Do you ever find yourself at the end of the day wondering what exactly you accomplished? Does this happen to you consistently? Time management and productivity skills set the most successful people apart from those who struggle in these areas.
If you need help in these areas, you’re not alone. Small business owners, solo entrepreneurs, freelancers, and others who are self-employed struggle with this feeling all the time. It can seem like an amazing feat to finish the day knowing that you were productive.
For most of us, it never feels like we have enough hours in the day. But the reality is that you do have the time you need — it’s just being taken up by non-essential tasks that are overburdening you and getting in the way of what’s important.
When you’re spinning your wheels in this way, even your best efforts don’t get you any closer to your goals. It’s as if you’re running in place on a treadmill: no matter how hard you push yourself, you’ll never go anywhere.
If you work for yourself, you especially can’t afford to throw away precious minutes in your day. Rather than trying to find more time, you need to better manage the time you already have. This is as easy as mastering a 3 simple strategies that you can apply to all of your work – every day, every week, and every month.
Prioritize, Plan, and Produce: The 3 ‘P’s of Time Management and Productivity
The key is to think of these strategies as 3 ‘P’s that follow a step-by-step order:
I’m going to teach you the best practices for each of these steps and how to implement them effectively. Follow the 3 P’s of time management every day and you’ll experience a huge boost in your productivity; you’ll get off that time treadmill that goes nowhere and jump onto a clear path to achieving your goals.
Action Steps… Start by clarifying your business goals:
- Review your current business goals and write them down, dividing them up based on short-term and long-term.
- Set specific milestones and deadlines for each goal.
- What current time management issues are you facing?
- Identify areas where you’re wasting time,
- Note why you think these are an issue
- Highlight issues you want to focus on resolving as you go through this course.
Step 1 – Prioritize
Learning how to properly prioritize is the number one way to boost your productivity tenfold. We all know how to make a “to-do” list, but this isn’t enough. You need to figure out which items are essential and which aren’t important at all.
Start by making a list of everything you have to do today. Don’t worry about priority now; just get everything down.
How many items do you have? If you have more than seven or eight, you need to trim your list. Take out any tasks that you perform every day, like checking email. You can also take out anything that will happen regardless, such as a phone call you’re expecting.
Look at your list and ask yourself, “If I do just one thing today, what should it be?” Put this at the top of your list.
Now, look back at the other items and repeat for the second task. Keep doing this, and eventually you’ll end up with a list of things you have to do in order of importance.
One way to prioritize without getting bogged down in unnecessary tasks is to consider the direct result each task will have on your business. Which will directly or indirectly impact your income and goals? These are your high-impact tasks and should be your highest priority.
Tips for Refining Your To-Do List
We’ve covered the simplest method for arranging daily tasks, but sometimes this isn’t enough. Here are some tips for further refining your list:
- Rank Items. Create a scoring and ranking system. For example:
1-Needs to be done today
2-Should be done today
3-Doesn’t need to be done today
- Plug your items into these categories, and then prioritize within the category. This is especially helpful if you have many small things to do.
- Set Deadlines for Everything. Set a deadline for everything you have to do, even if there really isn’t any time pressure. Make the deadline specific to not only a day, but also a time of day. If one task is “due” in the morning and another in the afternoon, you know the morning task is more important.
- Categorize by Work Areas. Some people categorize by work-related or personal tasks. You can then focus on one list at work and the other after work. You could also break it down into smaller areas of work.
- Categorize by Time. If you have different tasks to complete in the morning versus the afternoon, you can create categories by time of day, or small to-do lists for each part of the day.
- Break Up Big Tasks. For anything that takes longer than a day, break it up into daily milestones and put these into your to-do list.
- Remember that the goal is to have a simple system that works for you. Use whichever methods make prioritizing easier for you.
Ideally, you should have three to five tasks on your daily to-do list. You have to break the habit of thinking that you need to do everything. Be ruthless in throwing out tasks that aren’t essential right now. Time management and productivity skills help you to refine your schedule each day.
So, what do you do with the items you put on the “backburner?” If your backburner tasks can’t be thrown out, then try one or more of the following tactics:
- Choose a day and time when you’ll take care of each of these items.
- Set aside some time during the day when you go over these less important things, such as at the end of a workday when you’re still at your desk or computer.
- Delegate these tasks to someone else who can carry them out for you.
- Make a secondary list of tasks to get done in case you finish your main list early and have time left over.
- Create your to-do list and schedule using your tool of choice, such as a pad of paper, planner, or digital notebook (like Evernote).
- Start with a full list
- Choose the one thing you’ll do today, if you could just do one
- Repeat with the remaining list based on your initial priorities
- Look at your list and ask yourself which will bring you the greatest income with the least effort. Move this up in your list.
