By Jackie Gaines
Ask any working professional what they could use more of, and you'll probably keep getting the same answer. Time. In the frantic pace of the digital age, time is something everyone seems to be short on now. It's almost laughable that we once thought technology would help create more leisure time. If workers could figure out how to make the most of their waking moments, they could be far more productive and happy regardless of their time constraints.
Success at work and in life often comes down to one thing: developing better time management skills. Our minutes have become hot since time is so scarce these days, and we toss them away without a second thought. The truth is, we are always going to have obligations, deadlines, and responsibilities; however, if people learn how to handle their hot minutes, they can work with the clock instead of against it.
Here are tips to help make the most of your time no matter how little you have and achieve a healthier and happier work-life balance.
Prioritize sleep so you can function when you're awake. If you do nothing else, prioritize your sleep needs. You will be more productive and feel more ambitious when you get the rest your body requires. Schedule sleep like any other daily activity on your to-do list. Pencil in a stopping point in your day and stick to it without fail. Then wind down with a book or another relaxing bedtime ritual to help you drift off to sleep.
Establish what the "workday" means to you. It can be common for someone from your organization to call or e-mail you after hours, but it is up to you to decide whether or not you're available after hours. If you choose to be “off-duty” on nights and weekends, that is your choice and your right. Just make sure you respectfully address your workday limits to people in your organization upfront, so everyone is clear on the boundaries.
Don't stay on your e-mail all day. Constantly checking your inbox is distracting and slows you down. Designate a few times in your workday to check e-mail so that you remain in control of your schedule and aren't being reactive to new messages as they appear.
Choose human connection over technology. Though technology has improved our lives, it comes with its own set of problems. E-mails and texts are convenient, but they create room for confusion and miscommunication. Whenever possible, talk in person in order to get your message across clearly.
Learn to say no and mean it. It's okay to turn down invitations, cancel plans, or disconnect from the outside world every now and then. Saying no is a skill that will benefit you throughout life, so allow yourself to politely start bowing out of unnecessary commitments right now.
Set achievable goals each day. Even the most thoughtfully constructed to-do list will be useless if it is too ambitious. What's the point of writing down unachievable tasks? We're not superheroes and shouldn't try to be. Make your daily goals small enough that you can actually get them done. Remember that you can always do more if you have the time.
Give multitasking the ax. Multitasking is ineffective and counterproductive. People work best when they give focused attention to the task at hand. So aim to work on only one project at a time and give yourself permission to forget about other priorities until you are done.
Listen up! Active listening consists of being present and engaged when communicating with another person, but it's not as easy as it sounds. It's common to forget to listen after you speak your thoughts in a conversation, and you often lose important info as a result. When you are talking with a coworker or anyone else, be sure that you turn off that pesky inner monologue and focus when it is the other person's turn to speak.
Don't be a sheep. While maintaining the status quo is often a good thing—especially at work—there may come a time when it is advisable to stop following the herd and innovate in the name of productivity. If you can envision a way to work smarter and better, you may just create new best practices for your place of work that will save time and increase quality.
Stop shuffling papers. Most of us waste a lot of time shuffling papers from one pile to another. Chances are that your desk is full of paper you don't know what to do with. Stop this maddening cycle by touching each sheet of paper just once and figure out the appropriate action. Either put it in a to-do pile so you can deal with it immediately, a file for documents you must keep, or the trash. This keeps the papers moving and keeps you sane.
Step away from the Internet. Surfing the web is a huge time waster for most people. An innocent little break can often turn into an hour or more of wasted time that you can't get back—especially when you should be working or headed to bed to get some rest. Shut off access to the Internet at a certain time each day to avoid getting lost in cyberspace. I also recommend breaks from recreational Internet use—about a month—to focus on other aspects of your life that may need attention.
Have some fun along the way. It's important to remember that stressed-out people aren't all that productive. You have to relax and schedule "recharge time" into your life to avoid burnout—especially if you have an intense work environment. Be sure to build in time for fun on the weekends and on some evenings but try to make work fun, too. If appropriate at your office, find ways to infuse a little lighthearted play into your workday.
Practice breathing and mindfulness. Imagine how productive you could be if you could focus, calm all anxious thoughts, and truly be present. You can find out by practicing mindfulness. Breathing is a tool for achieving a relaxed, clear state of mind. There are multiple methods for achieving this state, including tai chi, meditation, yoga, or simple breathing exercises. Find one that resonates for you and practice it daily.
Stop owning other people's stuff. How often do you hear yourself saying, "Never mind, I'll do it myself.” Probably more often than you'd like, and this habit takes up your precious minutes in no time. The solution is to hold others accountable for their responsibilities. This includes your children, your spouse, and your colleagues. Let "never mind..." be the exception instead of the rule.
Let go and delegate. Learn to know when to let someone else handle a task. It can be hard to relinquish control, but it is also necessary to delegate, especially if you're in a leadership position. Remember that delegating is not admitting you can't handle your responsibilities—not at all. Rather, it's about maximizing the potential of your entire workforce.
Remember that you have two choices when trying to manage your time. You can either let your priorities and obligations run your life, or you can take charge of your minutes and let them work for you to achieve your goals in a timely manner. While you won't ever succeed long-term by racing the clock, you can drop your bad habits, improve ineffective practices, and kick stress to the curb so that your whole life improves."
Jackie Gaines is the author of Wait a Hot Minute! How to Manage Your Life with the Minutes You Have, Believing You Can Fly, The Yellow Suit: A Guide for Women in Leadership, and Destination Infinity: Reflections and Career Lessons from a Road Warrior.