Jenn Foster and Melanie Johnson interview women business owner Lisa Holmes. Lisa has been in the advertising agency world for over 25 years. Lisa Holmes has been named one of Utah’s Top 25 Women-Owned Business owners. Presenter and workshop leader at professional association meetings and conferences. Teaches healthcare marketing at a university level. Regional Marketing Director, Western Institute of Neuropsychiatry; Account Coordinator, Account Executive, Account Supervisor, Vice President, President and Chief Executive Officer, Holmes & Co.
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Better time management isn’t just about working harder, it’s about working smarter. We asked 34 productivity experts to share their best time management tip. Use this list of techniques to experiment and find the strategies that make the most sense for you.
“Just-in-time-learning” changed everything for me. That is, I only consume content related directly to the next task I have in the current project I’m working on. Blog posts, podcast episodes, videos—they must help me with completing that next task on my priority list, or else it doesn’t deserve my attention…at this moment.
‘Just-in-time-learning’ changed everything for me.
FOMO (fear of missing out) does make this hard though, because there’s so much great stuff out there we don’t want to miss, however, if you’re smart about it and as you come across interesting and potentially helpful content you put it aside into a tool such as Evernote for easy access later, it can truly change how much you get done versus how much you learn.
Reframe your thinking. Time management is an outdated idea, and attention management is the new path to productivity.
How you manage your time is only relevant to the extent that you also control your attention on the task at hand. This is because if you allocate time to a task, but spend that time switching among several different tasks, the end result will likely be different than what you intended. Controlling your attention means effectively managing internal and external distractions, and single-tasking for higher quality work done faster.
To better spend your time, start by understanding where your time is spent. There are great tools out there to track time, but in all honesty, I prefer to keep it lightweight—Marc Andreessen’s notecard system has always worked for me.
On a simple 3×5 notecard, keep track of your main to-do’s from the day. On the back of the card, you’re supposed to write things you got done that you didn’t initially plan to get done the night before—the workday always likes to sneak in plenty of extras.
By looking at your 3×5 card at the end of the day, you’ll see what you prioritized (and if you got it done) and what work was added to your plate. Extra work is fine, but if you’re not clearing off your main tasks day-after-day, something is wrong.
Focus. Far too many people are tying to tackle too many things at once and as a result, they make very little progress (and end up burning themselves out in the process). Consider what your top impact activities are and build your day around them. Don’t let other distractions and enticing opportunities dictate your day.
You also likely need a solid priority management system to help manage your priorities. We like to call this your “Master Plan”. This is where you list your immediate priorities and all the associated tasks.
As an entrepreneur, you’re in over-performance mode a lot of time because you’re all in. Pace yourself. There will be time. You’ll need the time, energy, and attention though; and when you go full throttle right out of the gate, you’ll exhaust yourself.
Do you know what good enough is for each of the projects on your list? This is good enough for the organization and good enough for you. Overthinking, over editing and over tweaking wastes valuable time and is not necessary. Do good work, and then stop.
Manage your cognitive load so that you don’t have to “keep remembering things”. To do that, I use SaneBox to reduce my email load, then I document everything I sense is important in Evernote.
Manage your cognitive load.
I run 35 separate Evernote Docs with notes on chats with people I regularly work with on anything important (questions, results and action items). All tasks then feeds in a centralized To Do list I can prioritize and assign to my calendar (currently Sunrise).
The most important thing a busy entrepreneur can do is to stop everything and think.
Take at least 5 minutes in the morning to think about your day:
What’s most important for you to accomplish today?
Does your calendar reflect that priority?
Set your phone to beep every hour and, when it does, ask yourself:
Am I doing what I most need to be doing?
Am I being who I most want to be?
And at the end of the day, pause for 5 minutes and ask yourself:
What did I learn? Anyone I need to thank or acknowledge?
Anything I want to do differently tomorrow?
So often, we think of time management as increasing our efficiency. But some of the most efficient people I know are ineffective. The key is to be effective, to work on what’s most important and to leave everything else out.
Build 2-4 hours of unstructured time into your weekly schedule. This is time set aside with no agenda beyond learning, exploring, and thinking. For many busy entrepreneurs this might seem counterintuitive or just plain unrealistic. However, research backs up the importance of having “slack” time in your schedule on two fronts:
1. When you’re constantly busy and have no free time—as in every minute of every day is scheduled back to back—you max out your brain’s bandwidth: your cognitive abilities decline, you become more prone to making errors, and you’re less insightful.
