Take Control of Your Day!

We’ve all had the feeling. You’re leaving work for the day, and you realize you’ve accomplished a fraction of the tasks you need to. Or you see work piling up, and you realize there’s simply not enough time to do it all.

Time is the most precious commodity we have, and yet in this increasingly fast-paced, distraction-filled world, many people feel they are not using it efficiently. For the owner of a small business, who often runs the whole show, how you manage your time is of utmost importance.

In most cases, good time management is simply a matter of common sense, sticking to your guns, and replacing bad habits with good ones (or at least better ones).

Here are some tips to help you become more productive and get the most out of your day.

Make a to-do list. Lack of direction is a major contributor to wasting time or being unproductive. If you don’t know exactly where you want to go, it’s difficult to get there. At the beginning of each day, map out your goals for the day and list the major tasks you hope to accomplish. Be specific and give yourself measurable goals. Don’t just write “Work on sales training program”; instead, write “I will complete the first three pages of sales training manual.” Try to estimate how long each task will take.

Once you’ve made your schedule and list of tasks, stick to it, and as you complete each activity, check it off. That provides a strong feeling of accomplishment.

Prioritize. Not every task is of equal importance. Often, perfectionists get bogged down on minor tasks and neglect more important items. When you make your list of things to do each morning, categorize each according to its importance, using, for example, “A” for most important, “B” for important but not critical, and “C” for optional. (But remember, an item that’s optional today may become important or critical by the end of the week.) Do the As first—even if the Cs are easier.

If a new task arises during the day, add it to your list and rank it. Just because something pops up doesn’t it mean you should deal with it immediately. You may be wasting too much time on unimportant activities—such as answering e-mail—and letting big tasks languish.

Keep an activity log. Chart how you use your time in an activity log for five days. You may be surprised by how little your plans for the day stack up against how you actually spend it. The log will help you identify the times of day that you’re most productive, let you schedule the toughest tasks during those times, zero in on your most serious distractions and barriers to productivity, and reveal how much time you spend on your most important activities. Do the log in 15- or 30-minute increments, jotting down the time of the entry, the task you’re working on or activity you’re engaged in, and how much time is spent.

Get a personal planner. Make sure you have a planner or date book—either paper or electronic—that can accommodate appointments, important phone numbers, and your daily to-do lists. One major waste of time is looking for a phone number or memo written on a scrap of paper that turns out to be under the big stack of papers on the side of the desk. But one caveat: Use only one of these devices; having several can be counterproductive.

Minimize distractions. The telephone and e-mail make us more productive, but they can also be distractions. When it’s work time, turn the e-mail and phone off. Some suggest limiting e-mail to certain periods in the day, for example, one hour in the morning and another before you leave. There’s even a book called Never Check E-mail in the Morning, by Julie Morgenstern. The idea is that if you complete a project instead of answering e-mail, you’ll set a pattern of productivity for the rest of the day.

If you’re wasting too much time surfing the Web, there is software that lets you block certain Web sites while you’re working.

Don’t let people interrupt you. Send them a signal that you don’t want to be disturbed, by either closing the door to your office or by simply putting a “do not interrupt” sign on your workstation. If someone does interrupt you, keep the conversation short. One expert even recommends standing up when people enter your office or putting papers on guest chairs to prevent them from sitting.

Learn to say “no.” You don’t have to do it all. Whether it’s work or social engagements, sometimes you have to turn down (politely, of course) tasks or assignments that you would otherwise say “yes” to. Once you have laid out your productivity goals and prioritized them, it should be easier to decide what fits into your life and what doesn’t.

Delegate. If someone else can do it, let him or her. In fact, seek people out. It saves you time and helps develop your employees.

Break big tasks into smaller ones. Sometimes people delay starting a big task because it seems overwhelming. Breaking the larger task into smaller pieces makes it more manageable, and finishing a part of a project provides momentum toward completing the entire project.

Don’t postpone unpleasant tasks. In fact, do the most difficult tasks early in the day, when you’re fresh.

Combine activities during waiting periods. We all spend time waiting, whether it’s at the doctor’s office, or standing in line at the supermarket. Take along some material—including trade magazines—to use this time. If you have the right electronic device, you can even use this time checking e-mail.

Eat and sleep well. You hurt productivity when you don’t get enough sleep or you eat food that produces energy spikes and subsequent drops. Eating a large lunch is also a potential productivity killer. Drinking at lunch is another.

Find time for balance. It may sound contradictory, but one great way to ensure that you get things done is to schedule time to relax and do no work at all. Reading, going out, spending time with friends and family, and other leisure activities help you recharge and let you “reward” yourself for all your hard work.