How often have you wished for another hour in your day to complete or even start an essential task? “Time management is not really about time at all, it’s about decision management,” says Sara Caputo, MA, productivity coach, consultant and trainer at Radiant Organizing. It’s making the decision to identify and eliminate time-wasters, have a clear idea of your priorities and actually follow through.
Three productivity experts share the specifics on shrinking your to-do list and also making time for what you want to do. Some of these are tried and true, while others might surprise you.
1. “Don’t live in your email inbox,” says Laura Stack, MBA, president of the consulting company The Productivity Pro.
If you let it, email can become a black hole, sucking up your time and distracting you from important projects. “Turn off your email alerts,” Stack says. And designate a time in the day that you’ll check email.
2. Take inventory of your time-wasters.
Ask yourself, “What behaviors or tasks am I choosing that truly waste time?” For instance, Stack says that common time-wasting behaviors include “excessive social media interaction, socializing with co-workers, random web surfing, personal business [and] reading blogs.”
3. “Create systems and rituals around what you do the most,” Caputo says.
For instance, many people can easily spend 10 minutes or more hunting down their keys, so create a place to put them so you always know where they are. Caputo suggests doing the same with the mail.
Another tremendously helpful system is creating a meal plan for the week. As Caputo says, “It gets posted on the refrigerator and now there is no more thinking about what we are going to have for dinner — and we eat healthier because of it!”
4. Organize a bit every day.
Organizing a major pileup, whether it’s papers, clothes or shoes, can take a huge chunk out of your day. It interferes with the time spent on critical projects. Doing daily touchups can help.
Caputo notes the importance of returning items to their “home” each day. She suggests spending about 10 minutes maintaining order.
5. Get a second brain.
According to Caputo, “you are much more likely to accomplish the tasks that need to get done if they are in front of you — written down — than if you don’t have a plan.” She calls her to-do list “my second brain.” This actually creates free time because you’re more likely to complete tasks when you have a plan, she says.
6. Say no.
Experts emphasize the importance of being fiercely protective about your time by being selective with what you’re doing and saying no. You want to create “strong boundaries around your priorities,” Caputo says.
7. Choose the top tasks for your day.
Specifically, “Pick the top three to five things that have to happen in your day and focus on getting those done no matter what,” Caputo says.
8. Figure out how long it takes to complete tasks.
“Most people highly underestimate how long things actually take and where their time is actually going,” Caputo says. Track the time it takes you to accomplish each task. This helps you create a realistic to-do list and carve out the time for important tasks.
9. Budget your time.
Knowing how much time you have to work with is important in whittling down your to-do list and getting the things you really want done. It’s a matter of simple math.
Here’s Stack’s easy equation to help you budget your time:
- “Determine how many hours you’re going to work from start to finish.
- Subtract meetings and travel time.
- Subtract the average amount of time you get interruptions as part of your job (client calls, co-worker drop-ins).
- Make a list of important tasks and estimate how long each will take.
- Add up the remaining time available and add up the estimated time to complete your tasks.
- Compare these two.”
You’ll probably have more tasks than time, she says. So “pick the most important item on your list to complete (not what you feel like doing).”
10. “Get very clear on your mission,” says productivity coach and author Hillary Rettig.
Rettig helps clients “live lives of consciousness and design.” She says that the people who tend to “get most stuck are those caught between conflicting identities or value systems.” For instance, she says, a person might want to embark on an ambitious goal, such as writing a novel or starting a business, but doesn’t make the time in their schedule for their project.
11. Remember that you’re in charge.
Don’t let activities and to-do lists run you. As Caputo says, “Once people realize that they have the power and ability to affect their day based on their choices and decisions minute to minute, then they are able to get the right things done to feel balanced and on purpose!”
12. You might have to make hard decisions.
Rettig says, “There are things—and people—that we value that we will probably have to spend less time on, or give up entirely.” She adds that, “…it’s hard — but to not do it is a kind of abdication, and over the long term will lead to a life of under-productivity and bitterness.”