2. Early on at Amazon, Jeff Bezos left his Mondays and Thursdays completely unstructured so that he always had time to devote to thinking deeply about the vision of the company. Making some “unstructured time” sacred is a hallmark of successful CEOs because without it they will always be reacting to the problems others are putting in front of them, and never proactively thinking about the future of the company.
Divorce your computer! Twenty years ago, computers were productivity tools. Now, they’re distraction tools that kill focus, kill creativity, and kill our ability to do good conceptual thinking by providing a never-ending stream of irrelevant interruptions.
Divorce your computer!
Physically arrange your workspace around a blank desk, not around your screen. Treat the computer as a tool that you use consciously, take out, and put back. Don’t use it as a default location to distract your mind and attention.
Put your laptop away during meetings. Take notes by hand. You’ll connect better with people at the meeting, and you’ll have far better recall for what happened.
Use a paper to-do list for each day’s top 3 priorities. Keep it in front of you at all times. Endless electronic to-do lists allow items to get trapped “below the fold” and fall off your radar screen.
Don’t triage your own email. Have your assistant do that, and bring only the most important items to your attention.
Respond to email with a single sentence. If more is required, dictate the bullet points to your assistant and have them compose reply emails on your behalf. You just review and send.
Take your time to do right things. Everybody wastes time, so focus on being effective – doing right things, instead of being efficient—doing things well. Working in constant pressure is not ok. Feeling anxious and overwhelmed is not ok. Do you regret making decision? Stop.
You shouldn’t judge your success based on outcomes by themselves. The most positive results can be from things that you don’t have to do. Do the most important things in the morning—studies shown that after using your willpower later in a day people starting to make bad decisions.
Finding a stable time management technique that works for you is key to being able to get things done.
There are so many new tools that come out each month (week even!) that promise to be the ultimate organizational product, but the time and energy we invest in setting up these new systems are actually taking us away from being productive.
I’ve gone from paper to PDA to paper to Phone and back to paper again because some new app or system caught my eye rather than sticking with what was working for me. When I think of the lost hours moving my lists from paper to app to paper to app it makes me shudder!
A: Tasks you must do—serious consequences if they don´t get done
B: Tasks you should do—mild consequences if they don´t get done
C: Tasks you could do—no consequences if they don´t get done
D: Tasks you delegate
E: Tasks you never do
Here´s the trick: you never do a B task before you have done all the A tasks, and you never do a C task before you have done all the B tasks. Then apply the 80/20 rule to identify each day; which 20% of the tasks on your to do list will give you 80 % of the results.
You might be thinking, “Tor, that sounds cool and all that, but does that really help you become more productive?” Good question! Judge for yourself: I applied this when I spent 20 hours creating the roundup post 80 Productivity Tips From Incredibly Busy Experts that generated 20,231 page views in 6 days. The post has now 1700+ shares and 98 comments. If I hadn´t been very productive, I would have at least spent 40-50 hours to put together such a post.
For me, if it doesn’t get scheduled it doesn’t get done! So scheduling every hour of my work day is critical to staying focused and productive. Even “free time” to pursue side interests is put on the calendar.
If it doesn’t get scheduled, it doesn’t get done!
I accomplish goals by breaking them down into very small projects that I can achieve on a daily basis.
Each step should take no longer than one hour per day to accomplish. If I find it’s going to take longer than an hour to do that step, I haven’t broken it down enough.
Even if I finish that day’s steps early, I keep myself from doing the next step. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but doing so keeps me from getting burned out and I’m more motivated for the next day’s hour of work. This strategy also keeps me from getting a step “half done” which doesn’t feel as good as getting everything done that was planned for that day.
Managing my time means planning it in advance. The last 30 minutes of my day is always set aside to schedule the following work day.
Always wait at least an hour before checking email in the morning. When you begin your day in “response mode” it’s too easy to go down a rabbit hole of answering email and before you know it, you’ve lost half the day and you haven’t addressed anything PROactively because you’ve spent your morning REacting.
Use your calendar religiously. Never rely on your memory for your appointments with others or with yourself. Relieving your brain of having to remember your schedule leaves it free to be creative, solve problems and be present in the moment with others.
Always build buffer time around appointments in your calendar, to account for travel time, preparation time, and follow-up time.
