If you resolved earlier this month to work smarter, stop procrastinating and be more productive, your best intentions may have quickly been subverted by your regularly scheduled work routine.
Workplace performance expert Jason Womack says changing the way we do our work to improve our productivity is hard because our processes have become habit, and in many cases these habits have made us successful (even if they drove us to the edge of sanity in the process).
“A mid-level manager, for example, has probably gotten in the habit of living by the ding of email or the buzz of the BlackBerry,” says Womack, and they’ve probably been rewarded for their responsiveness. “If they haven’t addressed that Pavlovian response, it will be difficult for them to shift their habits.”
The biggest mistake professionals make when it comes to time management, adds Womack, is continuing to use their time for activities that no longer deserve it.
“They keep going when they should be done,” he says. “They keep typing an email when they’ve already answered a question in the subject line. They keep talking on the phone when they’ve already addressed the purpose of the call. They stay in the meeting room after the meeting points have been covered.”
To prevent you from making those same mistakes, Womack shares six of his most effective time management and productivity boosting tips.
1. Stick to the 15-minute rule. Womack recommends organizing your workday into 15 minute chunks. If you work eight hours a day, you’ve got 32, 15-minute chunks. A 10-hour workday gives you 40, 15-minute chunks. Womack emphasizes 15 minutes because, he says, it’s long enough to get something done and short enough to find in your day.
When you have to schedule a meeting or conference call that would typically take an hour, Womack tells his clients to start it at 15 minutes past the hour and to end it on the hour. He believes people can accomplish in 45 minutes (that is, three, 15-minute chunks) what they think they need 60 minutes for. Containing the meeting to 45 minutes forces you to keep it on point and gives you an extra 15 minute chunk in which you can address another item on your to-do list.
2. Know when you’re done. Continuing to work on something when it is essentially done is a significant time-waster that most professionals aren’t even aware of. People need to think through the, ‘When am I done’ question, says Womack, who is also the author of Your Best Just Got Better: Work Smarter, Think Bigger, Make More (Wiley 2012).
“When I get a nonfiction book, I’m done with that book when I’ve learned something from the author that I didn’t know before,” he says. “I’ve picked up books, paid $24.95, read it for two or three 15-minute chunks, learned something and given the book to my seatmate on a plane.”
3. Eliminate distractions. Eliminating distractions may not be a new time management tip, but Womack’s advice for avoiding specific distractions—such as a niggling coworker or a nagging manager—is novel and effective.
If your manager is prone to interrupting you with questions, Womack suggests preempting her. For example, instead of waiting for your manager to show up at your desk or ping you, approach her first at a few minutes before the hour, say, a 10:52 or 10:55 AM, ideally before a meeting or call. He says to tell her, “I have a bunch of things I’m working on, and a meeting at 11, and I’m trying to get any interruptions out of the way. Do you have anything you need to tell me or ask me before my meeting and before my work gets underway?”
Another tip from Womack: If you have a quick question for someone but don’t want to get caught up in a protracted conversation around it, call your contact (or stop by his desk) a few minutes before the hour, knowing that he might have a meeting on the hour and won’t have time for chit-chat, either.
4. Identify verbs that need attention. Womack recommends organizing your to-do list around verbs, such as call, draft, review, prepare and schedule. Those are tasks you can generally complete in one sitting and that help move a larger project forward, he says.
If you have big-picture verbs on your to-do list, such as plan, discuss, create or implement, replace them with action steps that break down the big picture project, adds Womack. Doing so will help you get started and reduce any feelings of being overwhelmed.
5. Be prepared for bonus time. The next time you find out your flight’s been delayed or your doctor is running late, don’t get annoyed. Recognize that you’ve just been given the gift of “bonus time.” If you bring some work with you wherever you go, as Womack suggests, you’ll have the chance to tackle it, whether that’s responding to email, making a call, reviewing a proposal or drafting a plan.
6. Use email shortcuts. Womack notes that both the BlackBerry and iPhone allow users to create quick keys or keyboard shortcuts when using the smartphones for email. He created several keyboard short cuts that call up boiler plate text that he frequently reuses. For example, if someone emails Womack asking him for information on how to use Microsoft Outlook more effectively, all he has to do is type his shortcut, “OL,” which automatically populates his email with a response to the question. (This video demonstrates how to create these keyboard shortcuts on an iPhone 4S.)
These shortcuts save Womack a ton of time since he’s developed several for answers to some of the most common questions people ask him. It prevents him from having to recreate the answer every time someone emails him. It also saves him from having to search his sent folder and having to copy and paste the answer into email.