Time Management Techniques: 4 Ways to Tackle Your To-Do List
Time management is one of the biggest challenges people struggle with today. There are only 24 hours in the day, and no matter what you do, that will remain constant. The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night for adults, leaving 16 or so hours to get everything else done.
With the advent of the internet, and subsequently the smart phone boom, now everyone expects you to be plugged in and available 24/7. Forget that sleep thing!
Considering that your kids, your family, your boss, your coworkers, and your loved ones expect you to be available all the time, it is more important than ever to manage your time and learn some foundational concepts to prioritize and get things done.
A big part of the struggle is that many people tend to look at the big picture of everything that needs to get done, which can instantly lead to feeling overwhelmed. It’s easy to get spun out thinking about all the responsibilities, social commitments, work deadlines, and “someday” projects that are piling up in the corners of your minds.
Learning how to prioritize and break things down into workable chunks; this will help you better manage your responsibilities and goals. Follow these steps to take back control of your schedule.
First, start by doing a “data dump” on a blank sheet of paper or in a word document. Write down every possible thing you can think of that you need to complete. Jot down everything from your workout to errands, meetings, appointments, and bigger commitments and projects like paying your taxes, cleaning out the garage, or pruning the hedges. The idea is to get everything down on paper so it’s all right there in front of you for analysis.
Order of Priority
Next, categorize things in order of importance. Work with columns in a spreadsheet or some sort of wall chart if you have the space. Determine what category titles best support your lifestyle, and then begin to organize your list in order of importance. You may find it helpful to sort your initial data dump using colored highlighters that correlate with the different categories. Again, you can categorize your list in whatever way is best for you. Here’s a sample:
Rush! – What needs to get done today
This column is for red-hot, high-priority things that absolutely need to be done today. These are non-negotiables. Some examples might be:
- Pay quarterly taxes
- Dentist appointment
- Business meeting
- Grocery shopping
- Pick up the kids
- Healthy meal prep
Priority – What needs to get done in the next three days
This column is assigned tasks that are high priority, but don’t have to be done right this minute. These are things that can get handled tomorrow or the next day. Some examples may be:
- Backing up your computer
- Mowing the lawn
- Paying the bills
- Doing laundry
- Mapping out slides for a presentation you’re giving next week
Important – What can wait a week or two
This column is for things that are important, but can wait just a little longer. Examples may be:
- Pruning the hedges
- Sending a thank you note
- Washing the car
- Reaching a certain chapter in your book
- Planning next year’s family reunion
When I Get to It – What can get done in the next three to 12 months
Here, you can list anything that you eventually need to tackle, like:
- Taking a photography class
- Organizing your closet
- Writing your first book
- Cleaning out the garage
Of course, types of to-do lists and projects will vary for each individual, but hopefully this will give you a good starting point.
Chunking and Sequencing
Once you’ve gotten your categories laid out and have assigned tasks, projects, and deadlines accordingly, it’s time to consider how you can chunk and sequence your to-do list. For example, time-chunk the things you can accomplish in one segment, like running errands, doing household chores, and making business calls.
As you do this, consider whether it makes sense to put things in a linear, sequential order based on what needs to be done next. Just as yoga classes follow a specific sequence that has each pose building on the previous one, you can complete action items that will make the next thing easier to accomplish. Try staging all your clothing and toiletries before you begin the process of packing for a vacation or organizing all your receipts before entering them into your tax spreadsheet.
For larger projects that have multiple facets, you can use this same chunking and sequencing technique to break down each of the components in order of importance. Taking bigger projects one step at a time can make them feel less daunting.
For example, if your goal is to organize the garage, your first phase may be to clear the clutter. You might want to begin with making piles for trash, giveaway, undecided, and items you are keeping. Schedule curbside pickup for bulky item removal, and then load the car and take giveaways to a charitable organization. Once you’ve gotten the clutter cleared and you can see the floor, begin to systematically organize the items you’ve chosen to keep.
Planning, Scheduling, and Setting Reminders
Now that you’ve gotten your projects charted and your tasks sequenced, it’s time to start scheduling your time appropriately so that you can get things done. Try using an electronic calendar on your computer, tablet, or smart phone. This will enable you to plan and schedule things in a visual manner, and you can set reminder alerts to help keep you on track.
Start with the end in mind
With anything that is a big project—or requires multiple phases—set your final deadline and then work backward from there. For example, if you know you have a deadline to submit a first draft outline of your book by June 30, you may want to put in your planner to have your last chapter completed by May 30, your second to last chapter completed by April 30, and so on. This is the planning and scheduling phase.
Schedule buffer space
Things will inevitably come up and, often times, the things you need to do may take longer than the amount of time you initially allocated. Try to schedule at least 60 minutes between meetings or appointments to leave space for things that run late, unexpected traffic, or the dog that threw up on the carpet as you were preparing to run out the door.
Life happens, and you may need to move things around. That’s to be expected and it’s totally okay. Do your best to refrain from getting down on yourself or freaking out about how your perfectly designed calendar just got thrown out of whack.
Everything’s going to be okay at the end of the day. You may just need to readjust a bit. Learn to flow with the unexpected and allow for flexibility in your mind and in your day. This will ultimately work to your advantage.
Play around with what works for you
Chances are that you will get everything perfectly scheduled on paper or in your electronic planner only to find that the flow isn’t working for you. So, change it up, move things around, and be open to playing with different ways of managing your time until you find your groove.
Also, keep in mind that different times of the year bring different activities, so you may find that your summer and winter routines are completely different. Again, flexibility is your friend. Do what works best for your personal lifestyle and make sure you’re taking some much-needed and well-deserved down time every day.
Lastly, it’s important to have a level of acceptance that you’re not always going to get everything done in one day. No one can. Meet yourself where you are, and be okay with that.
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