One of the questions that I get asked most often, and one of the things that I will always have to work at is time management. When you're starting your career, it can be hard to know what you should be doing when, how best to structure your day, and what productivity hacks actually work for you. This is probably the most common things that managers will tell you that their junior reports struggle with, and the one area where even incremental improvement can result in a big payoff.
I truly believe that so many people approach work with the raggediest of intentions, so it's not hard for real hustlers to stand out and step ahead. So knowing that most of your peers will likely struggle with managing their time and getting things done efficiently, put some of your focus here and start to pull away from the rest of the pack.
Try some of these tips, tricks, and apps to help you get there.
Keep Track of Your Calendar
One thing I'm notorious about is living my life guided by my calendar. It's a habit that started early in my career, when I worked in a company that was so meeting focused. And meetings weren't just meetings. There were pre-meetings to prepare for the meetings, post-meetings to download how the meeting went, and follow up meetings to discuss what was discussed in the meeting. Depending who was attending the meeting, all of that prep ratcheted up a notch because it was a career sin to waste a more senior leader's time by being inefficient or unprepared.
To make sure that I kept my stuff together, I started checking my calendar religiously - knowing what meeting was scheduled when, who was attending and what I needed to do to prepare. Knowing that my boss' status with her boss was on Thursday meant I had to schedule a pre-meet to prep her for Wednesday morning (enough time to gather materials or pull together any last minute decks), which meant I had to have all my stuff done for the prep by Tuesday afternoon. Knowing what was coming let me understand what was the most important thing happening that week and prioritize what I need to do, create or request to be ready for it.
My company now is thankfully less intense but I still use my calendar to help prioritize my week and my day. This it's a habit that's bled over into my personal life. I am absolutely not going to remember our plans for brunch if a calendar request didn't come with them.
Give Everything Deadlines
One of the things inherent in my calendar method is that dates automatically create deadlines. If your job is much less meeting focused, or you simply prefer a to-do list method, one thing you absolutely must do is assign deadlines to everything. Tasks and goals without deadlines do not get done.
Don't believe me? We're coming up on New Year's Resolution season, so think back to all the things you promised yourself you would do in 2016. I bet the ones that didn't have specific due dates (like lose ten pounds, finally run a marathon) didn't get done.
Deadlines give goals and wishes an urgency and a sense of realness. "Lose ten pounds" might not get done, but "go to the gym for Thursday 10 am boxing class" probably will.
Take this same approach with your work. Give yourself a deadline for everything and try your best to stick to it. If things come up that force you to miss your deadline, give yourself a new deadline based on when you can now get it done. Letting something be overdue for 3 months is just as bad as not giving it a date in the first place. Your mind will start to ignore it.
I have a coworker who loves Asana, so I'm giving it a try and actually starting to like the to-do list functionality and reminders. I've also worked on teams that swore by Basecamp. Lastly, some people just use the reminders app on their phone or schedule to-dos into their calendars. Whatever you do, just keep a list and give everything a deadline.
Block Your Own Time
If you are working in a meeting heavy or very collegial workplace, you may find yourself spending most of your day reacting to other people's requests for help or support or talking about what needs to be done. All of this can leave you with very little time to dig in and focus on your own projects. If that's the case, be just as on top of your own time as you are of your calendar and your deadlines.
I have no shame in blocking time on my calendar as "Do Not Disturb" or "Do Not Schedule." Now, on some teams, that wouldn't have worked. If your team has the dynamic where the most senior person's calendar is the Big Joker to everyone else's baby spade, you might find your requests no to be disturbed immediately ignored. In that case, just get creative. Instead of blocking 5 hours in a row as do not disturb (and maybe looking like you just don't want to be bothered with people), book a few one hour chunks and give them fake meeting names, like "Supplier Check-In" or "Weekly Touchbase." Those seem like real meetings and will encourage your colleagues to at least attempt to find a time on your calendar that is open and conflict free.
**Pro Tip: if you're going to use fake meetings to hold time on your calendar for work, let your manager know what you're doing. What you don't want is her to be surprised if someone complains that you weren't available for the meeting at the time they tried to schedule.**
Close All Those Browser Tabs
Right now, as I write this, I have 10 browser tabs open. I'm actually proud of myself. This is a low number for me.
Like a lot of other people, I end up spending a lot of time reading things on the internet, even in the midst of work. A coworker will slack out an interesting article, I'll find myself down a rabbit hole while trying to figure out a potential solution to a current challenge, somebody emails me a video they swear will have me in tears, and so on and so on. We've probably all been there.
But all those open tabs are distracting and visual clutter. Once you get into a rhythm in one tab, an incoming gchat will catch your eye and pull you off course.
Force yourself to close tabs for anything you're not actively working on. I keep open my email and calendar tabs (of course), and then only what I actually need for what I'm currently working on. If I open something and can't get to it immediately, I add that item to my to do, copy the link into the description, and then close the tab.
For articles and headlines that caught my eye but I can't read right away, I use Pocket. I really love it! No, I'm not making a dime for saying that, it's just saved me so much time and I really adore it. Add the extension to your browser and then download the app onto your phone or tablet. When you come across an article you want to read later, just click the button. It'll automatically sync the links you save across devices. I add things all day, and then read on the train or in bed as I wind down for the night.
If you're always overwhelmed, running behind, or can't keep track of your projects, try these time management techniques. Got any tried and true tricks that I missed? Share them in the comments.