The Holy-Grail of Time-Management

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The clock is ticking. An array of deadlines is looming. An impossible number of tasks and timelines threaten to overcome you entirely. This day last week, it felt as if you had all of the time in the world, a full seven days to leisurely attend to the task at hand. The clock is still ticking. Panic. But where did the time go?

Despite the books, the workshops, the personal resolutions, time-management is one of those critical skills which we just can’t seem to master. Trying to concoct the perfect confluence of personal habits that will let us ‘get more done’ is bordering on the mythical, an unattainable Holy Grail of the modern working week.

Perhaps, like the Holy Grail, flawless time-management is destined to remain the reserve of myth (and Indiana Jones). Perhaps we are hard-wired to fritter away our most precious resource; be it so, there’s no reason we can’t at least take a stab at curbing, if not conquering our misuse of time. Here, then, are the 6 definitive cornerstones to set you on the path to time-management’s Holy Grail: the perfectly scheduled week.

1. Time-Management 101: Use a Notepad

Before you can manage your time, you need to know what it is you must manage. Sure, you could rely on the old-world charm of a dog-eared diary. But this is 2015 – not 1015 – and whilst Moleskin makes your (attempt at) poetry look a little prettier, if you actually do need to get things done, you’d be better advised to go for a Notepad app.

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Notepad apps have come a long way from their humble roots as unadorned note-taking pads. The very best Notepad apps come built-in with to-do lists to organize your workflow, voting boxes for complex decision-making processes, and even allow for timely task reminders. With a good Notepad, you’ll kill several tasks with one workhorse app!

Needless to say, a search for ‘Notepad’ in the App Store and Google Play will return a dizzying number of results. Handily enough, Knote has saved you the hassle with its recent review of the hottest Notepad apps of the moment to find the right note-assistant for you (featuring Knotable’s very own Knotes!).

2. Quality, not quantity, is the root of productivity.

“If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful, that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life”. Benjamin Franklin, always ahead of the game, was merely tapping into an idea that’s become increasingly popular of late: shorten your working day.

Being human, we all have an upper-limit number of sound decisions we can may on any given day. And like dominoes, disordered decisions and chaotic choices made in the morning have knock-on effects and often tend to determine the afternoon’s trajectory.

So, two things:

  1. Prioritize your morning. You’ll make your best decisions when you’re fresh and you’ll thereby optimise your overall output (and worry not, Knote once more has you covered if you’re no morning lark: we’ve crafted a list of the 6 best ways to overcome sleepy starts.
  2. At 5p.m., close your email and go home. By not working so much, you’ll not work more, but you’ll also work better. As Jeff Sutherland, author of Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, argues (as told to Slate): “hours themselves represent a cost – instead, measure output. Who cares how many hours someone worked on something? In the end, all that matters is how fast it’s delivered and how good it is.”

(Need more proof? Check out Knote’s piece on how the French, working a paltry 35 hours a week, are in reality more productive (based on GDP figures) than their neighbours, the captains of efficient industry, the Germans!)

3. Save the date: get a calendar

Mentally juggling a myriad of tasks, appointments and responsibilities is about as effective as a cat flap in an elephant house. Life hurtles at far too fast a tilt for you to successfully allocate your time and your commitments through the mayhem of a muddled mind.

Instead, do your sanity and your schedule a favour and use a calendar. With about as many choices as there are days in the year, you’re sure to find one that suits your needs: from system-integrated offerings like Apple’s own Calendar app to a gamut of more personal apps like Sunrise, there’s a calendar for every possible schedule.

Receiving in advance a reminder of that upcoming trip will bring timely order to the disorder of your working week. And, parenthetically, once you have your calendar up and running, keep it in check! Calendars over-complicate easily: a schedule swamped in a swathe of overlaps and long-cancelled appointments isn’t going to help. Simplify and streamline your appointments and save a shedload of time.

4. Learn to say no (nicely, of course).

We easily feel a misplaced nobility to yes every request. Instead of politely but firmly explaining that our current workload just wouldn’t allow us take on this or that added assignment, we prefer to passively assent to every plea and petition to take yet another project. In the end, we find ourselves heaped under a mountain of a million different deadlines and, worse again, we give shorter shrift to our own tasks.

“One reason we are feeling so busy all the time is that we are worse at setting personal boundaries around what we’ll say ‘no’ to,” says Jana Kemp (to WebMD), founder and president of Meeting & Management Essentials, a time-management consultancy.

So, when someone asks you to do something that you really don’t have time to do, say so, civilly but clearly. An easy, “This sounds great, but, unfortunately, I’m already at capacity at the moment,” will suffice. And don’t allow yourself to feel guilty: a refusal is not a rejection. By saying no, not only will you acquire an ability to respect and prioritise your own primacy, but those around you will value your honesty. Win, win.

5. Focus on a single task at a time

“I am a multi-tasker”  has become the infomaniac’s catchphrase according to career-guru Lindsey Pollak – compelling proof that we are the successful go-get-‘em types and that we are so eternally in-demand that we couldn’t possibly give all of our treasured attention to one trifling task.

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Yet, while it may work for a very specific set of people, multitasking is generally considered a pretty terrible approach to work. It is less efficient, more complicated and a more fatiguing way to work. It leads to multiple projects being half-started and only ever semi-completed. A HP study even showed that workers sidetracked by incoming email/phone calls saw a full 10-point drop in their IQs. That’s the same as a full night’s sleep (or more than twice the effect of smoking marijuana).

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

What Alexander Graham Bell was tapping into here is that you will achieve more if you ‘unitask’. Andy Teach, author of From Graduation to Corporation (as quoted in Forbes) argues ‘unitasking’ has become a lost art. “… some projects and decisions require deep, uninterrupted thought. If you can’t do that, you might make an okay decision or do an okay job. But if you can really focus on one thing, you’re more likely to do really well.”

So, for example, set aside one hour in the morning to work on a proposal for a client, allow yourself a short break, and only then shift your attention to the following scheduled task. Unconvinced? Peter Bregman, a leadership consultant, experimented with just such a work-ethic and has written a compelling article testifying to the endless benefits of the unitask lifestyle.

6. “Doing is better than perfect.”

Facebook’s company motto underlines the importance of working iteratively – expecting perfection every time only stymies and stifles productivity.

Perfectionism, otherwise known as paying excessive (read: neurotic) attention to every detail, is a double-edged sword: committing to doing our personal best may pay great dividends, but in our hyper-frenetic world, taking overly long to attend to the minutiae of insignificant tasks is inexcusable.

Instead, as business coach David Guest advises, cede to the impossibility of getting every little thing done to absolute perfection and opt for ‘agility’. An agile approach is one in which you work to complete a project in incremental (small steps) and iterative (repeated) stages. With an agile approach, perfection, or near-perfection, is arrived at over time, rather than the perfect-on-the-first-try attitude many perfectionists prefer.

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