With the daily barrage of emails, talkative colleagues, and constant digital interruptions, the modern workplace costs individuals and companies a lot of time. In fact, the average British employee wastes 759 hours of work a year at work.
Overwhelmed with these distractions, employees have to take on extended hours with little to show for it. Despite longer workdays, productivity is actually falling. To feel engaged and happy at work, you need to buck this trend and find a different way to work. The key is simple: reframe the way you think about time.
By improving your time management skills, employees can get more done in a shorter period of time. In this blog post, I describe three techniques: prioritising, monotasking, and time tracking, that can transform time management skills overnight.
Prioritise your work activities
Just like your financial assets, your time is an investment. You have limited number of hours. There’s no way to do everything — it’s just not humanly possible. When you fail to prioritise your work activities, you experience extra stress and make little meaningful progress toward goals. Unfortunately, this reality is the status quo at a lot of business.
The average mid-level manager only has six-and-a-half hours a week to do their actual jobs after meetings, emails, and transition time! The most successful people thrive because they don’t fall victim to this trap of busy work, and instead allocate their time in a way that serves their highest contribution to an organisation.
Time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders suggests in Harvard Business Review that people need to get down to the details. Before taking on a new task, each employee should assess whether the activity is an investment, neutral, or optimise activity. We summarised Saunders’ definitions below:
Investment activity – An investment activity reaps high returns by contributing to an important outcome. If you own a coffee shop, interviewing baristas is an investment activity — hiring the right person ensures that your business runs smoothly. Bring your a-game to these tasks, leaving more than enough time to put in your best effort.
Neutral activity – Neutral activities need to get done, but they aren’t of the highest importance. In other words, adding more time to the tasks doesn’t necessarily improve the outcome. Required meetings and collaborating with coworkers often fall into this category. Saunders suggests only aiming for b-level work when it comes to neutral activities. Also make sure to have boundaries around these tasks so they don’t take time from more important activities.
Optimise activity – These activities are primarily administrative. If you needed to, you could do them with your eyes closed. Get through these tasks as quickly as possible to make room for higher priorities.
Label each task in your to-do list as an I, N, or O based on their level of importance. Follow Saunders’ directions on how to approach and manage each type of task. This approach limits the negative effects of perfectionism and ensures that you allocate your energy (and time) to the tasks that lead to the greatest possible impact.
Despite the natural tendency to multitask, trying to do everything at once leads nowhere. Scientists found that switching back and forth between activities actually splits the brain, limiting productivity and disabling important brain functions. Instead, choose one task and eliminate distractions (including work) for a set period of time.
Block out time on your calendar
Saunders suggests that the best way to monotask is to plan ahead of time with daily and weekly appointments. Put time on your own calendar for essential activities. “Just like you set up automatic financial investment to mutual funds in your retirement account, your daily and weekly routines should make your time investment close to automatic,” she says. If you own a clothing shop, for example, set aside regular blocks of time to process new merchandise.
Batch reactive work
This scheduling technique also applies to reactive work too, such as responding to email and posting to social media. Batch reactive work at the same time instead of checking it every few minutes. A 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology concluded that two-to-three second interruptions could double errors on assigned tasks. By containing reactive work to a brief period of time, you limit unnecessary distractions. Limit your exposure to digital overload with tools such as Freedom and Focus. These programs help you to unplug and focus on the most important projects or tasks.
When you integrate monotasking to your daily routine, give your boss a heads up. Frame the change as a proactive decision that will make you more effective at your job on a day-to-day basis.
Track your time
One of the best ways to quickly improve your time management skills is to track your time. As you move through the day, write down each task and the minutes you allocated to it on a separate calendar.
When productivity expert Laura Vanderkam started tracking her time, it drastically changed her perspective on time management. With a demanding career and small children at home, Vanderkam always felt strapped for time. An extra three minutes a day tracking her activities made her realise just how much time she had to work with everything.
Research cited by Vanderkam shows that most professionals overestimate working hours. Most people who estimate working 75-hour workweeks are actually off the mark by 25 hours. By digging into the nitty gritty of how you currently allocate your work hours, you can get an accurate sense of your schedule and make necessary changes.
If you prefer to automate the process, check out the apps Toggl and My Hours. Whether you track by hand or an app, it can bring unexpected insights. You may find that you work better in the mornings or get hung up on particular tasks. With extra awareness, you can shift your schedule and optimise your time.
These three approaches to time management — prioritising your schedule, monotasking, and keeping a time diary — revolutionise your work life in as little as a day or two. By simply reevaluating the tasks on your desk, tackling them one-by-one, and recording your progress, you can maximise your impact as an employee.