At this time of year many of us have returned from holiday (sorry – vacation) where we have mercifully been exempt from the pressures of work. So we’re refreshed and ready for the new year but its not long before the stress of work starts to get to us again not to mention the numerous church related activities and tasks that many of us additionally juggle in our spare time.
I thought it might be good therefore to reflect on some principles to help us cope with overload.
- Manage your priorities – the “to do” list
Make a list with your highest priority tasks at the top. Segment into short, medium and long term tasks. Now start at the top and do the tasks in sequence, don’t skip down just because something else is easier or quicker to do.
Put in a separate list things that are pending someone else’s actions or decision. That way you stop looking at them everytime you are looking for the next thing you need to do.
Remember that there is a significant difference between “urgent” and “important”. Things become urgent because you have put them off. With your new priority system you should find more tasks being “important” and therefore dealt with before they reach emergency criteria.
And try to avoid the temptation to put things on the list that you’ve already done (just so you feel better when you tick them off!). Go on – admit it – we’ve all done it.
- Get on with it
Once you have your plan in place, get on with it. What can feel like useful preparation (reordering the task list again or tidying up your desk) could be glorified procrastination. Waiting for that phone call, or some other matter before you get on with things is wasted time. Stop arranging and waiting and start doing.
- Avoid distractions
Turn your cell phone, Twitter, Facebook and emails off so you can get on with your priorities and not get distracted. If you find that you simply can’t focus on urgent, important tasks whilst your mind is full of what you’ve just read in your inbox then don’t even open Outlook in the first place.
- Match your natural energy rhythms
Are you a morning or a night person? If the answer is morning then get to your desk early and get your head down to your real priorites (rather than what appeared in your inbox overnight). If your energy surges later in the day then use that time to power through your to do list and avoid meetings at that time (instead book them for early morning to force yourself into action).
If you are a creative (song writer, poet, artist etc) who finds you need a clear head to create then its probably worth putting in those creative hours first thing in the morning before you switch on your computer or start doing any “normal” work.
- Work with, rather than against, your natural response to deadlines
Some people simply never motivate themselves until they are up against a deadline. If that’s you then stop trying to change and instead plan for that by clearing diary time immediately before the deadline occurs. Like this you’ll stop letting people down on other things simply because you have to focus (finally) on your deadline.
- Don’t squander the time you have
You have a day mercifully clear of meetings. All that time is just stretching out on the horizon. You’ll be able to achieve loads today. How often have you had that feeling in the morning and then found by the end of the day that you’ve done very little? The answer – get on with your stuff first thing – don’t see the clear day as an opoprtunity for a lie-in or a quick coffee catch up with a mate, don’t endulge in an early bit of Facebooking or Tweeting. Focus on what you need to achieve and discpline yourself to do it early (rather than dealing with all those less than urgent emails).
- Make use of dead time
I never get on a plane without a huge list of tedious work to do. The laptop (and spare) battery is fully charged and I have hours and hours of otherwise boring flight to fill with all that stuff I’ve been putting off. Not only does the flight seem quicker but I’ve made brilliant use of some otherwise dead time without and of the usual distractions.
Similarly I am normally found on holiday not only with a pile of exciting novels to read but also a textbook or non fiction tome that I really need to read but somehow never get around to. My most productive periods of study as a post graduate student were always on holiday (novels banned, textbooks and crib cards taken everywhere) and as a marketing lecturer, I find I get the most headspace for preparing teaching notes when away from the usual grind. Now that’s probably just me being weird and I’m not suggesting that holidays are the new workplace – they are just a good place for me to find some creative headspace.
- Keep meetings brief and effective
I endured a meeting recently which to be honest was held more as a sign of progress on a project rather than actually achieving anything new. Don’t meet unless you have clear and valid reasons for meeting. Arrive on time (and instill that culture in everyone). Prepare an agenda ahead of time and have the meeting chaired by someone with good time management skills. Focus on the goals and outcomes of the meeting and leave minutiae to be picked up by individuals later rather than a committee. I remember a gruesome church leadership meeting where we spent a good 10 minutes discussing the colour of the napkins at the forthcoming church meal.
Prepare and circulate briefing papers ahead of the meeting (this works in business and church alike) where the key arguments are outlined and a proposal for action agreed.
Have a friendly rottweiler on hand to chase up promised action points before the next meeting.
- Take control
Efficient people focus on what they can change and influence and don’t spend time worrying about things beyond their control. Boost your productivity and bust stress by working on areas where you can make a difference.
Similarly stop dabbling in areas that are others’ responsibility – focus on your tasks.
- Say the magic word
“No” is an incredibly useful word in time management. Say it respectfully, clearly and when you need to. Its OK to have boundaries (see tip 3), decide what they should be and stick to them.
And a bonus 11.
Let it go
Even the most efficient people on the planet can’t achieve everything all of the time. Could someone else manage that rota for you, could someone else make those phone calls? When you need some help do ask and then trust in their ability to deliver (without interfering!).
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