- Go through your list again and look for items you can remove or delegate.
Step 2 – Plan
Now that you have your prioritized to-do list, it’s time to plan out how you’ll complete it in the most efficient and effective way possible.
Time Box Your Tasks
Think about time as a flexible resource that expands or contracts based on the limits you set. What if your first task eats up more of your time than you expected? To prevent this from happening, you can plan a box of time for each task. Once you reach the end of that box, you’ll decide whether to continue by expanding the time limit, or put off finishing it for the next day.
For example, you might decide that the most important thing today is to finish writing copy for your landing page. So, you set aside two hours to do it in the morning. At the end of that two hours, you’re not quite done. You’ve gotten stuck in the details or refining the wording, and it’s going to take at least another hour.
You might look at the time and your list and decide to make finishing your copy as the first priority tomorrow, when your mind can focus with renewed energy. Then, proceed with the next item on your list.
Find Your Natural Rhythms As You Increase Time Management and Productivity Skills
Each of us has times of day when we’re most productive. You may also have a certain time when you’re best at problem solving or communicating with others. Try to schedule tasks during these optimal times of day.
Maybe your most creative time of day is late morning. If so, schedule tasks like content creation for the hour or two before lunch. If you’re at your most social in the late afternoon, set this time for writing important emails or holding meetings.
Plan for Interruptions
No matter how well you plan, some things are likely to take longer than you thought. There may be interruptions or problems you hadn’t anticipated that you have to deal with right away. To allow for the unexpected, you have to pad your to-do list schedule with extra time blocks.
Even if things don’t take longer than expected, padding your schedule still has an advantage. You’ll be done with your work more quickly than you anticipated, which means you can finish your day sooner or get started on tomorrow’s tasks.
To plan for interruptions, try the following:
- Overestimate: When setting time limits on the items on your list, overestimate the time it will take to complete them. Don’t schedule a morning or afternoon too tightly or you’ll be under constant pressure and will inevitably start running behind. And if you’re always running behind schedule, you’ll end up back on that treadmill of always trying to catch up.
- Buffer: Add a buffer of time in your schedule between blocks of work. For example, if you’re dividing up your time into 2-hour blocks, schedule in a 20 to 30 minute buffer with no specific task in between each 2 hour block.
- Plan for Catch-Up: Another idea is to schedule specific “catch-up time”, such as just before lunch or at the end of the day. And if you don’t need it, you can use this time to take a break.
- Remember also that you can always put off an item until the next day if it’s going unexpectedly longer and you need a fresh mind to tackle it.
Batch Tasks for Better Efficiency
Sometimes, it’s not efficient to work on each task every day. Instead, you might take certain items and “batch” them by setting aside a longer block of time or even a full day to work on them.
For example, you might publish a weekly video or podcast. It takes time to set up equipment, record, edit, and produce the content each time. However, if you only have to set up everything once, you can save a significant amount of time. In this case, you might reserve Fridays for video production. Related tasks such as scripting and editing can be done then, or added to other days’ to-do lists.
If you have a large number of client calls to make, it might be better to schedule them on two separate mornings rather than trying to space them out day-by-day. This is also a good strategy for tasks where you need to get “in the zone” – where you need to prepare your mindset to tackle the task appropriately.
Use Project Management Tools
Any system for managing the tasks you have to do is fine as long as it works for you. But consider using a project management system to make keeping track of everything easier.
Project management systems include features such as:
- Interactive Calendars. You can manage your schedule easily and customize what’s included and how it displays.
- Multiple Project. With several projects, whether short or long-term, you can see where you are in each at a glance.
- Variety of Methods. These programs have to-do lists, time management, and other methods to help you plan.
- Built-In Tools. They have tools to help you with tasks that might be your weak points, like planning a budget.
- Shareability. Since they’re online, you can share with team members easily and access anywhere you have internet.
There are many free and premium programs. It’s best to try out free programs first. A simple free program may be just what you need.
If you’re considering paying for a premium project management program, don’t buy extras that you don’t need. Take advantage of free trials and make sure it’s right for you before you buy.
Some of the most highly-rated systems right now include:
Wrike – www.wrike.com
Trello – https://trello.com/
Basecamp – https://basecamp.com/
Asana – asana.com/
SmartSheet – https://www.smartsheet.com/
Don’t get too complicated with project management tools. Remember that the whole point is to make things easier. You may be able to get by just using an online calendar.
Getting Ready for Tomorrow
At the end of each day, look at your list and get ready for tomorrow. If there are tasks you didn’t get to today, put them on your list for tomorrow.
Ideally, you should plan out your entire week in advance to maximize your time. Then, at the end of each day, you’ll refine the next day’s schedule to take into account any changes needed or unexpected tasks that have come up.
