Think Tank Thursday: Three Steps to Realistic Time Management

If you’re constantly running short on time or finding yourself falling behind on certain projects, it may be because of the way you’re approaching your day-to-day activities. James Baker, founder and CEO of Houston-based Baker Communications, offers these three simple tips for helping you to become a better manager of your time.

“One of the keys to effective time management is effective planning. Effective planning often depends on your ability to accurately gauge the amount of time required to accomplish a given task, whether that task is to complete a certain phase of a long-term project or to complete a phone call with a client.

Every action takes time. The ability to estimate how much time is an essential skill for truly effective time management. Good estimates will enable you to plan appropriately, allotting the correct amount of time to the tasks on your to-do list.

Most people tend to underestimate the time required to accomplish tasks. A rule of thumb that is sometimes cited is to add 25 percent to any time estimate in order to correct for this tendency. However, there are ways to make and maintain more accurate time estimates, rather than just accounting for error.

1. Figure How Long It Really Takes

Many of your tasks are probably routine things that you do on a daily or weekly basis. If you want to make accurate time estimates for future planning, break out a stopwatch and find out how long these tasks currently take you to complete. Try to avoid “racing against the clock” or feeling pressured; simply do the job the same way you have always done, and write down how long it takes. This will give you a realistic framework for scheduling the same or similar tasks in the future.

Another benefit of timing your daily tasks is that it will improve your general understanding of where your time goes. Did the task take as long as you thought it would? Longer? How often did you get distracted or sidetracked while performing it? Becoming conscious of your true working speed and of your time wasting habits will make you more aware of opportunities to improve your time management.

If you are trying to determine how long a large project will take, it may be helpful to break it down into steps and estimate the time required for each one. Setting deadlines for each stage will improve your focus and provide you with a realistic end point.

2. Don’t Let Others Get You Off Track

When you know you only have an hour scheduled for an appointment, make sure that it only takes an hour. Meetings and calls that run long can throw your schedule off for the rest of the day. The best way to do this is to inform those involved that you are on a schedule, tell them how much time you have, and explain that your business needs to be concluded within that time restriction. Whether you are at a lunch, in a personal meeting, or on a phone call, politely but firmly let the other person know how much time you have available.

When others understand that you have a time limit and that you plan to enforce it, they will usually become more focused and avoid wasting your time. Not only can this help you keep to your schedule, it may sometimes result in meetings and calls concluding ahead of schedule, buying you time to handle small incidental tasks before your next scheduled item.

3. Don’t Over-Schedule Yourself

Build some flexibility into your schedule to allow for unexpected delays, interruptions, and things that take longer than expected. Remember to include adequate driving time and plan for traffic problems if you are moving between locations. Remember to schedule in breaks and meals, and allow some slack time to handle questions or other interruptions from colleagues.

If at all possible, avoid checking email and social media throughout the day, and block off time on your schedule specifically for handling those items. This will improve your focus and reduce time waste. If you find yourself running ahead of schedule, use the opportunity to take care of small pending tasks or just relax for a moment. Small breaks during the day help clear your mind, reduce fatigue, and keep you at your best.

Use these three strategies to plan a realistic, livable approach to time management. You will become both more productive and less stressed.”

James Baker is the founder and CEO of Houston-based Baker Communications. Founded in 1979, the sales, leadership and management consulting firm has trained more than 1.5 million individuals.