Do you have trouble finding time in the day for everything on your list? Or perhaps you find it difficult to stay focused on what’s most important to accomplish your great ideas? Find a variety of methods to help you use your time more efficiently while working toward your bigger, long-term goals.
As entrepreneurs, we are our own bosses. No one is telling us what to do and no one is as invested in our own success as we are. This should mean that we pursue our careers like a house on fire, sending out five Young Artist Program applications a week, promoting ourselves online, and joyfully tracking our progress toward our goals, right?
Well, not all the time. In the digital age, we all have more information to manage than ever before, and it’s much easier to lose ourselves in distractions. Angry Birds, anyone?
No matter what your aspirations are, efficient use of your time can make the difference between success and not-so-much success. Luckily, a movement has grown to manage information overload more efficiently, such as finding better ways to manage e-mail, prioritize tasks, and organize files. Dozens of tools exist for procrastinators to get back on track, from advice books to intricate software. Here are some impressions of the useful and fun ways people have devised to help us work toward our goals.
Getting Things Done
Founded by consultant David Allen, Getting Things Done (GTD) takes a businesslike approach to getting organized. GTD stresses the importance of planning versus arbitrarily plowing through to-do lists and getting those plans out of our heads and into more usable formats. Using Allen’s system—available through his best-selling book Getting Things Done, a subscription-based online coaching, and numerous “educational products”—you can create a highly systemized approach to tracking everything from your grocery lists to your most ambitious life plans.
Perhaps Allen’s most valuable observation is that people tend to put things on their to-do lists that actually create more work for themselves. For example, writing “Fix car” on my to-do list doesn’t tell me what needs to be done. It will stay there until I find the head space to remember what needs fixing and what I’m supposed to do about it. But writing “Ask Jim to recommend brake specialist” tells me the exact next action I need to take.
Allen’s emphasis on planning out actions is valuable, but users can run into trouble by planning too much and doing too little. For example, if I put on my to-do list a reminder to send a quick e-mail to someone, I might as well have saved myself a step and just sent the e-mail instead. Still, GTD has inspired countless spinoffs and remains a respected standard for individuals and businesses alike.
Founded by Marla Cilley, a housewife with a clutter problem, to help other housewives with clutter problems, at first FlyLady doesn’t appear to be applicable to ambitious professionals. And, true, if you join the online community and sign up for e-mail reminders to follow her system, you’ll receive helpful reminders to get dressed every morning and “shine your sink” before you go to bed. That said, she does have some good strategies for tackling the inevitable clutter that can accumulate—and if you have especially lax habits about housework that distract you from professional activities, it might be worth trying some of the cleaning routines she recommends.
Even better, apply Cilley’s principles to your own goals. For example, she recommends setting a timer to 15 minutes when you tackle tasks you’ve been dreading, a great way to get over procrastination. If you have some monumental job that overwhelms you, take one baby step each day to get part of it done.
Developed by Italian software developer Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he first used to create it. The steps are simple: choose a task to do (such as taxes, website updates . . . something finite), set your timer to 25 minutes, work on nothing but that task until the timer rings, take a five-minute break, then repeat until the task is done, taking a longer break every three or four “pomodoros.”
The method puts you back in control of your time, and something about the ticking timer keeps you from wanting to check e-mail the instant you sit down with another intention in mind. In the free, downloadable e-book, you can learn more sophisticated uses, such as improving your efficiency by tracking how many pomodoros you need to complete a task and how susceptible you are to interruptions.
Don’t Break the Chain
Legend has it that a young Jerry Seinfeld used this simple method to make sure he stuck to his goal of writing every day. He put a big calendar on his wall that showed the whole year on one page, and for each day he wrote, he marked it off with a big red “X.” After a few days, the Xs made a chain. This motivated him to keep making the chain longer and feel less inclined to “break” it. It’s a visual motivator to form a habit, and positive habits are ultimately what help make aspirations realities. You can achieve much the same with the low-tech tools or set up an account on the website to create multiple calendars that track your progress toward different goals.
A Google search for productivity apps will reveal dozens of links to software to help you track most anything, from implementing GTD principles to filing photos of your favorite restaurant meals. With a myriad to choose from, the danger is that you will spend so much time playing with apps, you won’t actually get around to doing real work. Before you app yourself to death, stick with the basics. You need a reliable calendar, a usable to-do list, awareness of your broader goals, and a way to track your progress toward them. And the easier all of these things are to use, the happier you’ll be.
What all of these methods have in common is an emphasis on planning, routine, productive habits, and action. When choosing a method to follow, or just observing your own rhythms to discover how you work best, the most important thing to remember is that the purpose of time management is to achieve your goals, not simply to follow the rules of one system or another.
Effective time management is similar to effective weight loss—there is no magic to it, just a set of fundamental rules that, if followed, will help you achieve what you want. Above all, just do it!
This article was published in the February 2013 issue of Classical Singer magazine and written by Amanda Keil. Amanda freelances as a fundraiser; writes for Classical Singer, OPERA America, Bachtrack, and her blog, thousandfoldecho.com; and performs with her Baroque company, Musica Nuova. amandakeil.com.