The Ultimate Guide to Time Management: Get More Done with Your Time

by: Matt McCormick

If you’ve read the first two parts of this series, you’ve learned how to structure your day to be more efficient, along with some techniques to add more time to your day. This third and final post will put the last piece of the puzzle in place: how to more effectively use the time you have.

Your Hard Work Isn’t Paying Off

You’re working 8 hours a day. Not at work for 8 hours, but actually working. Eight hours of real work in a day is a stunning achievement. It’s hard to do and you should be getting a lot done.

But you’re not.

Your business is struggling, your customers are angry, or your boss thinks you’re underperforming. How can that be? You work so hard. Why, despite all this effort, can you not good make progress? The answer is most likely one of two things: you’re unproductive because you’ve got the wrong priorities or because you don’t have the energy to produce great results.

Now is a good time for me to repeat two fundamental pillars of time management from Part 1. Memorize these and repeat them every time you start to get overwhelmed by how much you have to do:

  1. You will never, EVER, get through your entire to-do list.
  2. You need the focus and energy to get the right things done.

Prioritization

If you are amazingly productive at getting unimportant things done, you are not actually productive.

I’d love to take credit for what I’m about to say but I can’t. It was first mentioned by Dwight  Eisenhower when he said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This idea was then crystalized by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Dr. Covey broke every task down to one of four basic categories:

  1. Urgent and important
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important
  4. Not urgent and not important

Items #1 and #4 are usually easy to identify and prioritize. If your website server goes down, you have something urgent and important. You drop everything and do it. An old high school boyfriend emailing for child rearing advice is probably not urgent or important, and should then be ignored.

I would argue that item #2 is also easy to identify. You know what’s important for your business, career, or life. However, it is the items in #3 that end up destroying our productivity.

Urgent Does Not Equal Important

The first time I read this theory, I was momentarily confused. Urgent, by definition, seems to mean important, right? I want you to reconsider that notion. Instead, think of “urgent” as something that demands immediate attention, but may or may not be important. It might be possible to ignore something “urgent” without too many negative consequences.

It’s extremely easy to let urgent, unimportant issues derail your work day. Here’s the question to ask yourself when determining whether something is important: If this item were to never be completed, would it have a serious impact on my business or career? If the answer to that question is yes, then the item is important. If the answer to that question is no, then it’s not really important.

Consider this example from my business. A brand new employee has no idea how much all our iPhone repairs cost. The phone rings and he answers the phone. It’s a customer asking how much to replace a screen. The employee puts the customer on hold and, since I’m working in the store, asks me what the price is.

Here’s the question: Where does this item stand on the list of priorities?

The answer depends. For me, if I don’t answer that question right then, my business might lose a single customer but more likely the employee would figure it out on his own answer it. So for me, it’s not something that’s going to significantly impact my business. It’s urgent but not important. This means I shouldn’t let it interrupt my other work.

However, for my employee, if he never figures out how to answer this question, it will be very bad for his career. This means it is both urgent and important for him. He should let it interrupt his other work.

(How I actually handle this is to show the employee how to look up the service in our system. My work day is distracted for a little bit but by teaching him how to fish, so to speak, I won’t be distracted by this type of issue again.)

It’s About #2

Here is my suggestion for how to prioritize your day. First, I don’t believe in prioritized lists. Some people do, but I think you end up spending too much time prioritizing. Instead, I recommend keeping lists of only important tasks. Some of them will be time sensitive so you need to note that. In general, though, just make sure that what’s on your lists is actually important.

This means anything that fits into category #3 or #4 is not on your lists. As you scan your lists you might see some of these items and it may feel scary to remove them. But, if they’re not important, why would you do them? You have too many important things to do to waste time on unimportant things.

If you’re following my suggestions from the first part of this series on keeping weekly and daily to-do lists, you’re assured that everything on your lists is important. Now, those eight hours a day you’re working will result in significant progress that you can be proud of.

Focused Energy

You’ve followed all of my advice to this point: structured your day, managed to find a bunch of extra time, and organized a to-do list full of important items only. But, alas, you are still falling short. There is one last key component to being productive: energy.

I’ve read a lot of biographies and one thing successful people seem to have in common is a tremendous amount of energy. It’s Bruce Springsteen tearing up the stage in a 5-hour concert, Sam Walton tirelessly touring his stores as well the competition’s stores (he once said that no one in the world had been to more K-Marts than he had), or Cornelius Vanderbilt’s amazing stamina to build a railroad empire after the age of 60 (after he’d already built a massive shipping empire).

Being productive is a key part of success. Having focused energy is the key to being productive.

You Are What You Eat…and Drink…and Exercise…and Sleep

Imagine buying an amazing and expensive sports car. Can you imagine rarely changing its oil? Putting the cheapest gasoline you can find in it? Never taking it for a tune-up? Never washing or waxing it? Driving 100,000 miles on the initial tires?

Of course you can’t. You realize that if you treat your expensive, brand-new sports car like crap, it won’t be long before it is crap. Now, realize that you are a lot more valuable than any car.

I’m constantly amazed at how badly many people treat their bodies and still expect them to perform. If you don’t eat/drink well, don’t get enough sleep, don’t exercise, and you’re constantly pushing yourself as hard as you can, you’re going to break down like the 1984 Buick my parents got me for my first car. The one that won “heap of the month” in my high school newspaper.

