Time Bandits: Overcoming Time Management Challenges
Many moons ago, I used to do a leader-lead session on managing priorities and the one resource everyone said they needed MORE of was...TIME! Overcoming time management challenges is one of those training topics that can help you in both your professional and personal life. One of the best ways to increase quality time with your family, to get enough sleep, reduce stress, and achieve a better work-life balance is to improve your time management skills.
I’d bet no one is going to say they have too much time on their hands. It’s the nature of business. As soon as one task is complete, there are always others waiting in the wings. Requests from co-workers, clients, vendors, friends, and family members seem to be never-ending!
It’s important to identify time management problems and how to overcome them. In surveys about desired workforce skills, overcoming time management challenges is often cited as a top priority. So, how do you take control? Where is all the time going?
What Are the Biggest Time Bandits?
When I talk about time bandits, I’m not talking about the boat from Deadliest Catch, or the silly and somewhat bizarre but also brilliant Terry Gilliam (you know the guy who did the animations for Monty Python) movie from the 1980s. I’m talking about the things that aren’t on your to-do list, that aren’t on your calendar, that get in the way of making progress on your most important projects, daily activities, even quality time with your family.
Everyone is familiar with this one, putting off important tasks until the last minute. Sometimes we put off a small task because it’s too boring or monotonous. Procrastinators may look busy all the time because they keep ticking off low-priority tasks or starting new projects instead of focusing on the more important or urgent things. Many procrastinators claim they do their best work under pressure and wait until the last minute to finish. Unfortunately, this time bandit can lead to a lack of attention to detail as you rush to meet a deadline. Not to mention the added stress put on the rest of the team as they sit and wait.
One reason we procrastinate is that the work is overwhelming. Try breaking the work into smaller tasks so it’s more manageable. Create a timeline for each smaller task. Having a deadline can be motivating and help you stop procrastinating.
This is the phenomenon of rushing to accomplish a task as soon as possible before the deadline so it can be checked off the to-do list. Sounds great, however, there is a downside. Precrastinators are so focused on getting something done, they may not give a task the attention, planning, and organization it requires. They may get a high volume of items done without always turning in the highest quality work. Or they may focus on smaller, easier tasks, while the higher priority work is delayed.
To avoid precrastination, take the time to plan and evaluate your work. Prioritize the tasks so you understand which are most important and most urgent and do those first. (See Eisenhower Matrix below). Consider the tasks that involve other team members. What tasks are contingent on other tasks? What work can be done concurrently?
Many people take pride in their ability to multitask, however science shows that multitasking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. A computer can multitask. The human brain is not programmed to bounce between three tasks at once. Trying to multitask actually reduces our ability to focus, diminishes productivity, and increases the chance of making mistakes.
Try singletasking. Give your brain the opportunity to successfully focus on one task. This may sound completely foreign to you in the age of scrolling through Instagram while watching Netflix and eating dinner. You may be surprised at how your brain can focus on your work in total silence, with all notifications turned off, and all browser windows closed.
Our dependence on smartphones has created an environment where interruptions are expected and tolerated. Most people cannot ignore those little, red circles in the top right-hand corner of the app icons of their favorite social media platforms. These distractions create more time management struggles. How many times have you checked your email or phone since you started reading this blog post? Do you hear a ding every time you get a text message? Look at your browser. How many tabs do you have open? Do your team members spend too much time chatting near your workstation? Are you listening to a podcast right now?
Do your best to eliminate or minimize the avoidable distractions. Silence your phone. Close the browser windows you don’t need for your current task. If you are working from home, turn off the TV. Distractions in your personal life also need to be addressed. Remote workers have their own challenges dealing with family members interrupting their daily tasks and work schedule.
Many factors can affect your energy level throughout the day: lack of sleep, low blood sugar, the timing of the sunrise or sunset, Circadian rhythms, frequency of exercise, stress levels, etc. Pay attention to your energy levels throughout the day to understand the effects of this time bandit.
Prioritize and organize your tasks according to your peak work times. I am more creative in the morning. I should do my important work like writing before lunch. Then by mid-afternoon I start to fade so I switch to more simple tasks. For me, the end of the day is a good time to schedule meetings, take care of administrative tasks, or review industry articles. We have a program called Managing Time vs. Energy that talks about this idea.
If you lack a system to manage your files, tasks and projects, you will quickly lose time trying to keep up. It’s a delicate balancing act going from meetings, checking emails and chat tools, and doing your work. Collaboration tools and file sharing apps can make things easier but you still need to be able to organize your file hierarchy so you can find what you need. Did you save the document on your desktop? On the network? In the cloud?
It’s important to find your own system of organization to manage random requests that come through chat tools like Jabber or Slack or via email. After a team meeting, you have several new projects and action items. Do you move these requests into your company’s project management software? Could you use tips to help you meet deadlines? Taking training on project management methods may help.
Mental wellness and resilience are common themes in the news and in HR circles. Athletes are speaking out about their mental health. We are all experiencing pandemic fatigue. Add to these the normal stressors in our personal lives around finances, relationships, and physical health. All of these can affect your ability to perform at work.
It becomes more difficult to complete tasks, stay focused, and persevere when you get burned out. Explore mental wellness tips. It might be time to take a few vacation days to reset. You might consider taking a few vacation days. Use this free time to get enough sleep, take a break from social media, and get some relief from information overload. If you are dealing with depression, anxiety, or larger mental health challenges, you will want to seek professional help.
Time Management Strategies to Stay on Track
Do you remember the Seinfeld episode where George didn’t hear an assignment from his boss at the New York Yankees, but was too embarrassed to ask for clarification? When I watch that episode, I realize how far technology has come. Back then, tasks that were assigned verbally could easily be misunderstood and deadlines were often missed.
Different employees may need different tools and approaches. A project manager may need a more sophisticated tool like Teamwork or Basecamp. A small marketing team may simply share a Google Doc with a list of projects and tasks.
If you are looking to improve your own time management skills, consider learning more about the following approaches:
Time Blocking and Focus Time
Having a specific block of time for something is a simple way to actually get your work done.
- Choose a length of time blocks, for example, 30-minutes.
- Assign every task to a specific time block.
- Larger tasks may take more than one block.
- Identify where and how time is wasted.
- Schedule time blocks for breaks.
- During a time block, focus only on the task assigned to that block.
- Review your tasks at the end of the day and make adjustments for the next day.
The Pomodoro Technique
- Effective time management for the easily distracted, multitaskers, or longer projects.
- Determine the task you want to focus on.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- When the time is up, take a 5-minute break.
- Reset the timer and repeat until the project is complete.
- Helpful tip: Turn off email, text notifications, and phone ringers while the timer is active.
- Only check and respond during your break times.
Helps focus on task prioritization based on importance and urgency. (And yes, this was created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower during his presidency.) This method shows you how many important and urgent tasks you have, so you can prioritize and plan accordingly.
Training to Overcome Time Management Challenges
This might be the right time to find training courses to help. Working with a company like HSI gives you access to a full library of business skills. You could easily curate a curriculum for employees who need help with time management. We offer courses on all the topics mentioned above and more:
- Workday Planning Techniques
- Time Blocking and Focus Time
- The Pomodoro Technique
- Bullet Journaling Basics
- Iceberg Method Basics
- Eisenhower Matrix Basics
- The Myth of Multitasking
- Prioritization Techniques
- Managing Time vs. Energy
- Project Management
Sign up for a free trial our HSI LMS, to view all the courses mentioned.
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