Those who complain they don't have enough time in a day will most likely be those who squander their time. How many can say they haven't squandered a fortune of working hours over their life time playing with intentions rather than executing, being stuck in mindless functioning rather than pursuing goals that matter, or, as Brian Tracy put it, "doing something very well that need not be done at all"?
It can be easy to blame external reasons for wasting time. The list of reasons may be long: too many emails, too many meandering meetings, too much work maintaining a social media presence. These excuses may also lead to procrastination.
Here are some time-saving systems and strategies to help you take charge of your time for good.
Self-awareness often precedes self-management, so to salvage wasted time, you might start by raising your awareness of which activities consume your time, and how important these activities are to what you want to accomplish. Consider tracking your activities for a few weeks,or you can take one of the many self-assessments that are available.
Come to terms with how much you truly want to accomplish whatever goals matter to you. Time-saving systems likely won’t help you achieve your goals unless you've reached clarity and true commitment to these goals. Commitment to your goals may drive you to find ways to reclaim time here and there, every day, so you can focus on work that matters.
Once you're clear on your goals and the activities you spend your time on, you can use the 4-D method to start managing your time. Sort your recurring activities in these four quadrants:
- Do. These are the activities you should continue to do—your important, high value priorities.
- Diminish. These are the activities you might do less of, such as skipping some meetings, or only sometimes attending other recurring meetings.
- Delegate. These activities may be safely delegated to others, or outsourced. If delegating an entire activity to one person isn't feasible, can you break it up into several tasks that can be handled by more than one person?
- Discard. What might you eliminate altogether, such as spending time and money attending networking events in the hope of meeting prospective clients, or scheduling a meeting when a phone call will do?
Checking email: You may have heard well-meaning advice about not checking email first thing in the morning. The reality is, checking email in the morning may be crucial for responding to important communications. But you might want to reconsider checking email frequently throughout the day, or using a Pavlovian response by reacting to emails as they come through. Consider setting a reasonable time schedule for checking email, such as five times a day, and turning off email notifications so email doesn’t become harmful to your productivity.
Inbox zero approach: Inbox zero, coined by entrepreneur Merlin Mann, is an approach to email that aims to have an inbox empty, or almost empty, at all times. Ways to help achieve this might include:
- Promptly archiving or deleting new messages.
- Immediately responding to emails that require two minutes or less to answer.
- Moving new messages that require a longer response to a folder to be addressed later.
When it's your scheduled time to handle email, you can work on this folder in batches throughout the day.
If you receive hundreds of email a day, you might consider using a tool such as Sanebox, a cloud-based service that automatically re-routes unimportant emails to different folders. It does this by analyzing your email history, as well as your social media network, and filtering emails to show you what you need to see now, and what can wait until later.
Automate: There are many areas in your life that you can automate to save time. Let's consider clothes. Steve Jobs didn't waste time deciding what to wear. He always dressed the same. President Obama narrowed down his choices to blue and grey suits. Business influencer Marshall Goldsmith also dresses the same every day.
You might also automate what you type. Programs such as TextExpander (for Mac) and PhraseExpress (for Windows) may save you time by allowing you to type short abbreviations that expand to common phrases, entire messages, addresses, email signatures and more.
Don't chase a client: By all means, follow up with a client a few days after you send a proposal, but don’t chase after them if they don't respond after two attempts. If a prospective client doesn't take a moment to respond to your proposal after you have spent considerable effort and time to create it, you may want to take this as a sign that this is not the type of client you want to pursue. Consider using the time saved to focus on quality clients who deserve your undivided attention.
Awareness of Others
Who are the time wasters in your professional life? These are individuals who can rob you of your time and energy. They may be those who require more maintenance than others, they may be people who are long-winded in meetings, or who simply have a lot of time to waste and want to waste it with you. These time vampires come in endless varieties. Think about the people you interact with regularly. Do any steal your time in unproductive interactions? How do they do it? Or more accurately, how do you let them do it?
Management of Others
Once you know who the time wasters are and how they use up your time and energy, you might develop some strategies to deal with these and reclaim your time for more productive use.
Meeting guidelines: Ask the team to come up with meeting guidelines that everyone will abide by. For example, you might have everyone agree how not to start and how not to end a meeting. Discuss guidelines for deciding how many people to invite to meetings. Are some people invited simply because no one wants to ruffle any feathers? Have the team agree to invite only those who are essential to the meeting's purpose. Set time limits for meetings. For example, any meetings over 60 minutes might be the exception rather than the rule and would apply only to critical issues.
You can use a free collaboration tool such as Trello or Co-op that allows for interactive and organized collaboration without being intrusive.
Email policy: Consider having everyone agree on some common-sense practices for email. For example,
- Limit the content of email messages to one topic.
- Use a descriptive subject line with keywords that speed up the search for an email.
- Attach a file before writing the email to try to avoid follow-up emails when attachment is forgotten.
- Stop electronic return receipts.
- Get to the point in the first sentence.
- Use bulleted or numbered lists if possible.
- Be brief.
Communication preferences: Let people on your team know the most effective way to communicate with you. For example:
- Do you prefer to have written information to review before a meeting?
- Do you prefer team members drop by your office for quick items rather than send you an email?
- Do you dislike receiving text messages and prefer email?
- Would it help if an assistant or team member groups all non-urgent questions or requests to address at one time, rather than interrupting you several times a day?
Ultimately, you should develop a strong desire to save time. This can prompt you to find many other ways to preserve the one asset you cannot replace: your time.
For more tips on expanding your business, access Business Growth: How to Survive and Thrive, from MSNBC’s Your Business.
Read more articles about time-saving systems.
A version of this article was originally published on September 2, 2015.