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Strengthening Your Time-Management Ability

You know you're good at time management when you consistently:

  • Accomplish what you want to accomplish, when you want to accomplish it

  • Feel that you're in control of your various commitments and responsibilities

  • Know which tasks and activities most deserve your attention — and when

Here’s an example: You're assigned to carry out a research project. You identify and schedule all the tasks that must be carried out in order to fulfill the assignment — including designing the study, conducting the research, evaluating your findings, and interpreting your results in written form. You stick to the schedule. Thanks to your careful time management, you submit the finished product well within deadline.

Another: You're scheduled to deliver a speech on innovation at a conference that's being held in another country. The trip itself, as well as the preparation you'll need to put into developing and practicing your speech, will consume large amounts of your time and take you away from your daily duties. You find ways to continue fulfilling those daily duties by, for instance, catching up on email and work-related reading on the plane, and setting aside one hour every evening during the conference to tackle additional job tasks that you'd normally handle at the office.

To strengthen your time management skills, consider these suggestions:

  • Read a book on the subject. Potential useful titles include The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management, by R. Alec Mackenzie; Time Management from the Inside Out, 2nd Edition: The Foolproof System for Taking Control of Your Schedule — and Your Life, by Julie Morgenstern; and The 25 Best Time Management Tools and Techniques: How to Get More Done Without Driving Yourself Crazy, by Pamela Dodd and Doug Sundheim.

  • Take a self-paced online learning course. One example is the "Managing Your Time" module in the Harvard ManageMentor series, developed by Harvard Business School Publishing. Such online learning courses often introduce key concepts related to the topic, provide hands-on practice in related skills, and offer helpful tips and tools. Your employer may have a site license to the Harvard ManageMentor series that you can access through your company's intranet. Or you may be able to purchase an individual CD of the "Managing Your Time" module.

  • Consult an expert. Find someone at school or at work who you view as particularly good at time management. Ask this person how he has improved his time management skills.

  • Attend a workshop, training session, or course on time management. Your employer may offer such educational opportunities or may be willing to fund your tuition if you take such a course. Your local adult education programs may also offer such courses and workshops.

  • Play to your strengths. If you're a morning person, tackle the most difficult tasks on your to-do list early in the day when your energy level is at its peak. Or if you function best when you focus on one thing at a time, arrange your day in ways that enable you to concentrate for at least a few hours on one project without interruption. (For example, commit to ignoring phone calls and emails between 8 and 10 a.m.)

  • Battle "time sinks." As the Internet and email consume more and more of our time, it’s easy to feel that we should always be on the job — even during evenings and weekends. To combat these time sinks, purchase and install a learning spam filter. Shut off the little bell that sounds whenever you have an incoming email. (You'll more easily resist the urge to read emails as they arrive in your inbox.) Appreciate the addictive nature of Internet surfing, and limit the amount of time you spend on this activity.

  • Set priorities. Learn how to distinguish between tasks that are urgent and those that are truly important. There is a difference: Urgent tasks are urgent simply because they must be done in a short timeframe; truly important tasks are those related to important goals. Every day, list all the things you want to accomplish that day. Then identify the important ones — and invest your time in those.

  • Avoid "switching costs." Whenever you jump around from task to task because of interruptions or distractions, you lose time in the form of switching costs: You must regain your train of thought when you return to a task you were doing before you were interrupted. To avoid switching costs, cluster similar tasks together and commit to working on them until they're done. For example, focus on one project for a few hours in the morning, then take an hour to catch up on emails and phone calls. After that, work on another project for a few hours.

As the pace of business continues to accelerate, people who excel at time management will provide the most value to their organizations and feel the most in control of their lives. Though managing your time may feel like an impossible mountain to scale, you can enhance this ability. It takes practice, but the benefits are well worth it — including less stress, better on-the-job performance, and a reputation for reliability.