We keep to-do lists and try to stay on top of our schedules, yet no matter how hard we try, tasks continue to evade us. The to-do list gets longer and it feels like time is slipping away by the hour. In a recent survey by the online time-tracking tool Toggl, the following five mistakes were identified by customers as the top things that were standing in their way of time management success.
While a to-do list may be an effective way to organize your thoughts about what needs to get done during the day, failing to prioritize tasks means your most important work can slip off your radar. “If we don’t know where we’re going, we’re just jumping from task to task,” says productivity coach Kimberly Medlock. Failing to prioritize may be a reflection of our current workplace environment and expectations.
“Most people who work in teams feel pressured to do whatever their co-workers or bosses ask from them without reprioritizing,” says Toggl CEO, Alari Aho. As you’re planning your day, week, or month, ask yourself what are the most important tasks. Don’t ask what tasks you feel like working on, but what you have to work on. “Often, the important task, the thing that really weighs on your mind, is the one that we tend to procrastinate on because of the mental fortitude it would take to get focused on it,” says Medlock. It’s more tempting to do those small five-minute tasks throughout the day rather than the one that requires intense focus, even when it’s that larger task that will get you further ahead.
Overachievers are especially guilty of this time-management sin. Thinking something will only take a few minutes and it ends up eating up a half hour is a common pitfall of A-type overachievers who never want to turn down an opportunity but don’t calculate how much of their time that opportunity will eat up. To avoid this time-management mistake, Medlock recommends jotting down the amount of time each task on your to-do list will take.
If a task takes 25 or 30 minutes, it should be scheduled on your calendar. Another trick is to double the amount of time you think each task will take. So, if you think a task will take a half-hour, block off an hour, just to be safe. Otherwise, you may end up pulling an all-nighter.
Before starting your work day, take 10 minutes to schedule your day. “Every 10 minutes you spend on planning saves you an hour in execution,” says Aho. But don’t schedule yourself 100%. Leave some space for new and urgent tasks.
“Distractions are triggers to procrastination,” says Aho. Among the top distractions are email and social media. To avoid distractions, Medlock recommends turning off email notifications when you’re trying to focus on a particular task or schedule notifications to come once every hour or two so you aren’t distracted every two minutes by a pop-up.
Blocking off a specific time in the day to check email is also a great way to manage this distraction, and will improve your performance. “Constantly checking email often means we respond after quick glances and a quick un-proofread reply back. That often wastes even more time and costs us even more when we have to apologize or clarify what we meant to say,” says Medlock.
Physical clutter is another distraction that is easily avoided. “Those piles of paper on your desk speak to you all day long and it’s just a constant distraction of what you haven’t done,” says Medlock. Clear off your desk at the end of every workday, filing away paperwork that doesn’t need to be on your desk.
“The only two ways to find more time is to eliminate or simplify,” says Medlock. “Until you’re tracking your time, you can’t know what you can eliminate or simplify.” Although taking out a pen and paper and writing down every single thing you do during the course of the day may seem like a waste of time, it can actually be your biggest insight into your personal time management mistakes.
Tracking your time for one or two weeks can help you to identify what’s standing in the way of your time-management success. Are you constantly being interrupted by phone calls or co-workers knocking on your door? Are you surfing the web too much, or checking email too often? “The numbers don’t lie. So when you look at a list with numbers of how you’re spending your time, that’s when you can get more strategic about what you can eliminate or simplify,” says Medlock.
Experts agree, there’s really no such thing as multitasking. What we have come to term multitasking is actually called task shifting, and it’s extremely harmful to our brains. “Your brain was designed for thinking and reasoning, not for managing all of your to-do lists,” says Medlock. Staying on task may mean setting a timer and focusing on that one task for a specific amount of time. Repeating the mantra, “right now I’m (preparing this presentation)”, can also help you to stay focused and avoid shifting from one task to another.