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Improve Your Work Day By Improving Yourself

Time management. Productivity. They’re always hot topics and maybe something you struggle with, no matter how long you’ve been in the workforce. You’ve probably read dozens of articles about managing your time and everything that goes along with it, like how to live by the zero inbox philosophy. But you keep struggling, and you keep looking for the newest thing to keep you on top of your day. Maybe you’ve set up a to-do list. Maybe you’ve moved to a project management platform. Maybe you write down every single thing you need to get done and check them off as you go. But at the end of the day, you still aren’t getting things done that need to be tackled and you’re feeling overwhelmed and like there will never be enough time. And then you get asked to squeeze something else into your day, and the dread starts to set in. How are you going to handle this?

You aren’t. Time is what it is. There are 8 hours in a work day and 24 hours in a calendar day. There is no “one simple trick” that suddenly gives you more time so that you can get more done. The truth is that time is what you make of it, and once you realize what works for you, you’ll begin to maximize your potential.

Let me tell you a story. I was 24 and working a great job that I enjoyed and was challenged by. The workload was daunting, though, and as the company grew, more and more fell onto my plate. I started to have trouble keeping on top of all of it, even though I was putting in more and more hours. I didn’t understand why all of this was falling on me without any support and why I was struggling to keep up but kept getting given more responsibility. Finally, I went to my boss, mostly angrily, with a list of every task and project that had become my responsibility to ask WHY and HOW and also demand a raise. Why not, right?

We sat down and I explained my side: my responsibilities had grown from 3 repetitive tasks to being the gatekeeper for the entire department’s projects, as well as the contact person for several support staffers, managing the entire commerce platform, and several odds and ends tasks as requested. I asked why it was all falling on me without any help and I laid out why I felt I deserved a raise.

His response was not what I was anticipating at all. He explained that he was handing everything off to me because I had the potential to best manage those projects, but that I wasn’t meeting his expectations. I was outraged! I was working 70 hour weeks! I was getting everything done at the cost of my personal time! How could he possibly say I wasn’t meeting his expectations?!

“You are not managing your time correctly,” he told me. At this point, I definitely had an attitude as I showed him the several Google Calendars I’d set up for the department and the stack of sticky notes I had clipped together with my pen. I wasn’t losing track of things, but he was right – my system was pure chaos. He issued me a challenge. Improve my productivity, and he’d give me a raise so big that I’d have a bigger paycheck with 40 hours than I was currently making with 20 hours of overtime. Challenge accepted!!

I set out to find what was wrong with my system, and change it. At first I was upset and stressed out. I’d taken time management classes. I used to-do lists. I used calendars. What more could I really do? As I thought about it over the next few days and considered ways to get the same stuff done in less time, I started keeping track of everything. I bought a notebook and logged my day. MY ENTIRE DAY. And the problem revealed itself.

I was a time waster. Organized, perfectionist me had a set amount of time for everything and when it felt overwhelming or annoying, I drifted off to something else and lost track of time. I also discovered that my handy sticky note system was failing me, because they were chaotic and covering too many things at once and things were falling to the side. My boss was right. I was unproductive.

The problem with time management techniques and tricks is that time is relative and what works for one person isn’t the answer for the next person. I had it in my head that this task should take 2 hours, so I’d start it and breeze through half of it and let myself get distracted by something else because I was making great time. Once I’d get back to it and finish it, it would take a total of 3 hours instead. And that’s how my day was slipping right past me without me even noticing.

I quickly developed a note-taking system that worked specifically for me. I tagged and indexed. I dated and timestamped. I assigned myself deadlines. I wrote down things as they were asked of me or as they came up. I no longer expected my brain to remember anything. I wrote it down. I could be sitting in a meeting and have a thought pop into my head: hey shouldn’t we have a print ad due next month? Was that on the calendar? Had we discussed it? I’d write it down, and whenever I was between tasks, I’d scan my notebook. OH YEAH! That print ad! And I’d look it up, confirm it was all on the calendar, and check it off as complete. I disciplined myself to stick to this system, and soon it became a habit. It’s such a habit now that there is always a notebook in my purse. I can’t demand more of my brain than it can handle, and I know that what I need is to get everything on paper.

The secret is that you have to find what works for you. Maybe all you need is a notepad on your desk. Maybe you need to know that you’ll never be interrupted from 1-4pm. Maybe you need to deal with all your emails first thing in the morning and then give it the last 30 minutes of your day, but ignore it in between. Invest some time into your day to take a hard look at where you’re dropping the ball. Where are you wasting time? What’s getting pushed to the side? You can only spend your time in three ways: thoughts, conversations, and actions. Are you letting thoughts take over the time that should be spent on actions? Are you investing time into conversations but failing to turn those conversations into actions? Start with something simple, like keeping a running list of everything you need to do, and don’t cross it off until it’s really done. There is no secret trick to time management and productivity. It just requires discipline until the habit is formed, and a little extra up-front work to find the system that works best for you. I thought my sticky notes and Google calendars was the system I needed, but it was failing me. Maybe your system is failing you, and it’s time to upgrade yourself.

This article is a great resource to reiterate what I’ve addressed here. Ultimately, though, you have to put the time into finding what works for you. If you want your days to be better, make yourself better at tackling the day.

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