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Three Tips for Better Time Management


As a member of a small startup, I am constantly having to wear many hats — there are always a million things to do and there’s always some new popping up that needs my attention…

…and last week, the million things got in the way, I simply ran out of time to write my T3 post.

So being a cognitive psychologist, it got me thinking… what are some ways I make myself more efficient?  It turns out it is all about maximizing your attention.

It is really helpful to reevaluate one’s work habits when you need to make every second count. Here are 3 tips that really resonated with me:

1) Block time - One of the best things you can do is segment your day into blocks of time… hardly a novel concept, I know, but in the age of chat, email, VOIP, multitasking seems like a way of life, but all the research shows multitasking is actually horribly inefficient. It takes about 15 minutes to really mentally switch your attention between topics and be fully focused on a new task. So trying to do 2 or 3 things at once or bouncing between new tasks every 15 or 20 minutes is a horrible way to be efficient. Even just quickly breaking away from what you’re doing to read and respond to an email or answer the phone can disrupt your efficiency flow.

So one obvious tip here is to make sure to block out enough time to complete a task or make meaningful progress on it. Blocks of about an hour tend to be ideal, as research shows performance and efficiency is maximal at about 45 minutes on a given task and starts to wane after that (and keep that in mind for meetings, too… ever have one of those marathon 3-hour meetings? Those often turn out to be huge wastes of time because people get burnt out… try breaking them into 3 short meeting or include breaks every hour or so… it’ll make a huge difference).

2) Avoid email - this is probably my biggest personal weakness. In fact, I’ve decided I’m slightly addicted to novelty and get a minor rush every time I get new email. Which in itself, isn’t horrible, but if you monitor how much time you spend on different tasks in your day, you’ll probably find reading and writing email takes up much more time than it should… especially since the very act of writing someone email means you’ll probably just get even more. The best thing to do on this front is do a quick scan of emails first thing, and only read and reply to mission critical or time sensitive email. Then close you reader, and only check it in between tasks you’ve blocked out and leave the bulk of your email replies to later…. which brings me to my last point….

3) Maximize productive time - It turns out that all time is not equal. Studies show people’s brains have a peak productivity time somewhere throughout their day in which they can maximally focus their attention. For most people it is actually the morning time before lunch, though for others it is late at night. In many cases, people believe this time is when they can actually be alone, undisturbed (often the late-night scenario) — it is true being undisturbed is important, though biologically your maximum biological performance may still be in the AM.

In order to be maximally efficient, you’ll want to maximize your thought-intensive tasks during these peak productivity windows when ever possible— things like strategic thinking, planning, inventing, etc. Don’t waste that precious time doing more ‘mindless’ tasks writing email or reading the news unless that is critical for your job… such mindless tasks that are best saved for the afternoon/evening when fatigue and low blood sugar make meaningful work less possible.

If you want to read more on the topic, there are, of course, a ton of famous books on the topic and IMO, Alec Mackenzie’s, The Time Trap, is one of the classics.

Good luck, now go off and be more productive… I’ve just gotten more email… must resist…

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    On November 6th, 2007 at 8:56 am, Tara said:

    What a great post! I am sure many of use can relate!

    Email is my biggest issue as well! It does take a large amount of time to reply!

    On November 6th, 2007 at 9:12 am, Adriana - Busy Moms Online said:

    LOL, you are so right about getting a rush at the sound of incoming email! I am probabaly the weakest of all: my email reader is on all the time, and I can’t help it but look when a new email is announced.

    Thanks for the reminder: I’ll have to challenge myself and see if I can resist email reading for a couple of hours today.

    On November 6th, 2007 at 10:33 am, Hot Librarian said:

    Thank you for this… considering I read this post in between sections of a project I’m trying to complete, you’ve motivated me to close all extraneous browser windows and just FINISH WHAT I’M DOING!

    On November 6th, 2007 at 2:03 pm, Sarah Kimmel said:

    I am the same way! I can hear the little “new email” sound in my house and it will take all of my strength not to run over there and see what it is! I really need to be better at that. Thanks!

    On November 6th, 2007 at 2:46 pm, Helene said:

    Great post Wendy. Another tip I follow is avoiding the pull of putting out someone else’s fire. For example, if someone calls or sends an “Urgent” email, it’s often hard to ignore, even if it really isn’t urgent. So, what I try and do is let the person know I received their “urgent” message, that I’m unavailable at the moment and I’ll respond as soon as I can.


    On November 6th, 2007 at 8:02 pm, Kelvin Kao said:

    I sort of have forced down times so I got into a habit of multi-tasking all the time. I work as a computer programmer and certain projects will take 2 minutes to compile (that means, the computer is translating what I wrote to 0s and 1s so the computer can run them), so when the compiler is working, I really can’t work on anything. That is when I read blogs, write emails, chat, browse the web, etc. However, I make sure what I do in that down time is more or less mindless, so I can still focus on work in the back of my mind without really working on it. That’s just the nature of my work. I’ve tried to work on different projects during that down time, but that didn’t work very well, because that actually demands my full focus and I ended up switching my focus back and forth. So yeah, I think multi-task is fine, as long as you know what’s the main thing you are doing and the rest are tasks that you can kind of do on auto-pilot.

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