Is your schedule out of control?
Are you trying and failing to manage your time at work?
Does a day or week go by and you feel like you didn’t get anything done?
Most people want to be productive. We often feel super busy, but hours or an entire day can go by, and we don't feel like we got anything done.
Productivity is the amount of work you or your staff can do over a specified period. In the work world, that time is your eight-hour workday. Time management and productivity go hand in hand—if you manage your time well, you should be more productive.
But feeling that you didn't accomplish anything at the end of the day means your time management went awry. While there will always be productivity-bashing events and circumstances out of your control, you will be consistently more productive if you avoid these time management mistakes.
Time Management Mistake #1: Letting Your Inbox Set Your Priorities
If you start your day by opening your inbox and proceed to respond to messages and requests in the order they arrive, you are letting your inbox dictate your priorities, and you'll lose hours to low-value tasks.
The average worker spends about three hours reading and responding to emails every day, and 70 percent open emails within six seconds. That means most of us are constantly checking our inboxes and reacting to whatever we find.
For years, time management gurus have been telling us to timebox our email use—set blocks of time to read and respond to messages at the beginning and end of the day, for example. But we can't resist those email alerts. The boss might need something! By responding to emails as they arrive, you set yourself up for a day of distraction and reaction at the expense of productivity.
The average worker gets 200 emails per day. If you think email traffic is getting worse, you are right. Email volume rose 30 percent in 2021. It is not just spam, at least not the malicious kind. Sales and marketing teams have access to contact databases and social media advertising platforms that make it easy to contact strangers with their pitches.
What to Do Instead
Take these steps to prevent email from controlling your day:
- Make a to-do list for the next day at the end of your workday. End-of-day planning is the Ivy Lee Method, and it will help you start the next day with priorities in place.
- Turn alerts off. Don't let the pings and notifications of new messages distract you from your work.
- Check email at intervals. Timeboxing for email works wonders.
Time Management Mistake #2: Multitasking
Multitasking does not work. Let's say that again. Multitasking does not work, and this is not a matter of opinion. Research proves the myth of multitasking.
Numerous studies show that multitasking:
Multitasking creates stress, decreases productivity, and damages your brain. If you are one of the 92 percent of people who, for example, check emails (that again!) and do other tasks in meetings, for instance, you need to stop.
Guess what? When you think you are multitasking, you’re not. "When we think we're multitasking, most often we aren't really doing two things at once, but instead, we're doing individual actions in rapid succession or task-switching," said neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu, Ph.D.
It takes about 25 minutes to move between tasks. This is called "switching time," and it’s the time it takes to change your focus and back out of whatever you were doing and refocus on something else.
"The more we multitask, the less we actually accomplish, because we slowly lose our ability to focus enough to learn," Kubu said. "If we're constantly attempting to multitask, we don't practice tuning out the rest of the word to engage in deeper processing and learning."
What to Do Instead
Here are some ways you can kick the multitasking habit:
- Divide your time into three 25-minute segments to focus on single tasks, with a five-minute break. This is called the Pomodoro Technique.
- Shut your computer during in-person meetings and shut unnecessary screens (like email) during video calls.
- Use your messaging app (Slack, etc.) status to put a do-not-disturb when you want to focus on a task without interruption.
Time Management Mistake #3: Confusing the Urgent and Important Work
Former president and general Dwight Eisenhower famously said, "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent."
Getting caught up in urgent but unimportant work is a habit we fall into easily. Have you ever been asked to do an "emergency task" for someone only to find that no one even used your work? It was urgent to whoever asked for help, but it wasn’t necessary.
Here is how to know if you are succumbing to "the tyranny of the urgent:"
- You put out fires all day.
- You are busy but not getting to your core responsibilities.
- Your to-do list never gets written, let alone done.
- You do a lot for people other than your direct manager.
- You feel trapped by the reputation you built for never saying "no."
You are not alone. The brain is wired to prioritize urgency. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people invariably choose urgent tasks over important ones, even though the urgent tasks offer lower rewards. It is called "The Mere Urgency Effect."
"Results from five experiments demonstrate that people are more likely to perform unimportant tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively lower payoffs) over important tasks (i.e., tasks with objectively better payoffs) when the unimportant tasks are characterized merely by spurious urgency."
