Time management techniques

by Mike Sharkey

Time management techniques

As the way we work - and where we work - continues to change, it’s essential to help remote and frontline workers stay engaged and productive. These time management techniques can help.

Managing time at work can be a challenge. Perhaps that’s why people and organizations aren’t always very good at it.‏١‏ But in the work-from-anywhere world created by the global pandemic, getting time management right is essential.

It’s a universal rule. It applies to those making the slow return to hybrid working arrangements at the office and those employees still working remotely or working from home. And it applies especially to workers on the frontline - in retail outlets, factories and warehouses.

People and teams need to find ways to help organize their days effectively - wherever and whenever they work.

That’s where good time management comes in.

What is time management?

Time management is exactly what it says on the tin. If you’ve ever scheduled an appointment with a colleague, you’ve managed your time. If you’ve ever decided a task isn’t worth finishing, you’ve also managed your time. But why is it so important?

Why time management matters

A well-organized day can help reduce stress levels and boost productivity.‏٢‏ When people carefully plan and execute tasks, they feel more confident in their work. Delivering projects on time helps to build trust and respect from colleagues too.

Managing time well can also improve work-life balance, which is hugely valuable to employees and organizations alike. Employees with a good work-life balance are 10% more likely to stay at their companies.

Time management and frontline employees

New research in Workplace’s Deskless Not Voiceless 2020 report shows how organizations are neglecting essential frontline managers and explores the effect this can have on employee productivity and engagement.

One worrying trend is that frontline managers are losing up to 9.3 working weeks every year because of poor communication. And as a McKinsey study points out, frontline managers can also spend anything up to 60% of their time on administrative tasks and as little as 10% of their time managing.

This combination can create a disconnect that could have serious implications for the productivity and time management capabilities of frontline staff. One that’s preventing them from spending their time running teams, solving problems and looking after customers.

Learn more. Download Deskless Not Voiceless 2020 to get the full picture from our in-depth frontline research report with over 9,000 people in eight countries worldwide.

Time management and hybrid working

The hybrid working that’s become standard in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic has freed up time for people to achieve a better balance between home and working life, with fewer long commutes at both ends of the day. In one UK study, 61% of employees reported a better work-life balance because of home working.

But there are pitfalls to watch out for with remote and hybrid working. When people work from home, the boundaries between home and work can become blurred, leading to stress and burnout.

“Research tells us that remote working seems to create a greater degree of complexity and responsibility per employee,” says Dr. Petros Chamakiotis, associate professor of management at ESCP Business School, Madrid.

Giving employees more freedom to organize their own time can be vital in meeting this challenge. Flexibility around time is one thing employees value most about working remotely. So give teams as much as you can and use a combination of tools and regular check-ins to make sure people aren’t putting in more hours than they should and are using time most effectively.

How can I improve my time management skills?

Before you can improve your time management skills or those of your team, you have to recognize when there’s a problem.

There are plenty of giveaways. One of the most obvious is missing deadlines. If people deliver projects consistently later than they should be, or people keep asking for extensions, it’s probably time to act.

Standards of work falling are another sure sign that time is a problem. And if your team members are consistently arriving late to meetings and appear flustered, they could be feeling time-pressured too.

When time is precious, our mood is also affected. If a colleague’s been more impatient or snappy during conversations, they may be struggling to complete their work. Feeling more stressed than usual or noticing that your co-workers seem more tired or anxious as they juggle their responsibilities are other giveaways.

Raising a time management issue

No time management issue is the same, so good business communication is key to dealing with a problem. If a team member is facing time management issues, try to find out whether:

  • They’re overloaded with work that they really can’t fit into their schedule
  • It’s the way they’re doing the work that’s the problem
  • It’s a mix of both

If they have too much on their plate, it’s a matter of either redistributing some of their work or giving them the confidence to delegate to other team members. If the way they work is causing them difficulties, then their time management skills may need improvement, and you can put a plan in place to coach them.

6 tips for improving time management skills

1. Prioritize and schedule

Not all tasks are created equal. Yet when we organize our days, many of us will bunch the small errands we have to run alongside bigger projects. Your first step should always be prioritizing your to-do list. A two-tier system should work well enough. Once you’ve decided on the most important tasks, build your schedule around them. Build your deadlines into your productivity planner.

2. Learn to say no

We all need to set boundaries to keep a healthy work/life balance. And while it’s tempting to say yes to all your co-workers, especially when you’re new in a job, it just isn’t practical. If you’ve prioritized and allocated a reasonable amount of time against tasks, you should feel confident telling others that you don’t have the time. Remember, you’re often not alone - asking for help from your colleagues in the office or via a video call can help lighten the load.

3. Start early

By starting your day early and away from looming deadlines, you can plan your time carefully without stressing over other tasks. Use the quiet period to prepare for the day or perhaps make a headstart on your assignments. Unexpected complications can arise at any time, and starting early will give you the best chance of sorting problems in time for deadlines.