About once a week, or at whatever pace works for you, review long-term projects and check in to see how you’re doing. Look at the system you’ve implemented and see whether it’s working or not. These systems are highly personalized and made perfect through trial and error, and constant revision.
- Take the one item from your To-Do List that you decided was mostly likely to impact your income and list each task you need to do in order to complete it. Use your project management tool or a pencil and paper – whatever works for you.
- Next, take each task and choose a day and productive time of day to tackle it. Schedule it on your calendar, batching tasks where it makes sense to do several related things in one day or longer block of time. Understand and embrace the value of schedules and to-do lists.
- Plan the rest of your week based on the concepts and tips in the module, including any recurring daily tasks as well. For items that you’ll do in blocks, set aside that block of time on your calendar. Remember to:
- Overestimate how long a task will take
- Add buffer time between blocks
- Include free or catch-up time
Step 3 – Produce
Now that you’ve set yourself up for success, it’s time to execute on your plans and produce results. You have a calendar with your daily tasks as well as time blocks scheduled. Go through and take care of each task, using buffer and catch-up time as you need it.
One note on buffer time: it should be used as a last resort. Don’t waste this time just because you have it marked off on your calendar. There will be occasions when you really need it. If you don’t need it, use the time effectively to get more work done or recoup your energy.
As you go through each day and take care of your to do list, various things may trip you up or distract you from your priorities. Here are some best practices to keep you on track:
Watch the Clock
Keep an eye on the time so that you don’t run over your allotments. The best way to do this is using a timer. An ordinary kitchen timer will do, or the timer on your phone. Set it so that you can focus on your task, and the alarm will let you know when it’s time to move on.
Take The “Is This Necessary?” Test
Before starting each task, ask yourself whether it’s truly necessary. Is it something that will help you get closer to and move forward toward a specific goal? Is it something you can delegate to someone else or automate? Try to eliminate tasks before you start them, especially if it’s something you hadn’t already planned on doing and which has come up unexpectedly.
See It Through
If you decide to work on a task for one hour, stick to that one hour. Don’t stop in the middle or start doing something else. You considered priorities thoroughly when you made your schedule, so see it through. If you feel that a task is wasting time or doesn’t need the block allotted, make the necessary adjustment for next time.
Arrange your work environment so that there are no distractions. Turn off phone notifications and stay off social media. Let others know you’re busy if you don’t want to be distracted. If something comes up or you’re interrupted, tell the person you’ll handle it later.
Don’t Be a Perfectionist
Sometimes, when you’re focusing on getting things done, perfectionism can hold you back. Try to turn off that voice in the back of your head and remember that you can always go back later and tweak or edit. There’s always something that can be improved, so aim for ‘good enough’ rather than perfect.
Make Use of Waiting Time
If there’s a delay in completing a task, try to use this time productively. For example, you’re waiting for an update on an app before you can do your work. While it’s updating, see if you can make some headway on another task or part of the task. This isn’t multitasking per se, but just a way to be more efficient. While I’m waiting in line at the post office, I practice my time management and productivity skills by accomplishing other tasks, on my phone or with a notepad.
Look for Shortcuts
Always look for shortcuts you can use, like templates or automations. One handy short cut is brandable, done-for-you content – also called Private Label Rights or PLR content. This is content that you purchase and which includes a license that allows you to edit, repurpose for your needs, and put your name and branding on. Shortcuts are crucial to improving your time management and productivity skills.
- Download a timer app or find a kitchen timer that you can use to stay on track.
- Once you’ve gone through the first day with your new system, reflect on how it went, asking yourself:
- What did you get done?
- What did you not get done that you were supposed to?
- What distracted you? There may be ways to eliminate distractions by improving your time management and productivity skills.
- What helped you work faster?
Which tasks needed more than you blocked?
- Which tasks needed less time than you blocked?
- Are you trying to do too many things?
- Is anything taking longer than it’s worth?
- Are there any tasks that would be better done at different times of day than you did them today?
- What kind of shortcuts could you use and where can you find them?
- Can you delegate anything? Simply delegating tasks to others improves your time management and productivity skills quickly.
- What changes do you need to make?
- After your first week with the 3P system, reflect on what you’ve done and the progress you’ve made towards your goals. After several days of using the system, you should have a solid understanding of what changes can be made for better efficiency.
With a systematic approach, you’ll get everything you need done with time to spare. Developing time management and productivity skills are worth your efforts. No more feeling that time is slipping away and you’re stuck at the same level, getting nowhere in your business.
I’m Connie Ragen Green, creating the lifestyle design that suits me by becoming an expert with time management and productivity skills. Pick up a copy of my popular book, Time Management Strategies for Entrepreneurs: How to Manage Your Time to Increase Your Bottom Line so you may work towards the time freedom and financial freedom you deserve.