It’s a typical day at the office. You grab your coffee and a bagel and sit down in front of your computer, bound and determined to tackle the monster that is your inbox. While sorting through hundreds of messages, an urgent request pops up from your manager.
The request requires in-person clarification, so you head down to their office. On your way back, a colleague begs a quick favor (that isn’t quick at all), and when you’re finished saving someone else’s day, you get a notification from your project management software reminding you of an overdue task. By the time you take care of that and make it back to your desk, you’ve forgotten the request from your manager and 20 more emails have appeared in your inbox.
With a hundred things vying for your attention at any given time, it may seem like you need three extra hands and a clone in order to be productive. But what you really need is a lesson on how to prioritize tasks. These tips will help you take back your day—and your sanity!
You know what you need to get done today. You might even have an idea of what’s coming down the pike next week. But what about three weeks from next Tuesday? In order to master time management, you need to take a long-term planning approach.
Pick three top priorities each month. Then, break down each of those priorities into weekly and daily tasks that will help you accomplish it. Put them in writing and post them somewhere you can easily see them. This list will help hold you accountable—and it helps keep the top priorities visible for everyone you work with, too.
You will still have a list of miscellaneous tasks that pop up each day, but this approach helps you stay focused on the most important objectives as you prioritize the other tasks into your daily and weekly schedule.
With your top priorities identified, now you need to develop a system for staying focused on those priorities and other tasks and interruptions that inevitably pop up. In her book, What To Do When There’s Too Much To Do, global productivity expert Laura Stack says you need a system that helps you consistently organize your life around the tasks that really matter and let go of the ones that don’t.
Your system will likely need to include a combination of digital and paper tools customized for how you work best. Learn how to get the most out of the email and tasks management tools you already have installed on your computer to keep your system visible and accessible throughout the day. Explore some project management or to-do list apps such as Teamwork, Trello, or Todoist. Supplement your digital tools with paper to-do lists that help you focus on tasks in order of importance from start to finish throughout the day.
When it comes to prioritizing work, everyone has their personal Achilles’s heel. Yours may be email management; someone else’s may be file organization. Some people are just naturally better at some tasks and worse at others—and that’s okay.
What’s not okay, however, is to fail to plan for it. If you know you need more time than most to keep your inbox tidy, it’s crucial to set aside an extra 30 or 45 minutes each day to focus solely on email. If your desk looks like a tornado hit it every day at 5 p.m., you may need to finish up the rest of your projects by 4:30 so you have time to tidy up the disaster before FEMA comes calling.
Learning how to prioritize tasks requires you to build strategies for addressing your struggles into your schedule so that they don’t blow up in your face down the road.
Before you can become more effective at time management, you need to know where your time is actually going. How long does it take you before you settle in and get to work each morning? How much time are you spending chatting with your colleagues each time you get up for another cup of java? How long are you spending ordering takeout for the team?
The best way to identify your time drains is to spend a week or two tracking how you spend your days. Use a template to document what you do each day and how much time it takes you. Before you know it, the inefficiencies will begin popping off the page, allowing you the chance to plug up all the time drains swirling around you.
Prioritizing work is a struggle for many administrative professionals. One thing leads to another and before you know it, you’re down the rabbit hole and having a cup of tea with Alice. Fortunately, time and task management is a skill that can be learned. When you create a system that helps you identify (and stick to) your priorities, account for areas in which you struggle, and put an industrial-sized stopper in your time drains, you’ll be able to master time management and adjust more quickly when changes occur!
Does all this talk about time management have you feeling stressed? These five tips will help you take back your chill!