Time is one of your most valuable assets. You must manage it well if you want to be successful. I know there are tons of time management tips out there, but here are the things that I have found helpful to me, specifically with regard to my work as an accountant.
Focus on better use of your time at work, not working longer hours. The amount of time you have is fixed. When you spend more and more of your time at work, it will start to take over your life. This might seem manageable at first, but after a while you will experience increasing stress as other neglected parts of your life start to revolt. Resentment will develop and you will burn out. If you focus on being more productive with less time, you will be shocked at how much you can achieve, while also maintaining a sustainable work-life balance.
Get organized. Schedule your priorities, don’t prioritize your schedule.
Making lists and taking notes will help ensure that your time can be spent wisely. Instead of trying to remember what occurred at last week’s meeting or what you have due today, organizing your to do list will save that energy to be used on the task at hand. Make lists and take notes and use a system that works for you.
How often do you organize your task list and focus? When I first developed my habit of writing everything I work on down, that is simply all that I did. I had lists each day and unfinished items were scattered throughout old pages in a notebook. Occasionally I would re-write everything that I knew I needed to get done on a new page, but there was no structure or process in place.
Now I am a believer that you should focus on your task list daily, at the beginning of each day. Spend 10 to 30 minutes thinking through what is outstanding, any new items you need to add or old you can remove, and determine priorities for everything. Review today’s list in the context of your week. Make a distinction for the top 3 or 4 items that you want to finish that day before you leave the office. This not only gives you more of a solid goal for what to get done that day, but will also increase your awareness that you likely cannot finish as much as you think you can in a single day at the office.
Once you have your task list for the day, move items to the bottom section you label as “Complete” as you complete each item. If you do this each day and save it, you will have documented what your priorities were that day and what you got done.
Where did the time go? Some really busy cultures can fail not because they are not productive, but because they are constantly working with their head down just trying to finish what they have in front of them. Planning and strategy take a back seat to the today’s urgent request or fire drill. In situations like this, you might find it helpful to go back through your task lists for each day and look through the items that you completed. If you save a copy of the list each day like I do, then you can do this quickly once every couple weeks. As you look through the items, think about the major things you’ve accomplished or what has taken the most time. Was your time consumed by things you did not anticipate? From this exercise, make a list of what you’ve accomplished each month and send it to your boss. This will help your boss know what you’ve been working on, while making the point of how productive you’ve been. If your culture is one of fire drills it will help reiterate how much of your time is not your own and goes towards reacting to more requests than anyone really took the time to think about. Maybe you are understaffed and need more resources to truly spend time on the strategic goals you’ve set.
Prioritize again. If you find that your to do list is unrealistically long, periodically go through it with those on your team and/or with your boss and try to eliminate items. Either decide they are not important enough right now to take your attention, or delegate them to another resource or department. This habit will continually remind you that your to do list show be as small as possible not a badge of honor showing how busy you are. After all, if you have 30 items on your to do list and it would take you 2 months to finish them, what are the chance you will ever get to spend time on the bottom 10 priorities?
Other tips to help you utilize your time better:
- Take 2-5 minutes before a meeting and create or review an agenda. Think of what objectives you need to accomplish.
- Any item that takes less than 4 minutes to complete should simply be completed, don’t put it on your list.
- Block some time off on your calendar in February, May, August, and November to review quarterly goals and progress made to help ensure quarterly targets are met.
- Remember that schedule should not come before people. See people as people not things and keep your schedule open and flexible to meet the daily needs of your team.
- Arrange your schedule considering the time of day. Not everyone works early morning or late night as well. Arrange tasks accordingly and be mindful of your most productive times.
Urgency and Importance
In the famous book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey explained one of the most popular ways to categorizing items that might take your time. The four quadrants of time management that he developed break all items into either urgent or important or a combination of the two.
Remember that Urgent Unimportant items only deceive us by making us believe they deserve our attention. Don’t be deceived. Just because something comes with a sense of urgency does not make it important and worth your attention.
Avoid spending any time on anything not important and not urgent. This is most easily identified as wasted time. When you feel like you need a “mental break” try and focus on an easy or different task that you feel is still somewhat important. Sometimes you just need a change not necessarily need to waste time.
Email. I can, as others have, write a whole article on email management. We all get too much email, but when it comes to email here is my philosophy:
- Don’t check new messages just because you see them come in and they are new and interesting. That is a distraction.
- Turn off desktop notifications for new email and find a time in your day (maybe 3-4 times a day) to catch up on email.
- If an email is not actionable, file or delete it.
- Only let your inbox reflect outstanding, actionable items. Anything else, even if for future reference, should be filed.
- If on Google, use Prioritized mailbox.
Say no. It’s OK to say no you don’t have time or no your time is not worth spending on a certain task. Sometimes it is difficult, but part of prioritization means that some things will simply not get done or should not deserve your time. Remember 80% of your results can be achieved from 20% of the things you do.
If you value your time, so will others. Just as with other things, you are sending messages to others about how important you feel your time is by how you spend it. Conducting a meeting without an agenda or going to the hour mark, just because it was easy to schedule that way sends the message that your time is not very valuable. The higher you value your own time, and act accordingly, the higher others will value it also.
Stay in control. Try to end your day at the office on a fixed schedule. If you have kids that you need to go pick up then this might be easier for you, but if you are like me and have the tendency to stay an extra hour or two just to try and finish something, don’t make a habit of it. Stay in control of your schedule and either finish everything by your set time to leave the office or come back and finish tomorrow. All of your time is valuable, not just the time you spend at work. Remember that taking time from your family to stay late at the office carries an obvious long-term detrimental cost to it.