Do you ever wish there were more hours in a day and you could get more done? Do you want to manage your time better?
If this sounds like you read my interview with time management and productivity expert Laura Vanderkam. She is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It, What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, and 168 Hours. Her work has appeared in publications including Fast Company, Fortune, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal.
Q: How would you define effective time management?
A: I think effective time management means making space for the things that are important to you and trying to spend less time on the things that aren’t meaningful or enjoyable for you and the people you care about. Doing both of those things requires being mindful about your time and thinking a little bit ahead of time about what it is you want to be doing and then making sure these things happen.
Q: What do you find are some of the most common traps that people fall into when it comes to time management?
A: There are a couple of them. One is overestimating what you can do at any given day. A lot of people make really long to-do lists that have no basis in reality. There’s really no virtue in putting something on your to-do list and then not doing it. You’re not better off than if you hadn’t put it on the list, and in fact you’re probably worse off because you feel bad about it.
Making very short lists of what you intend to do on any given day lets you keep those promises to yourself and actually get through the list. As long as you keep making steady progress, you’ll get somewhere, because the other common time trap is that we underestimate what we could do in the long run. If you got three important things everyday every workday, that would be 15 important things a week and that’s 750 important things per year. That sounds like quite a bit to me.
Q: How would you define one important thing? An email or a project?
A: It could be either. It’s not the task itself. It’s what you know is going to move you forward towards an important identified goal. In some cases, sending one email — if it’s the right email to the right person — could accomplish more than an entire project. Sending an email to an old client to catch up could result in quite a bit of work. That might in fact be a more important thing than blindly sending out marketing materials to people who are less good prospects.
Q: What would you say are your top 3 time management tips for someone who says that they’re so busy and overwhelmed?
A: The first thing I always suggest to people is to try keeping track of their time for a few days or ideally a whole week. The first step to spending your time better is knowing exactly how you’re spending it now. Many of us tell ourselves stories about where the time goes, that may or may not be accurate.
The second step is to ask what you want to be doing more of with your time. If you had more time, what would you be doing? If you have that list, coupled with the knowledge of where the time really goes, you can actually start working to make important things happen.
One other thing I recommend, if people really do want to start using their time better, is to take a little bit of time to plan your weeks before you are in them. I don’t mean plan every minute, but just take a little bit of time on Friday afternoon and think through what your top priorities are in three areas - in your professional life, in your relationships, and then for yourself. In these three categories — career, relationships and self — figure out what your top two, or at most three priorities are. Then look out over the whole of the next week, the next 168 hours, and see where you can plan them in. If you do those three things, you will start making much better use of your time.
Kirsi Bhasin helps overachieving, busy professionals overcome exhaustion and burnout and be happier and healthier. She is the creator of The Burnout Test.