The secrets of time management

A few fresh chilli seeds can give you a quick pick-me-up
You can boost productivity through email subfolders, press-ups and a virtual assistant.
At the office, often the last thing you can do is work. Emails flood in, colleagues make urgent requests, and fires need to be fought. But a few pointers can help get the most out of each day.

IMPORTANCE, NOT URGENCY

Traditional time management involves writing a to-do list, and it can be extremely addictive to tick the urgent things off first. But you may end the day having done nine urgent jobs, but not the tenth and most important one. Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, advocates tackling the important tasks first.
Urgent jobs are those that you have to do, they’re externally imposed by others, and are often low-hanging fruit. Important tasks are those that you want to do – they’re internally generated, like developing a new idea. No one’s nagging you to do them, and they take significant time. So if we don’t prioritise them, they’ll get swept aside by the urgent tasks.
Covey argues that people act differently when keeping score: you’ll run faster if wearing a stopwatch. The same is true for work. Have a stopwatch on your desk, and start it when working on an important task. Stop it when you’re distracted to surf the internet, or respond to an urgent email, and set yourself a target of how much real work you aim to get done that day.

CONTROL YOUR EMAIL

Urgent emails burn a hole in your inbox and demand to be attended to. How can you focus on the important but still meet your deadlines? First, create a subfolder called “Today”, and another called “This Week”. When urgent emails come in, file them in the appropriate subfolder. When they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind, freeing you to do the important tasks. Then, in the late afternoon, after the important duties have been accomplished and your mind is less sharp, you can turn your attention to these folders.
What if the important tasks involve writing email? Select “work offline” so that you’re not distracted by incoming messages, and remove any “new email” notifications. Emails to mailing list (e.g. advertising special offers) are neither urgent nor important. Such emails will have “unsubscribe” at the bottom. Create a new subfolder called “Mailing Lists”, and use a filter rule to automatically move messages with the word “unsubscribe” into this subfolder. You can read them at the end of the day.

OUTSOURCE AND AUTOMATE

Many emails you send will contain stock phrases, such as directions to your office. In Outlook, go to Insert – Quick Parts, and save these phrases so you can paste them into emails at a flash (there are similar tools for most email clients). And if you’re lucky enough to have a secretary, you can create a subfolder that they have access to. File emails in the subfolder, and inform your secretary of the stock responses. For non-work admin, you can even use a virtual assistant, like AskSunday or GetFriday. They can perform a host of tasks – downloading all talks from a certain website, for example, or deleting duplicate photos from your computer.

USE NATURAL STIMULI

On the hour, every hour, do a short physical activity – a set of press-ups if you have your own office, or a brief walk if not. This accomplishes two goals. First, the actual activity is energising. Second, you’ll try to complete the task at hand before the next enforced break. I dislike doing press-ups, so if it’s 10.50am, I think, “I only have 10 minutes before an unpleasant activity”, and I make the best use of this time.
As an alternative to coffee, Jamie Oliver recommends a fresh chilli. One or two seeds will give you a pick-me up. Sound maverick? Maybe so, but a lot of punch can come from something very little. That’s the art of time management.
Alex Edmans's talk on time management and personal leadership is at http://bit.ly/leadershipthroughfreedom.

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The Pomodoro Technique is a classic of time management, and this app from TechBase allows you to dispense with the funny-looking tomato timer used by most adherents. Decide on a task, press the “Play” button to start a Pomodoro, and take a short break after 25 minutes. Every fourth, cycle, take a longer break (15 to 30 minutes).

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