The Art of Professional Time Management

Published: Jun 27, 2012

Jim Stroup, author and management consultant

Time management is an issue that bedevils virtually all of us – at work, and everywhere else, too. Great varieties of tools – from simple to-do lists to surprisingly sophisticated calendar systems – have been developed to help us deal with this seemingly intractable problem.

And, honestly, it does sometimes seem to be an almost impossible, never-ending challenge. But while it certainly is never-ending, you’ll find that – with some effort and discipline – it is far from impossible.

To succeed with it, you’ll first have to make a fundamental change in how you understand the nature of your time at work. Without taking that step, no amount of the most scientific time-management tools can protect you from being swamped by the ceaseless demands on you and your time.

Let’s begin by examining an unexpectedly difficult question: 

How much discretionary time do you really have?

We can only really work on our tasks and assignments during the periods of time that are under our own control. In order to determine how much discretionary time you have, track and record your activities on a calendar for a week. You may be surprised to find how much time you spend in meetings and other scheduled, directed activities, and how little of it you can really call your own.

Now, take a look at how that free time is distributed throughout the week. Is it in solid blocks during which you can really knuckle down to do productive work, or is it broken up in to awkward bits that hardly enable you to get anything started, much less done?

You have two solutions here:

First, try to reschedule your non-discretionary activities in order to leave the longest possible blocks of uninterrupted time for your own tasks.

Second, schedule the appropriate tasks to the most suitable blocks of time. Perform brief items – phone calls, for example – during the inevitably remaining short periods. Reserve the jobs that require sustained concentration for the longer blocks you’ve been able to set aside.

Now you’re ready to ask yourself the most important – and the hardest – question:

What should you, actually, be doing with your time?

We’re not talking here about prioritization – we’re talking about elimination.

For example, are a lot of “your” tasks really other people’s work you’ve been talked into doing? Don’t isolate yourself by turning everyone away – you’ll need their help someday also. But don’t become the dumping ground for their unwanted messes.

You may even need to steel yourself to negotiate the amount and nature of your assignments with your boss, or enlist his or her aid in deciding which of them are really what you should be spending your limited time on. Just be sure to do this in genuine good faith, so that your continuing negotiations on this topic will be rewarded with the same respect.

Once you’ve come to a realistic appreciation of your unique relationship with time at work, you’ll feel more in control and become more productive. And then, you’ll be better able to decide how much of your time to use learning and employing all those time management tools being marketed to you!

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