In my work as a career coach and corporate trainer, I’m in a great position to hear the day-to-day frustrations of professionals across a variety of organizations and industries. Over the years, I’ve discovered a consistent pattern: It seems that every office worker I encounter struggles with time management to one degree or another, no matter their job title or how many years of experience they have.
In reality, it’s not surprising. The modern workplace operates at warp-speed. All day long, office professionals are bombarded with information, demands, interruptions, and requests from all directions. These expectations are ever-increasing, while the time available seems to be ever-decreasing.
In my experience, I’ve found that most office professionals struggle to manage time because they’re focused on the wrong goals. They’re always looking for some kind of magical “hack” or trick or new software that will suddenly resolve their feelings of overwhelm and immediately provide the peace of mind they’re seeking. But most of them fail to understand the fundamental principles of time management. And this is the true problem.
If you want to master time management once and for all, you have to start with a strong foundation. Without a deep understanding of the basics, those time-saving “tips” are only temporary band-aids. To help support your path to mastery, I’ve outlined the 5 most essential ideas every office professional should know about managing time.
It takes time to manage time
There’s no escaping this one. As inconvenient as it is, you have to invest time in order to make time work for you. This is especially hard to accept when you’re feeling overloaded with too much to do. Most people just want to jump in and start checking items off their list. But that’s an easy way to make bad decisions. Instead of actually planning and prioritizing, most people will simply grab the fastest task or the one that’s right in front of them.
With so many competing demands, you have to make smart decisions about how to use your time—and that requires thoughtful attention. You have to spend time figuring out the best way to use your time. Brian Tracy, one of the world’s most well-respected time management and leadership coaches, claims that one minute spent planning saves 10 in execution. Based on my experience, I firmly agree. You can save yourself hours of headaches simply by taking a few minutes each day to intentionally identify your top priorities and plan your day to the best of your ability.
Systems only work if they are reliable
A system is a defined process that leads to a consistent outcome. Every office professional needs a system for managing appointments (like a calendar) and also a system for managing to-do items (like a list). Most people have the calendar part under control; it’s the task system that causes problems. To-do items are often captured everywhere—on post-it notes, emails, scraps of paper, various notepads and more. Plus, many to-do items aren’t captured anywhere at all! They’re just floating around in an individual’s head. This is not a reliable system, and therefore it doesn’t work.
In order for a system to be reliable, it must be complete, clearly defined, and used consistently. To effectively manage tasks, most time management experts recommend capturing them all in one central location (i.e. a “master” task list). They also suggest that you refer to your list every single day, several times a day.
All too often, I’ll see people create a great big to-do list when they’re feeling overwhelmed. They experience immediate relief from getting things out of their heads, but then, they put the list away and never refer to it again! If you want to really get a hold of your tasks, projects and priorities, start with a comprehensive system you really use every single day.
The approach is more important than the tool
This is where many office professionals get stuck. They understand that they need a system for managing tasks, and they immediately want to know what system they should use. Should it be paper or electronic? With so many different tools available, analysis paralysis is common.
Here’s the truth: the tool doesn’t matter as much as how you use it. Almost any tool can work if you invest time into setting up the system and make sure it works for you. Any tool will work if you consistently use it. No tool is perfect, so don’t get too hung up on finding the one that is “just right.” Instead, just pick one that makes sense to you and your colleagues and start using it every single day.
Be realistic about how much you can accomplish in a day
Most people start the day with big aspirations. They believe they can get more done in the next 8 hours than is really possible. They forget that interruptions will definitely happen—many times over again—and they underestimate the length of time each task is likely to take. After all, Murphy’s Law dictates that anything that can go wrong will.
Due to their unrealistic expectations about time, many office professionals set themselves up for disappointment. They pack their daily plan full of an unreasonable number of to-do items and then feel like a failure when they can’t meet their own expectations.
For most office professionals, an essential part of the job is managing deadlines and ensuring projects are delivered on time. To make that happen, you need an accurate understanding of how long tasks truly take to complete, and you need awareness of everything else on your plate at any given time. This knowledge will help you better forecast what can be accomplished in a day—and that will help you better manage expectations (your own and others).
There will always be too much to do and not enough time
This last point is a tough one, but it’s undeniably true. In all likelihood, you will never leave the office at night with a completely empty to-do list and that’s a good thing! There will always be more to do tomorrow, so consider that job security.
No matter how hard or fast you work, you will probably always feel a little “buried.” However, if you have a reliable system in place, you can rest assured that nothing is falling through the cracks. Yes, you have a lot on your plate. And yes, it would be nice to have an extra week to finish everything without having any new to-do items land on your list, but that’s just not the way the modern workplace operates. It never stops and, if it slows down at all, it’s only for ever-so-brief periods.
For most of us, learning to manage time will be a lifelong journey that will require continuous practice. We will try many new strategies along the way—some will work, many will not. We will adapt strategies to meet our needs, and as our needs change, we’ll continue adapting. But no matter what happens, these fundamental principles will remain the bedrock on which we build greater understanding. These time management essentials provide a timeless foundation for your success now and in the future.
Photography by Mel Walbridge