Don’t hyperschedule yourself. Use your calendar for big blocks of time chunks – such as daily themes or weekly project sprints during a consistent time period (i.e. writing your book from 5 am – 8 am every weekday) instead of allocating every minute of the day with something specific.
Your to-do list can offer up the details because that is what is designed to do. Let your calendar act as a broader trigger that leads you to look at the details on your to do list. Then you can decide what you need and want to do on any given day with intention and attention in mind.
My high school math teacher once told me that if you’re stuck on a problem, start writing down numbers and you’ll be amazed how often you figure out the solution as you write. I’ve found this true in all of life, not just math.
Whenever I get stuck on something, don’t know how to start a project, get anxious or start procrastinating, I force myself to do the simplest and smallest part of the task. I lower my expectations from completing the whole project to doing the simplest, most achievable component—I’ll write the first sentence, put in the first line of code, create the first line in the spreadsheet.
And what invariably happens is that you finish that first thing and it spills into the next, and then the next, and like a snowball, hours later you’re charging miles downhill and you don’t even remember why it was hard to start out in the first place.
People often choose working harder over taking the time to figure out how to work smarter. Entrepreneurs can actually create more free time by examining their processes more closely.
First decide if the work is necessary. If it is and you have to do it more than three times, you’ll need to develop a process that is well-thought-out, includes everyone who touches it, and is documented so anyone can follow it. Once you figure out the best way to proceed, choose the right technology to get it done.
Apply the 80/20 rule and eliminate your least productive activities. Doing this allows you to be productive without being busy. But first you need to have clarity regarding your priorities and the willingness to let go of some opportunities.
Start your day earlier than everyone else. If you read the biographies and autobiographies of successful men and women, almost all of them have one thing in common and that is the habit of going to bed at a reasonable hour and rising early.
By waking before the rest of the world, you have time to plan your day in advance and get a head start on some tasks that may be looming over your head before others are awake to interrupt you.
Be aware of how your time is really being used, and choose tasks that provide the highest value with the lowest use of resources as high priority once urgent matters have been dealt with. It may sound boring and tedious, but a time audit can reveal surprising information about time use and lead to positive change.
My top management tip for busy entrepreneurs is the “Pomodoro Technique” and “Unschedule Calendar“. This basically means I just put a timer for 25 minutes and start doing only one task. This time pressure and single focus helps me get back on track and get into my productivity rhythm. On bad days I spend most of my days like this.
At the start of the day, ask yourself: by the time the day is done, what three things will you want to have accomplished? It’s a simple tactic—almost stupidly so—but hardly anything else will help you work more intentionally.
The tactic does a few things at once: it helps you filter out what you shouldn’t be spending time on every day from what’s actually important; it gives you a guiding light for what’s important for when shit inevitably hits the fan; and it helps you consider your limits every day—if you have a lot of meetings on a given day, as an example, you’ll have less freedom to define what you need to get done. Plus, it only takes a minute!
At the end of each day, map out which tasks need to get done the next day and how long each one will take. Then schedule those tasks onto your calendar in between the appointments that are already on there. Time management is all about mind management. Once you realize that you’re in control of your clock and can tell your time what to do, your work life and personal life will become less stressed.
27. Freely Allocate the Time You Need to Do a Task
Freely allocate the time you need to realistically do a piece of work to the minimum next stage of completion.
By “realistic”, I mean the actual amount of time it would take, not the amount of time you WISH it would take. Once you have made that decision, then don’t think about time at all and do the work. Thinking about time management is the biggest waste of time I indulge in, ironically! While I am worrying about how long something takes, I am not using 100% of my attention on doing useful work or solving problems.
By “minimum next stage of completion”, I mean a “useful element” that contributes to your working goals in some salient way. I tend to fixate on the “end result” instead of the next stage because I am impatient, but this just creates frustration that again burns up energy that might otherwise be used to make something.
Giving myself enough time to get something done, and also giving myself the permission to not feel rushed or guilty about the time it takes is what works for me.
28. Have a Productivity Routine You Follow Religiously
Have a productivity routine that you religiously follow daily. For example:
1. Workout at 4:30am
2. Create list of top 5 to-dos for the day at 7:00am
3. Work uninterrupted for 50 minutes, then break for 10 minutes – several times per day
4. Don’t leave the email tab open
Just like you build a strategy for everything else in your business, you absolutely must have a strategy for productivity. I workout because it makes me feel good, wakes me up, and energizes me for the rest of the day.
