your time on one area as you have to "do it now"!

  4. "Do the thing you fear most first". A form of prioritisation, this is also good for procrastinators as it has a great kernel of truth in it, in terms of the fact that once the most-feared thing is done, the rest will be easier in comparison. Pros: Good for personal growth and conquering fears Cons: can mean that NOTHING gets done if the fear of the first thing is very strong.

  5. Scheduling. Again, pretty simple - you put things in your list with times attached and then you action them according to the time. Pros: actions where other people are involved such as meetings, or picking up the children. Cons: Can be difficult to estimate the exact length of time something will take, and doesn't take interruptions, delays and other unexpected issues into account.

While all of these are very useful in particular situations, and for particular people, they often work best in conjunction with each other. Individual tools just don't work on a consistent basis. If they did, time management books would not be commissioned any more.

The Human Variable - Attention
So why are these tools not working? There is something which underlies the whole issue of time management which makes any solution you apply the equivalent of a plaster on an otherwise untreated wound. Time is not the variable here - there is the same 24 hours in every single day. Human attention is the vital variable - focussed attention gets things done, while distractions and poor organization fragment attention so that tasks do not get done. Remember days where a lot gets done, and remember days when you just couldn't concentrate on any single thing long enough to get it completed? This is down to your attention span. It changes from person to person, but research shows that the average person can concentrate fully for about 20 minutes at a time, before the attention starts wandering.

Improve Your Attention Span
While your brain and its functions can be improved by improving your diet (fish and vitamins, along with a steady sugar level are the absolute basics for feeding your brain), often the case is that you are allowing yourself to be interrupted which is causing the distraction (even if it appears to be in the job description that you must down tools when the boss calls). You can still put systems into place to ensure that you don't get distracted - and get a block of time available to focus your attention in. Even a response to the person at the door of "just a second, let me just finish this bit off" can mean that you don't waste the first five minutes after a distraction trying to remember where you were.

Choose the right system for you
Look at the list above and decide what your main tasks are which match what each system is best suited for. Then implement a combination of them. Often all you need to do is integrate your priority list with a scheduled list (by using a diary with a loose piece of paper as your priority list of unscheduled items - just remember to allow time in your schedule to complete the unscheduled items).

Many people swear by the Stephen Covey time management system that is similar in layout to a diary layout but adds space for unscheduled items as well as things that aren't too specific (such as spending time with your children/work on the novel, etc). You can find it in his book 'First Things First.' You can even buy fillers for your filofax based on that layout, so that you have it all to hand whenever you need it.

Give it some time
Learning and implementing a new time management system is like learning a new habit - and just as difficult as it is something extra to remember. It can take up to 12 weeks to be sure that the new habit is learned, at which point it will be second nature to use your system. If it doesn't work for you, just modify it a bit and try again - it can be something as simple as buying a larger diary so that you can use just one item to record your tasks, meetings etc.

Distraction Management
Locate your regular distractions and set up a plan to minimise them (I deliberately didn't say remove them - that would be rather difficult, unless you moved to the North Pole). This can be through implementing a system where you are not available to be distracted at work for a set amount of time, on the premise that you will get back to them with an actual answer to their problem the moment you are able to. While this may not be too popular with some of your co-workers (because you are not available at the drop of a hat), the fact that if you are able to be more productive during normal working hours, you will actually be able to leave work on time a bit more often. Make sure though that when you do get back to people after a no-distraction period, that you answer their question/query fully and swiftly.

Time management is not difficult; it is the various things that are fundamental to them being able to work that are the complicated parts. So long as you are able (both physically and mentally) to focus your attention you should find that time can be managed better. Remember though that there is no one-size fits all in the world of time management systems - you will need to try out one or two before you find the perfect one that works for you. Just make sure you choose the ones that are suitable for the tasks that are part of your daily life.

Charlotte Burton, BSc MAC, is a Life and Career Coach trained by the Coach Training Institute. She is a member in good standing of the Association for Coaching. A complimentary sample session is available to all those who are interested in finding out more about coaching and how it can help to improve your life. Please contact her by email or call UK (0)20 7837 5419 for more details.

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