Success in the workplace depends on being a good time manager, because it doesn't matter how good you are at your job if you never have time to do it. Here are the four most important steps you can take to end that feeling that you “can't get everything done”.

Prioritize ruthlessly
Most people who are too busy to get everything done are not really too busy: they are procrastinators. Everyone has time to do the most important thing on their to-do list each day. Most people have time to do the top five things. Problems arise when people do the number eight thing first because it's easy.

Instead of doing the easy things, do the things that will have the most impact. Many days, for me, that means doing one very difficult thing that has the potential for big, long-term reward. The problem is that this one thing probably has a lot at stake; if it goes poorly, then no long-term reward. So I get nervous about doing it. The number-eight task has little impact, so doing it poorly doesn't scare me as much.

In the worst case, this sort of prioritization goes on all day. If you choose to do the easy things first then at the end of the day, when there's no time, you make yourself crazy trying to get the top of your to-do list done. Whereas if number eight is not done, you can go home anyway.

Stop doing research
One of the biggest black holes on a to-do list is research. “I need to read this book before I start writing,” or “I need to have three more numbers before I start the project.” In most cases, you can start without all the research.

My friend Mary just fired someone who procrastinated so much she was frozen at her desk. This person's job was to write client work proposals, but in each case, she would say she needed more information in order to write the proposal. Mary would tell her to make up assumptions for the information she didn't know, and fix it later. But this employee could not do it; she was so scared to get started on the proposals that she could always think of another number she needed from the client.

Sort immediately
Another form of procrastination is pile-making. To read a piece of paper briefly and then put it in a pile to be read again is to double your work. In most cases, though, a pile maker does not want to make a decision about that piece of paper until it is an emergency. If you forced yourself to deal with every piece of paper as soon as you touch it, you will find that you deal with papers in 50% less time.

Barnes & Noble is so convinced of this theory that the company has made touch-it-once company policy. When Barnes & Noble opens a new store, hundreds of workers unpack boxes of books. Some books are easy to shelve and some are difficult. Rather than shelving the easy ones right away and making a pile of difficult ones, employees touch a book only once: you cannot put it down until you know where it goes.

Call a spade a spade
This morning I sat down at my computer to write a column. But first I checked email. (I have four accounts. I checked them all.) Then I rechecked because I thought I should have received a more interesting batch of mail the first time around.

Then I told myself I could surf for just a little. I came a cross a study from the University of Carleton that said cyber-slacking is the new form of procrastination, and it's killing peoples' productivity. I saw myself in that study.

So I took my computer to a local cafe where I cannot connect to the Internet. The Internet is useful, yes, but in most cases, it’s a way to take a break from doing the hard stuff.

It seems that most of time management is being honest with yourself: At each moment, ask if you’re doing the most important thing or the easiest thing. The more honest you are with yourself, the more time you’ll find in your day.

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17 replies
  1. M Fahad
    M Fahad says:

    Well going through this article is like an eye-opener. I dont think there could have been a better time to read such article in my life. This article really clarifies what I had been doing, and that is avoiding things just with the fear that I wont be able to do it perfectly. (This has been my first comment to any online article, I had always thought of giving one lot of times but never did because I thought I would sound stupid… but as they say Perfection comes from Imperfection.. I finaly did it)

  2. Neva
    Neva says:

    Thanks. I had sometimes thought I was a perfectionist and that was my trouble. Now, after reading this I am a perfectionist. My clutter and delay in doing things are compounded by the fact that I am 80 and have various physical limitations that hamper the most difficult work.

  3. Kim
    Kim says:

    I have a lot of trouble with “Stop Doing Research.” I actually find that most people don’t feel they have the time to look into something and research. That causes a flurry of emails full of questions to different people inside and outside of the company, when in reality they could spend an extra minute looking something up themselves. OR things get so far down the line, and then not having the right info up front costs more time at the back end of the process.

    I do agree a few people may waste time doing too much research, but that hasn’t been my experience.

  4. Martha Aleo
    Martha Aleo says:

    Ernest Hemmingway said it best: “Never confuse motion with action.” How many of us work which people who are sooo busy all the time but in fact accomplish very little?

  5. JPN
    JPN says:

    Your perspective is the most beneficial thing I’ve come across in weeks. And I hate leaving bloggers gushy comments, but it’s true. I sent you a question via email, but I’ve kind of already found answers by going through some of your older posts. If you want to answer it anyway, it’d be cool to hear from you personally, but not necessary.

    Thanks for your ardent blogging!

  6. organic baby clothes
    organic baby clothes says:

    Interesting article. I certainly do find my self cyber-slacking everyday. It’s somewhat a worry for me and your article did make me think much deeper. Thanks a bunch. Love you blog.

  7. sadya
    sadya says:

    penelope , you are so spot on with your analysis. most of your blogs feel like you’re talking about me. even though i live a million miles away in pakistan.

  8. Steve Bennett
    Steve Bennett says:

    I definitely support the “go to a net-free cafe for productivity” thing. I had to abandon my favourite cafe when they introduced wi-fi :(

  9. Ruhi Desai
    Ruhi Desai says:

    Quite an informative post indeed
    By making a priority list of your tasks and allotting different time frame according to each task requirement, you will be well informed about your goals and priorities at work. Doing this will save you time, helping you work smarter, not harder. The fact is you will never have control of your time unless you take control of your time.
    Please keep posting and share your views with us on similar issues.
    Ruhi Desai

  10. Vincent Churchil
    Vincent Churchil says:

    When we dont know where the time is spent exactly, how can we solve this time problem? That is why we started using Replicon’ sOnline timesheet for time tracking and later we understood how we are utilizing our time.

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