What to Do Instead
The best way to get focused on your most important work is by using the Eisenhower Matrix.
- Steven Covey of "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" turned Eisenhower's quote into a decision-making matrix with four quadrants. It is called "The Eisenhower Matrix." The matrix is a valuable tool that can help you rewire how you work and live. Here is how it works:
- Upper left: Urgent and Important--must be done by you.
- Upper right: Important but not urgent--schedule it for later.
- Lower left: Urgent but not important--delegate to others.
- Lower right: Not important or urgent-don't do it at all.
Important and urgent
Do it now
Important but not urgent
Urgent but not important
Not important or urgent
Don't do it
- Don't accept artificial deadlines. One of the reasons people tend to choose urgent tasks is because of "perceived expiration," the researchers found. If a deadline makes your heart race, question the consequences of missing it.
- If you have a hard time identifying urgent and important tasks, make a list of everything you did at the end of the day and assess the value of that work.
Time Management Mistake #4: Procrastination
Just like we are wired to do urgent tasks first, we are wired to put off unpleasant tasks. And like "The Mere Urgency Effect," researchers have identified why we procrastinate. Yes, people study this stuff. "Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem," said Dr. Tim Pychyl, who works with the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa.
Call it what you want. Procrastination ruins productivity. Pychyl and his group call procrastination "the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions." "Short-term mood repair" means we get a short-term mood boost of relief when we let ourselves off the hook.
We also get a boost from completing easy, more trivial tasks. Knocking easy work off your to-do list first thing feels good. But it also uses up the time of day when most people are at their peak energy and productivity zone. You know how it goes. Eventually, you feel guilty, stressed, and anxious when you procrastinate.
What to Do Instead
To overcome procrastination, you can do what Mark Twain recommended, "eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day."
- Eat the Frog! The name may sound funny, but it is a productivity system and book that teaches you to "stop procrastinating and get more done in less time."
- Start small. Eat the frog's leg first. Sometimes getting started on a dreaded task shows you that it is not so hard, and you get it done.
- Ask for help or training. If you feel like you don't have the right skills for your work, ask a coworker for tips or take a course to build your confidence.
Time Management Mistake #5: Doing Everything Yourself
There are only 24 hours in a day. That will not change. That means there is only so much you can do yourself. Trying to do everything will limit your productivity and your career and business growth.
Here are the reasons executives give for doing everything themselves, according to the Society for Human Resources Management:
- You want to save money by doing everything yourself.
- You think no one else can do something as well as you.
- You fear it will take too long to show someone else how to do something.
- You are a perfectionist and don't trust others to care as much as you do about quality.
- You want to be needed.
- You enjoy the work.
- You don't want to burden employees or associates with more work.
- You have a hard time saying no.
If you insist on doing everything yourself, your business will be limited to the time you can spend on it. You also end up paying yourself to do tasks you could outsource at a lower cost.
A survey of 10,000 workers by Asana found that they spend more than half their time doing busy work instead of their core responsibilities. Asana calls this "work about work" instead of "work on work." Work about work is stuff like:
- Email management.
- Scheduling meetings.
- Searching for information.
- Updating project status.
- Planning travel and filing expenses.
- Invoicing and payment processing.
These are the tasks the Eisenhower Matrix would deem "urgent but not important" you can offload to others.
What to Do Instead
Delegate. "I would never have achieved what I did without learning the art of delegation," Virgin founder Richard Branson said. If you are trying to do everything yourself, odds are you are not very good at delegating. Here are some tips to help you get started.
- Use the Eisenhower Matrix to identify those urgent but not important tasks.
- Automate what you can. Use software to automate tasks like responses to online forms.
- Hire a virtual assistant. A part-time remote assistant can do many administrative tasks Asana calls work about work at a much lower cost than paying yourself to do those tasks.
Supercharge Your Productivity
Being busy but unproductive is no fun. If you are making these time management mistakes, your schedule is out of control, and it doesn't have to be that way.
As with most challenges we face, the first step is admitting you have a problem. If your problem is time management, the tools and tips listed here will help you get organized, focus your time on the most critical work, and supercharge your productivity.
There is no better time to get started.
About the Author: Bill is Prialto's senior content marketing manager and writes about the future of work and how businesses can be more productive and successful. His work has appeared in the World Economic Forum Agenda blog and CIO magazine.