Want to squeeze more into your day? Good luck with that, and the stress-related illnesses that await you.
The first thing to know about being super productive and managing your time, is that increased busyness won’t get you ahead.
Many managers confuse constant activity with achievement. They scurry from meeting to meeting, every minute of their day micromanaged and filled with activities.
In fact, especially for senior managers and entrepreneurs, your job isn’t necessarily constantly doing, says Danny Tuckwood, director of the business consulting group Metaco, which assists public and private sector organisations throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, you should be spending a lot of focused time thinking; figuring out ways to add more value to your business.
The art of making the most of your time is therefore firstly ensuring that you are not filling your days with activities that won’t bring you closer to your long-term goals. Be discerning about what you should do, and then be smart about achieving it:
1. Have a daily battle plan
Before you start your working day – especially before you start checking your email (which will ensnare you in other people’s priorities and demands) – decide on your goals for the day.
Draw up a detailed list of all the things you want to achieve, and make sure you are realistic about the time available to complete the tasks.
Don’t schedule back-to-back meetings; allow enough time to cope with unforeseen events, says Aviva Baran-Rothschild, a corporate facilitator and founder of the Johannesburg-based Fields of Change.
2. Eat the frogs first
Mark Twain famously advised his readers to eat a live frog first thing in the morning, ensuring that “nothing worse will happen to you [for] the rest of the day”.
Get the hardest and most important task out of the way first thing, while you are still fresh and Brian from marketing (and his daily reports of family life) hasn’t yet sucked the will to live out of you.
What about those big frogs you can’t swallow in one sitting? Eat a leg first. Don’t postpone working on an overwhelmingly large project, but make a small start as soon as possible and let the Zeigarnik Effect work for you.
In the 1920s, the Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik did extensive research into the impact of uncompleted projects on the mind. She found that the human mind is geared to complete a task – so even if you make a miniscule start to your project, your brain will effectively keep on nagging you to complete it. This is not the case if you haven’t started on a task yet.
In practice, this means breaking down large projects in digestible chunks and completing them one at a time.
3. Draw up a to-don’t list
Identify the ‘time robbers’ in your day – the constant checking of your cellphone, Facebooking, unnecessary meetings, etc. – and then impose strict rules curbing these unproductive activities, says Baran-Rothschild. “You may need to physically distance yourself from your phone for an hour or two.”
Remember also that willpower is a finite resource. Over the past 18 years, a number of research projects have shown that participants who were asked to exercise willpower (by not eating cookies, for example) fared worst in tests of their cognitive skills than those who did not have to deprive themselves.
This is where temptation bundling comes in handy. A relatively new concept, this combines things that you are not keen to do (for example, exercise) with things you love (a riveting TV series).
If you only allow yourself to watch your favourite TV series while being on the treadmill, you will require minimum willpower to start running.
Combining unique rewards with specific painful activities (for example, only allowing yourself your favourite unnecessarily expensive craft beer if your VAT returns are up to date) may have a marked impact on you procrastination.
4. Don’t fake delegate
Too many managers delegate by telling their underlings not only what to do, but how to do it. Micromanagement results in unnecessary, self-induced stress.
Instead, when you hand over a task, truly let it go. Give the person tasked with the project the freedom, space and confidence to do it in their own way, says Tuckwood. “Don’t be afraid to empower staff,” says Shoni Khangala, CEO of the coaching group Potential Exponents.
5. ‘Batching’ in the afternoon
Most people feel a dip in their energy levels in the afternoon. Schedule your most undemanding tasks (like emailing or admin work) towards the end of your working day. Group similar tasks (like calls to suppliers) together so you don’t lose time by having to switch between different types of tasks.
6. Say tomato
An Italian software designer, Francesco Cirillo, came up with this simple time management technique named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro, Italian for tomato).
It basically works like this: First, compile a list of tasks. Then, set a timer to 25 minutes. Start working with absolutely no distractions (if your attention wanders, jot your thoughts down, but immediately return to work).
After 25 minutes of focused work, take a five-minute break, before starting the next 25 minutes. After four of these ‘pomodoros’, you are allowed a break of between 15 and 30 minutes. Pomodoro devotees claim this deceptively simple exercise will train your brain to become more focused and efficient.
7. Add pleasure points to your day
Khangala believes it is crucial to make time to relax and to reflect, in order to avoid burnout and fatigue. Your daily programme should incorporate the necessary time and space to switch off from work and to recharge.
8. Don’t manage your time, manage your energy.
Baran-Rothschild spends a lot of her time helping clients to bolster their energy levels. Often clients have neglected their physical resources (not sleeping enough, poor diet), which eventually lead to poor performance.
But equally important is not to neglect your emotional and intellectual well-being, and also ensuring that you are doing work that is aligned with your personal values. “If your work doesn’t excite you, or you don’t feel like you are fulfilling your purpose, you won’t be able to sustain energy to cope with demanding tasks in the long run,” she says.
This article originally appeared in the 11 February 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.