In the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance (based on the book by Steven Pressfield), there is a golf match between real-life legends Bobby Jones, Walter Hagan, and the mythic Rannulph Junuh. Bagger Vance is Junuh’s caddie and makes this observation about the players:
Hard to imagine three more different approaches to the game of golf. Bobby Jones’ swing was a study of grace in motion. He had a way of making the difficult shots look easy, and the easy shots look even easier. Hagen, on the other hand hit more bad shots in a single game than most golfers do in a season. But Hagen had long ago learned one thing: three lousy shots and one brilliant shot can still make par.
When it comes to the best time management techniques, planning out your day the night before and getting your two most important tasks done at the start of the day is like being Walter Hagen. The rest of your day can be horrible, but you played a few brilliant shots right at the start.
But, if you want to be more like Bobby Jones and be a consistent time management superstar throughout the day, then you need to start learning the true techniques of great time management.
10 time management techniques to test out around the office
1. Distinguish between solo work, group work, and communication triage
There are three types of work that you do in a day. Solo work is the stuff that you can only do when you are working by yourself and need to be free from external distractions.
Group work requires other people. This might be a one-on-one conversation with your boss to prep for a sales visit, regular team meetings, or projects that require real-time collaboration.
Communication triage is when you are sorting through your messages, emails, and notifications, and converting those into tasks.
Most jobs require a healthy blend of all three types of work. However, modern technology tools demand that you spend most of your time on communication triage, followed by group work, leaving little time for solo work. Much of the time we spend in communication triage is wasted, to the extent that many people spend up to half their day in their email and still feel like that is productive. It can be tempting to think that being available on Slack all day long is what you need to do, but it should just be a small part of your day.
Mark out large parts of your day where you are doing your solo and group work and reduce the amount of time you spend in communication triage.
2. Use your calendar
Some people can naturally manage their 5-6 productive hours well without a calendar, but it is extremely challenging. A calendar reminds you that there’s a limit to how many hours you have and you need to reserve time for solo work. You can also use a calendar to block out time to work on your most important tasks of the day.
Using a calendar becomes most effective when you force other people to block time with you only when your schedule allows it.
Don’t succumb to ad hoc meetings that suddenly wipe out an entire morning or afternoon.
3. Club your group work together
Solo work and group work are very different types of work that require a different mindset. Solo work is extremely delicate and it’s hard to get in the right frame of mind sometimes. If your day always bounces back and forth between group and solo work, then it is not surprising to find that it is hard to focus.
Try to put all of your regular meetings and other group work on the same days and gather action items from them. Then, you can block out the other days for long chunks of time for solo work where you can work on your task list more effectively without worrying about checking the clock.
4. Delay communication triage as long as possible
Ideally, you are only doing communication triage once or twice a day. This includes email, phone calls, instant messages, and any other notifications you have.
Don’t get sucked into doing triage AND tasks at the same time. If you are sorting through your email and someone asks you to write up a description of an upcoming event, capture that in your task management system and move onto the next message. Don’t immediately stop what you are doing and write the description, or else you are circumventing your ability to prioritize your tasks and allowing someone else to control your time.
5. Turn off the notifications
As long as you have you notifications turned on, including desktop notifications, phone noises and buzzes, and badges flashing at you on open tabs, you are multitasking. You are saying, “I’m doing this really important work, but I’m also willing to be interrupted by anything that wants my time.” Notifications act like they are all super-important, when really they can nearly always wait.
6. Establish good meeting hygiene
Group work often takes the form of meetings, which are essential parts of work. But meetings are usually poorly planned and poorly run. In your team, establish rules for good meeting hygiene such as requiring an agenda ahead of time, preparing ahead of time, recognizing when you are on a rabbit trail, and establishing action items at the end.
7. Identify your productivity super villains
You have known enemies that show up every time you try to be productive. Rather than falling for their tricks, identify them, call them out, and develop strategies to get around them. You won’t beat them every time, but that doesn’t mean you have to lose all the time either.
8. Use a timer
Timers stress some people out, but they are a good reminder both of your daily limits and that there’s a mathematical element to your productivity. If you must get X tasks done in the day and you have Y time to do it in, then all of the time you spend on X tasks must not exceed Y.
I find a timer particularly helpful when I am working on multiple projects at the same time. It’s easy for me to spend more time than I ought to on the first project that needs my attention, and the last one gets whatever is left. The timer helps me better distribute the time I spend on each project. You can get a surprising amount of work done in just 1-2 hours a day.
A lot of people like the Pomodoro Technique of working in 25 minute sprints and then taking a five minute break. I like that it keeps you on a task for a reasonable amount of time and provides many opportunities to be reflective about what needs to be done. However, not all work is the same and sometimes it doesn’t fit nicely into a 25 minute window.
9. Eat the nastiest frog first
Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” It’s easy to try to get your easy tasks done first, but you’ll always be better off doing the hardest task early in the day.
10. Build momentum
While doing your hardest work first is great advice, there’s often a time when you need to build momentum. Sujan Patel defines an easy win as a project that takes two days instead of an entire week. Sometimes doing the easy win first builds your confidence and momentum so that you can do the longer project. It can be discouraging to continue to work on the same task over and over again without much progress.
The most effective time management tip is the one you use
All of these time management tips are great ideas, and you probably could add ten more to this list, but in the end, you need to find the time management techniques that work for you and that you can put into practice. Take charge of your day and your time and put your best productivity tips at work into good use!