These days, effective time-management skills require a unique combination of technological tools, productive work environments and organizational alignment. After all, many of us rely on apps to boost productivity and keep up with our hyperconnected workplaces.
Research by Deloitte, though, shows that 47% of employees question whether these tools actually drive productivity. So if you’re looking to get your schedule under control, prioritize responsibilities and ultimately reclaim valuable minutes—without relying on more technology—here are three easy steps to help you get started.
Step 1: schedule fewer, more meaningful meetings
Scrums, check-ins, brainstorming sessions—call them what you will, a meeting is a meeting. And we often spend too much time in them.
Twenty years ago, senior managers were spending 23 hours in meetings every week, up from fewer than 10 meeting hours per week in the 1960s. Despite all the time we dedicate to meetings, however, few people find them productive. Of nearly 200 senior managers surveyed by the Harvard Business Review, 71% said they think meetings are ineffective and 65% said meetings prevent them from doing their own work.
But that doesn’t mean we should completely clear our calendars of meetings, either. Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a time-management skills coach and the author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money, says that face-to-face conversations are great for getting everyone on the same page. In most cases, they’re easier than writing emails, especially when it comes to discussing more abstract topics, like design. But for meetings to be truly effective, they need to happen before starting a project.
“When you take on a significant task, talk with any key stakeholders about what they expect from you,” writes Saunders. “By clarifying what’s actually needed and to what level, you can save hours of time deciding what to do and getting tasks done.”
Step 2: identify and prioritize essential tasks
As more steps, processes and tools get added into our workplaces, it becomes more challenging to figure out how to use time-management skills effectively. Although it’s a simple strategy, creating a to-do list is a productive place to start.
Atul Gawande—a surgeon and author who was recently appointed CEO of Amazon’s health-care company, Haven—has been touting the benefits of a to-do list for nearly a decade. In his book The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande explains that checklists have helped doctors, pilots and others do things correctly and successfully, because they help people identify essential tasks.
“They remind us of the minimum necessary steps and make them explicit,” he writes. “They not only offer the possibility of verification but also instill a kind of discipline of higher performance.”
According to Thomas Smale, a contributor to Entrepreneur and co-founder of the advisory firm FE International, Gawande’s thinking can be distilled into three key steps:
- Breaking down complex projects into smaller (sometimes obvious) tasks
- Keeping checklists short and manageable; five to nine items is ideal
- Using clear, exact language to describe tasks; formatting should also be kept simple
Step 3: make the most of your talent and resources
Can you send an updated report? Do you want to train a new employee? Will you join this afternoon’s budget meeting? We say yes to these types of questions every day—it’s an easy way to demonstrate that we’re dedicated to the job and helping the team. But it’s also likely to make our to-do lists (and time) feel unmanageable.
Even so, many of us would rather continue to say yes than delegate. In a study of 332 companies, 46% of respondents were concerned about their employees’ delegation skills. But at the same time, only 28% said they offered training on the topic.
This is a huge concern, considering that delegation requires more than just handing something off to an assistant or teammate. Delegation involves knowing who’s best suited to do what, making the most of your employees’ skills, and knowing when to take a back seat.
According to Jesse Sostrin, a director in PwC’s Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, leaders have an essential role to play in every task, but that doesn’t mean they have to be deeply involved in the work that’s required. “The two [essential and involved] are not the same—just as being busy and being productive are not necessarily equal,” he writes for the Harvard Business Review.
Rather than taking on every responsibility, then, Sostrin suggests you try using these time-management skills:
- Assess every demand to determine if it aligns with your top skills
- If it does, say “yes” and make time to be actively involved
- If it doesn’t, say “yes, if…” and identify others who are better suited for the job
By doing so, Sostrin points out, you’re still consulting, motivating and leading. In other words, you’re still essential to getting things done—but you’re not responsible for doing the heavy lifting. It’s changing your leadership mindset from “I’m the one in charge of getting the job done” to “I lead people, priorities and projects … and the work will get done because the right people are focused on the right tasks.”
As the workplace continues to evolve, it’s only going to get more challenging to manage our time. But it’s too valuable of a resource for us to waste. With creative time-management skills, we can increase our focus and productivity, check off the final item on our to-do lists, and go home a little earlier.