4. Be realistic

People can put themselves under needless stress to meet deadlines. The best planners know that problems can crop up at any time and things can take longer than expected. To stay focused on a task, you need to take regular breaks and switch off from your responsibilities. Use the break to talk to colleagues in the office or by video chat to offload any problems and go back to your work with a clear head.

5. Cut down on time-wasting activities

Some things are natural time sappers, so try to avoid them. Poorly organized meetings, for example, are among the worst offenders for time-wasting. A study from the online scheduling service Doodle found that they cost businesses in the US more than $339 billion dollars a year. If you’re going to have a meeting, make sure there’s an agenda to get through everything you need to discuss, and then stop.

6. Experiment with strategies

There’s no perfect way to manage everybody’s time. What works for some people may not work for others. Thankfully, there are plenty of theories that you can tweak to make them suit you and your team. You might like one method for planning your week and another for deciding how much time to give for individual tasks. Some approaches work well for individuals but don’t work so well when organizing teams. Try experimenting with a range of ideas to find what works best.

What are the best time management strategies?

Here are some approaches to make better use of your time:

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is incredibly straightforward. Decide on a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and start to work. When the timer buzzes, mark your progress and take a break for 3-5 minutes. Repeat the steps until you’ve made four ‘bookmarks’ in your work. Once you get this far you can step away from the job for 15 to 30 minutes.

If you finish a task before the timer sounds, use the spare time to review your work and make any tweaks. You might find that you work better in longer chunks of time. If so, set your timer for a period that suits you better and give yourself slightly longer breaks.

People who respond well to pressure are well suited to the mini-deadlines that add a sense of urgency when taking on tasks. The intervals between work are known as pomodoros, after the Italian word for tomato. The method was developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, who used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a student.

The ALPEN method

Rather than helping you tackle a task, the ALPEN method helps you plan your working day. According to its founder, “It focuses the user on pragmatic daily planning and consistent setting of priorities. And it only requires around 5 minutes of planning each day.”

Based on the acronym ALPEN, it divides planning into five activities:

A – Activities and tasks

Write everything down that you have to do, no matter how big or small.

L – Length of time

Estimate how long each task will take.

P – Planning for buffering

Add some buffer time. Try 20% to cover any complications and 20% for breaks and any social interactions with colleagues.

E – Establishing priorities

Now you've accounted for 40% of your time, prioritize your tasks. Can anything be left for another day or delegated to somebody else?

N – Note-taking

Look back at how things went. Can you improve somewhere? Or identify why a task went well? While you’re taking notes on the day, start your ALPEN plan for the next one.

Working within time limits in the ALPEN method can help motivate people to work on a task. Adding a buffer also makes a workload more manageable and less stressful. Despite its positives, the approach has its limits too. It’s better suited to self-management rather than applying to a team. Remote workers are less likely to catch up with colleagues unexpectedly, and sometimes a 40% buffer is just too long.

The Pickle Jar Theory

Think of a pickle jar as a metaphor for time. Now picture rocks as large important tasks, smaller pebbles as less important tasks, and sand as distracting or leisure activities, and not forgetting water as time outside of work. Take a moment to ask yourself, how can I fit as many of the rocks, pebbles and sand into the jar as possible?

If you start with water, pebbles and sand, you’ll probably find it a struggle to fit rocks into the jar. By placing the largest items into the jar first and then adding pebbles, sand and water, more things can fit into the jar. You may need to give the jar a shake, or your schedule a shuffle, to make everything work. But the critical point is that prioritizing your tasks has allowed you to get more of the most important jobs done during the day.

The theory is perfect for people who have problems dividing their tasks and, unlike other methods, can be applied to teams. You might need a bigger jar but the metaphor still works. By dividing a group’s responsibilities into rocks and pebbles, you can ask staff to fit two ‘rocks’ into each day and regularly hit ‘10-rock weeks’.

Time management tools

There's a wide range of online management tools to help organize your time. They have features that enable you to assign tasks to co-workers and offer real value. These tools highlight just how far time management has come - from simple to-do lists and hand-written planners.

Simple tools can help you write task lists and add media or links to other sources before you share them with co-workers. Many of the software choices available allow multiple users to edit plans and collaborate in real-time.

Services are designed with transparency in mind, providing fields to fill in with how long a job should take and space for everyone's deadlines in the business to see. More sophisticated solutions even allow you to build a timeline of tasks and set dependencies. In other words, checkpoints in a project that team members need to complete before others can progress.

Communicating expectations is particularly useful for hybrid teams. Team members can spend less time writing emails or arranging calls with remote colleagues. These tools have benefits for managers too. They can check any peaks and troughs in their team’s workload as long as they use the system thoroughly and consistently. Many software providers make it easy to spot availability in colleagues’ schedules while giving them added autonomy.

Information about deadlines and how long a task should take allows people to decide when to start working on them. The extra responsibilities help team members take ownership of their work and engage with the job at hand.

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