Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on September 12, 2021
Figure Out Your Goals
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We’re talking about “big-picture” goals for both your work and home life. For example, you may want to find a better work-life balance, get more exercise, and be more involved in your children’s after-school activities. Once you know what they are, you can break them into smaller tasks and focus on how to fit them into your life.
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It can help to take a week or so and note how long it really takes you to do things you do all the time -- do laundry, make breakfast, make your bed. Most people overestimate how long it takes to do something simple like take a shower and underestimate the time needed for bigger tasks, like write a term paper. If you know exactly how you spend your time, you may be able to manage it better.
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Put to-do’s in 4 groups:
Urgent and important
Not urgent but important
Urgent but not important
Neither urgent nor important
The goal is to have as few things under “urgent and important” as possible. Those cause stress when they pile up. If you manage your time well, you’ll probably spend most of your time on “not urgent, but important” -- that’s where you can get the most useful things done and keep from feeling overwhelmed later.
Schedule Your Day
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Once you know just how long things take and what’s most important, start to plan things out. Be flexible. Do you get more done in the late afternoon or early morning? Do you like to have your evenings free to relax? Are you more likely to do yardwork if you have a chunk of time to do it all at once or spread it out over the course of a week? Think about what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to change things up.
Do the Hard Stuff First
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Mark Twain said, “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” In other words, if you have something hard to do, get it out of the way so you don’t have to worry about it the rest of the day. At least that’s how the author of one prominent time management book understood it. They titled it “Eat That Frog!”
Write It Down
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A “to-do” list is tried and true. But you can use other tools, too -- the main thing is to write it down somewhere. Whatever you use to keep track of things you need to do, it’s better to have just one and keep it with you wherever you go -- on your cell phone for example. Some kind of list keeper or calendar app is probably on your phone already.
Is It Worth Your Time?
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Remember your big-picture goals and ask yourself if what you’re doing is likely to help you get there. For example, that extra hour spent at work on something no one asked you to do might have been better spent at the gym or on the piano or at your child’s baseball game.
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If you schedule a work session at 9 a.m., stick to it -- 9:17 a.m. won’t do, even if you work alone. Missing one start time will make you more likely to miss others. If you want some flexibility, allow yourself a choice -- return emails or file papers, for example -- but stick with the schedule as if it’s set in stone. If you try it and find it doesn’t work for you, you can always change it.
Just Start It!
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If you feel a strong urge to put things off, find a way to push past it and take even a small step forward. You’ll feel better once you make a little progress and may soon find yourself in a real groove. That’s because your attitude often comes from your behavior -- and your results -- rather than the other way around.
All Your Time Counts
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You’ve got a free 15-minute chunk of time before you have to be somewhere -- time to surf the Web and check social media, right? You might be surprised by what you can get done in that time. Four 15-minute chunks spread through the day is an hour of productivity. And you’ll feel better about kicking back later.
Your Computer Can Help
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Technology -- the Web, email, social networking sites -- can distract you for hours on end. But it can help too. Look for tools to help you track and schedule your time, remind you when you need to do something, or even block you from the time-sucking websites that tempt you most.
Set Time Limits
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That is, set the most allowable time for the task. You may get it done sooner, but if not, the limit helps keep you from overdoing it. Once you hit the limit, move on.
Email: The Black Hole of Time Wasting
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It can be a huge time suck and a source of stress. Try “The Four Ds”:
Delete: If it doesn’t concern you or isn’t something you need to know, get rid of it.
Do: If it’s about something urgent or something that can be done quickly, respond to it.
Delegate: If an email asks you something that’s better taken care of by someone else, forward it to that person and move on.
Defer: If it’s going to take more time than you have at the moment, set aside time for it later.
Take a Lunch Break
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It may seem “efficient” to work through lunch, but it can backfire. As a general rule, 30 minutes away from your job will help you work better in the afternoon. If you’re not hungry, go for a walk outside or do some stretching. You’ll likely come back with more energy and focus.
Schedule Good Stuff
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The whole point of getting better with your time is to make more time for the things you want to do. Sprinkle fun, healthy, non-work stuff throughout your week to keep you positive about your schedule and motivated to keep going. This includes breaks, snacks, recreation, exercise, even vacations -- especially when you finish an important task.
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IMAGES PROVIDED BY:
American Psychological Association: “Where do the hours go?”