I create a list of my top 5 to-dos for the day because if it’s a never-ending list, then it often leaves me unfulfilled and like I accomplished nothing. (Even when I do.)
I make time for several hours of 50-minute working sessions with a 10-minute break because it’s the only way I can accomplish those five to-dos.
I don’t leave the email tab open because my day goes down the drain in zero seconds flat. Make a routine, stick to it, and you’ll find time you didn’t know you had.
When you find yourself avoiding a task it’s usually because you’re unclear about what needs to happen next. It’s usually one of 3 things—find out, decide, or do. Do you need more information, make a choice, or take an action. Look at your resistance through the find out, decide, or do lens and it’ll move you forward.
When we say “time management,” we’re really saying it’s the time that needs to be managed. But in 99% of the cases (a totally unscientific percentage but it’s relatively accurate in my experience), it’s not time that needs better managing—it’s us.
So instead, try thinking about it in terms of choices. An example: imagine your absolute favorite band comes to town. Or Hamilton. Whatever. Something you really want to go to, but impossible to get into. But lo and behold, two tickets fall into your lap. No matter how busy you are, or think you are, if you’re like me and most people, you’re gonna find a way to go, right?
So start looking at everything on your task list as a series of choices. You can choose to do them, or you can choose not to do them—to defer, delegate, or delete them. A weird thing starts happening when you look at it as a choice: you wind up making better choices, simply by realizing the power was in you all along.
Do the hardest thing first, every single morning. When you start your workday, tackle the task you find the most difficult to do or are most likely to procrastinate on. When we postpone those kind of tasks till later in the day, we often get stressed about them and keep postponing them.
By flipping it, you can go on with the rest of the day knowing you were productive. Even if you did nothing else, you still had a productive day. I’ve done this for the last 5 years of running my business and it helped us tremendously. Everyone in our company does it too and it’s part of our onboarding training to teach people this concept.
Prioritize! Emails keep piling up, phone calls keep coming in, there are tons of to-do’s: an entrepreneur’s workload is enormous. Prioritizing that work is key to staying focused. The more you’re able to prioritize, the more efficient you’ll be. This is where Eisenhower’s urgency-importance matrix comes in, forcing you to think twice before adding a task to your to-do list.
Here’s the how. Select those tasks that are most urgent. Ask yourself: are these equally as important? Postpone what is less urgent, delegate what is less important. And if it’s none of the above: get rid of that to-do.
1. De-clutter your brain. You feel stressed because you have too many unfinished tasks. On a plain piece of paper, write them ALL down. Then cross out any that are not absolutely essential. Be brutal.
2. Conquer the unfinished task. Looking at your list, commit to completing one task a day until the list is complete. Revisit this list often!
3. De-clutter your world. A desk or kitchen counter covered with papers and other clutter also makes you feel more stressed than you need to be. Stop, take a deep breath, and take a few hours to either toss it, file it, or take care of it.
4. Limit or block distractions. Shut off any email, Facebook, or Twitter alerts each morning until your most important tasks are complete. Process all of those communications in scheduled blocks.
5. Act with purpose. When was the last time you actually wrote down your purpose in life, or your top priorities? What is the one thing most important to you in life? What are the priorities that further that purpose? Write them down.
6. Set goals. Yeah yeah, you say you know what your goals are. But have you written them down? Neuroscience has proven that the simple act of writing actually tricks your brain into achieving more.
7. Make your “5 Before 11”. Make a list of five things you can commit to doing before 11am tomorrow morning. Does each task move the needle forward on your purpose, priorities, and goals? It should. When you do your 5 Before 11 tomorrow, you will have a blissfully peaceful sense of accomplishment, knowing you have done what is meaningful to you.
This is somewhat counter-intuitive: the best way to gain time is to make better initial decisions. We spend so much of our time and energy correcting mistakes and scrambling out of bad situations. If you can reduce folly on your initial decisions, you’d have a lot more free time. One way to improve the quality of your decisions is to clear your mornings and think for 30 minutes alone about the problem before making a decision. Try not to make big decisions in the afternoon or later in the day.
Have a great time management tip, technique, or strategy of your own? Share it in the comments!
About the Author
Casandra Campbell is an entrepreneur, craft beer nerd, and content creator at Shopify.