Five bad time management habits to quit doing right now
Mistake Number 1. Trying to do too many things at one time
Bad time managers waste energy trying to do too many things at one time and end up skipping around without a clear sense of focus. In the words of basketball great Mo Schaffer, “You can’t catch one hog when you’re chasing two.”
Mistake Number 2. Confusing activity with accomplishment
Just because you’re busy doesn’t mean you’re getting worthwhile things done.
Lots of activity on the wrong things might give you the illusion that you’re getting important things done, but are the things getting done even worth doing?
A common time-management mistake is to get sidetracked stomping on ants when you have elephants to feed. Learn to take care of the big, important stuff and not bog down with trivia.
Mistake Number 3. Keeping your to-do list in your head
Keeping track of what you need to do is best done using some kind of planning system.
Trying to remember everything you need to do takes mental energy and increases the chance that you might forget something.
Free up your brain power and improve your time management by using a planning system to keep track of things you need to get done.
If you’re an Outlook user already, take advantage of the “Task list” and “Calendar” functions to manage your multiple to-do’s and deadlines. Some currently popular, easy-to-use to-do list apps that are free or low cost are Wonderlist, Any.do, ToDoIst.
Mistake Number 4. Not allowing enough time to get things done
Bad time managers aren’t good at figuring out how long it takes to do something. They don’t take into account all the unexpected things that may slow things down. Things taking longer than expected result in missing deadlines and having to work under pressure.
Good time managers reduce their stress by allowing enough time to make sure they’ll meet their important deadlines. They expect the unexpected and build a time cushion into their schedule.
Mistake Number 5. Ignoring important things because they’re not urgent
Bad time managers often work with a sense of urgency on things that might be trivial while neglecting much more important but less urgent things. For example, often trivial email gets answered while more important work is pushed to the side.
Improve your time management by paying attention to important things that may not be urgent but are still worth doing. For example, improving your technical skills, exercising regularly, keeping your “I love you’s” up to date.
The next article is an interview with Peter Turla, the founder of the National Management Institute with more time management tips.
Question: Peter Turla, you’re a time management expert who advises us to set priorities on the things we want to get done, but don’t most of us routinely set priorities on our activities?
Answer: Yes, most people set priorities, but they often give high priority to the wrong things–to items that are quick and easy to get done or that seem urgent, even if they are unimportant. Some things that are not urgent but are important are often never made a top priority.
Question: So what’s the right way to set priorities?
Answer: The key is to ask, “How does this activity fit in with my long-term objectives and where I want to go with a particular project or with my career or my life?”
Often we lose track of the overall direction we should take and we just ask, “What is something fast and easy that I can get done so I can cross it off my To-do List?” or “What is the most urgent, the next most urgent, and what can wait?”
The items we think can wait are often the things that would have a significant payoff for us, perhaps not immediately, but in the future.
Unfortunately, those are the things that get put on the back burner. Important things are not always urgent and urgent things are not always important.
Question: What is the most common mistake people make when they set priorities?
Answer: They delay long-range planning in place of solving immediate, but insignificant problems.
People who do this find that their entire day is cluttered with a lot of small projects and small decisions. The things that sometimes don’t get done are major items, such as long-range planning and important backburner projects.
Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment.
Many people concentrate on what I call “ant stomping” when they should concentrate on “elephant hunting.” When you focus on stomping ants you confuse activity with accomplishment.
You’re going for the small insignificant tasks that are easy to do. They can be done quickly, so you give yourself the illusion that you’re really accomplishing a lot, when in actuality you’re getting further and further behind because you’re overlooking the elephant hunting.
Question: Can you be more specific about what you mean by elephant hunting?
Answer: Elephant hunting means to pursue significant projects that have long-term payoffs for you. If you’re busy stomping ants all day long, you might not even be aware that you’re totally ignoring some of your elephants. Don’t be stomping on ants when you have elephants to hunt.
Question: What kind of activities do you define as “stomping on ants”?
Answer: Constantly being busy dealing with minor interruptions, for example, or spending time reading lots of relatively unimportant emails. If these kinds of activities distract you and keep you from working on higher payoff activities, you’re “stomping ants.”
Question: But there are urgent matters that have to be attended to. Doesn’t devoting time to taking the long-range view distract from such day-to-day demands?
Answer: Solving problems can be like fire fighting. You’d probably be better off focusing on fire preventing instead of constantly having to put out fires. Preventing fires puts you ahead of the game–and saves you time.
To use a different metaphor, many people have “train wrecks” that happen in slow motion. The wreck is easily predictable and preventable if they would take time to look up and down the track.
If people tell me, “I don’t have time to plan,” I might say, “If you don’t have time to plan, that’s all the more reason you should make the time because planning actually creates more time for you in the long run.” Planning allows you to prevent problems and ultimately save time. If you don’t have time to plan, do you have time to waste?
If you don’t plan, you’ll always be dealing with the problems that proper planning could have prevented. Remember the 5 P’s: Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
Question: What if it’s hard to plan your day because lots of unexpected things always come up?
Answer: If unexpected things are always coming up, learn to expect the unexpected. Plan for them by allowing extra time when you’re scheduling your day. Also, look at the patterns of unexpected things that are coming up to see if there are things you can do to minimize how often they happen.
Perhaps you need to be more proactive, or communicate better, or better educate others, or develop better systems for dealing with things. Yes, you might actually be one the reasons why you’re getting so many interruptions. What are you doing that’s attracting or allowing or encouraging interruptions?
Question: What techniques do you recommend for carrying out your advice?
Answer: Make sure you use a To-do List where you set priorities on each item based on the significance of completing each item. Many people prioritize items based on what’s most urgent and what’s next most urgent. Instead, I suggest you focus on payoff. Figure out what things you should be doing that help you in terms of your long-term objectives. Give those items your top priorities.
Put off, delegate, or ignore your low-payoff items. Then devote the time you save to working on the big important stuff–the elephants on your list. Don’t confuse activity with accomplishment. Work on the things that really matter.
Question: What tips do you have on how to develop the discipline to do this?
Answer: Put your commitments in writing. Things that are written down have more of a reality to them. If they’re not written down, it easy to fall into the trap, “Out of sight, out of mind.”
Break your projects into sub-tasks and devote time each day to work on some of them. If you break the big jobs down into simple pieces, you won’t feel as overwhelmed. By the inch, it’s a cinch, but by the yard, it’s hard.
Question: Are there other common mistakes we make when setting priorities?
Answer: Many people think in terms of being efficient.
One of the things I emphasize in my time-management seminars is to focus on being effective rather than simply being more efficient. Being efficient is getting something done fast, while being effective is getting the right thing done. It’s better to do the right thing slowly than the wrong thing quickly.
Imagine you’re walking down the street, for example, and you had a hundred $1 bills and one $100 bill in your hands and a whirlwind came along and blew them out of your grasp. What would be your strategy to get the money back?
If you pick up the bills closest to you and work your way toward the rest, you’d save steps–you’d be efficient grabbing the bills closest to you, but you might not get to the $100 dollar bill. To be effective, try putting your top priority on finding the hundred first. There can be a 100 to 1 leverage doing that versus simply grabbing a $1 dollar bill.
Every day, look over your To-do list and find the $100 bills.