Time Management

By Chandra Orr

May 7, 2010 5 min read

As companies downsize, many workers are doing the jobs of two or three people, but with a little planning and some tenacity for avoiding time wasters, you can make a big dent in that to-do list without losing your cool.

First things first: Forget about multi-tasking. You may feel as if you're getting a lot done, but it's really just a form of self-distraction.

"When you talk to someone, talk to someone. When you write a document, write a document. When you read an e-mail, read an e-mail. Stop the multi-tasking. It's a cancer that forces you to never really live your life consciously and in the moment," says productivity expert Eleonore Pieper, founder of Olicana Consulting, a project management firm.

Instead, make a list, and tackle your top priorities first. Take one task at a time.

"Your best antidote to interruptions is your written daily plan, a list of tasks with rough time estimates," says Pat Nickerson, co-author of "The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management." "Rich or poor, prince or pauper, we all get 24 hours a day, with no reserve account. Plan your days and spend your time deliberately."

Consider the 80-20 rule. Also known as the Pareto Principle, this common rule of thumb states that 80 percent of your results will come from working on the top 20 percent of your tasks.

"Start each day focused on your top 20 percent," Nickerson says. "Reserve you best time of day -- not necessarily your earliest time of day -- for these few tasks, and then take care of the next tier down. You'll always be working on tasks of specific value. The bottom 20 percent can wait or wither with very little consequence."

As you work, make an effort to curb the little distractions that can eat away at the day, including e-mail. Nothing zaps productivity like compulsively checking your inbox.

"Between the junk mail, the reply-to-all that wasn't intended for you and the pingpong e-mails when one phone call could have resolved the problem, you will be pulled out of your work at regular intervals," Pieper says.

It may take only a few minutes to read and respond to new messages, but re-immersing yourself in the task at hand can take much longer.

"Interruptions typically mean that as you return to your original task, you are working with a 20 to 40 percent reduction in efficiency," Pieper says. "And guess what? The universe does not end just because you do not reply to every e-mail immediately."

Stay focused by turning off new-message alerts. Instead, set specific times aside each day to open and respond to new messages. Unsubscribe from nonessential newsletters and mailing lists, and filter personal mail into a personal account. The only messages you should receive in your work e-mail are those related to work.

When possible, choose to talk face to face or over the phone to prevent a volley of back-and-forth messages.

To minimize other office distractions:

--Be your own Internet police. No more midmorning Facebook updates or quick peeks at your eBay auctions. "Close your browser, and resolve not to open it," Pieper says. "Leave your private Internet use at home, where it belongs."

--Don't get sidetracked with office gossip. Be friendly but firm with colleagues who want to chat. "If someone decides to camp out in your cube and share the latest details about his colonoscopy while you are working against a deadline, tell him you can't wait to hear his story, but could you grab lunch together," Pieper says. "Once the office chatterboxes realize you've come to work to work, they will start to ease off."

--Invest in headphones. Even if you aren't at the center of the office social network, background noise can be very distracting. "If you need to concentrate, set up a playlist of energizing music and put your headphones on," Pieper says. "They may also send a signal to chatty co-workers."

--Provide a drop box so co-workers can hand over paperwork without actually talking to you, but be cautious. "You cannot ignore interrupters," Nickerson says. "If you are in a service role, then you must handle valid interruptions as a key responsibility -- but you can reduce the randomness of the requests."

--Take notes. Hunting for vital information waylays productivity and leaves you frazzled, Pieper says. Designate one notebook to record essential job information. Think of it as your own employee handbook. Take notes during meetings or when your boss hands out a new assignment. If you forget something later, you'll know just where to look.

--Hit work early. Arrive an hour ahead of everyone else and begin your biggest projects then, while you have the office to yourself. "Tackle the complex tasks first, when you are still fresh and rested. You will feel better as you cross tasks off your list and see how much you've already accomplished," Pieper says.

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