At many levels, your body is a machine. Like all machines, it can only perform at peak levels when it’s well oiled and well cared for. What I’m about to mention here is not a list of tips, but rather, musts:

  1. 8-hours of sleep a night. It’s essential to letting your mind and body restore and getting both to perform at top levels.
  2. Eat breakfast every morning. I have been guilty of ignoring this rule in the past and by 10:30 in the morning, I’m losing focus and starting to feel rundown. It takes 5 minutes to fry a couple of eggs, eat a bowl of healthy cereal, or grab a piece of fruit and some nuts. There’s no excuse for skipping breakfast.
  3. Eat well. Someone once asked me in a restaurant to look at what people were eating and asked how many nutrients were in the food. The answer was almost zero. It was mostly pasta, potato, and bread. Delicious stuff but it has little value other than calories. It’s not the substance of life. You need to make sure your diet consists of significant amounts of fruits and vegetables.
  4. Drink lots of water. One of the first things to go when you get dehydrated is cognitive ability – a key ingredient in being effective. How many of you reading this article woke up, and had a cup of coffee, had a diet coke with lunch, and finished the day with a glass of wine or a beer? You’re dehydrated. This is such a simple thing to fix: just make a point to drink lots of hydrating fluids.
  5. Exercise. This is so important to keeping you healthy and energized that it’s going to get its own section. You need to be exercising regularly.
  6. Rest. I’m not talking about sleep. I’m talking about spending time relaxing. It’s critical to recharge your batteries. It’s also the reason we work – to enjoy other things in life. Stressed out? Take the afternoon off and go watch a movie. Lay on the couch and listen to your favorite album. Go play frisbee with a friend in the park. Trust me on this, your world will not fall apart if you’re off the grid for two hours, but you might fall apart if you don’t take the time to be.

Exercise Does Not Have to Take Hours

I don’t need to really convince you about the importance of exercise. You already know that it’s not only good for your health, but helps keep you alert and energized. In other words, it will make you more productive. You know this – yet do you routinely skip exercising because there’s no time? Well, you’re lying to yourself. The real reason you’re not exercising because you’re lazy.

If you really prioritized exercise, you could do it. You don’t have to pack a bag, drive to the gym, work out, shower, and then drive home. That could easily take 90 minutes to 2 hours and you might not have time for that. But how about setting aside 30 minutes every day for a vigorous walk while talking to a friend or family member on the phone? Or holding some work meetings/brainstorming sessions while walking around the block?

Another option is to get a bike trainer or treadmill at home. Then, you can work out while catching up on Mad Men. No reason to just sit on the couch and stare at the TV. Get some exercise at the same time.

I personally like to jog. Not only am I getting exercise in, but I use that 40 minutes of running time to think about problems I’m trying to solve. One solution I came up with while running helped to generate 30% more revenue for our company overnight (it involved how we compensated our store managers). I’ve also come up with marketing ideas, new designs for our website, hiring concepts, and much more.

Here’s a great 35 minute workout I use when I’m really strapped for time. And when I say 35 minutes, I mean from the time I decide to work out until I’m showered and dressed:

  1. Get a jump rope and a timer set to one minute and keep looping.
  2. Start the timer and jump rope for two minutes.
  3. Then do one minute of pushups (on your knees if you need to).
  4. Then do one minute of sit-ups.
  5. Stretch for one minute.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 three more times (a total of 4 sets).

It takes me 5 minutes to throw on work out clothes and grab a jump rope, the work-out itself is 20 tough minutes, and it takes about 10 minutes to shower and change clothes afterwards. That’s 35 minutes in total.

If you want more suggestions, just ask in the comments and I’d be happy to give more. Have suggestions of your own? I’d love to hear them.

It might not be your fault, but you still have to take responsibility.

I grew up the son of hard-working Wisconsin farmers. They instilled an attitude that your success is your responsibility. It doesn’t come easy. It’s hard work. They were the type of people, as I often am, to tell someone that’s complaining to suck it up and just do it.

But what if your lack of focus and direction really isn’t your fault? What if your brain is just wired in such a way that it constantly gets off track?

I used to think that was an excuse, but not anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I still think that most people who claim they just can’t do it are lazy. But, I have a very close friend who is one of the most motivated and hard working people I know. He’s also incredibly bright. Yet, he struggled through 20 years of entrepreneurship to get beyond a certain level of success. He just couldn’t get over the top.

Then one day, he called me to say that his life had changed. At the urging of friends, he went to a doctor and ended up testing off the charts for adult ADHD. He was a proud person that also subscribed to the McCormick household motto of, “Just suck it up.” He resisted the doctor’s advice to take medication, but he finally relented.

In no time, he was finding that he could start a task, stick to it, and get it done. I could finally hold a conversation with him that went from point A to point B without going through every other letter of the alphabet. And his business success started to come. Now, in a fairly short amount of time, through his business, he has taken himself from barely scraping by to providing a good living. This story was echoed almost identically in a blog post I read recently by Erica Douglas. I forwarded this post to my good friend, and he said she could have been writing his biography.

The point of this is two-fold. The first point is that it might not matter what you do or how hard you try, your brain’s chemistry might be wired to hold you back. If that’s the case, get some help.

The second point is that you still have to take responsibility. Both my friend and Erica Douglas spent countless years working hard, but always struggling. Going to the doctor for medication wasn’t the first choice. But after all that work, they realized they needed help and took action to get it.

*Disclaimer: This article is not meant to provide any official health or medical advice. Please always consult with your doctor first on all major health-related decisions.*

Now, Go Get it Done

There’s no weekly homework this time around. But there is a challenge: Take what we’ve talked about over the past three weeks and make the ideas work for you. Remember the motto I’m always repeating: “Baby steps.” Pick one or two things every week or month, and really work to make them habits. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Work on doing both an hour earlier.
  2. Keep lists of only the important things you need to do. Commit every day to getting three of those things done.
  3. Start living a healthier lifestyle. Eat right, drink more water, and figure out how to exercise at least 4 days a week.
  4. Keep your email organized and your inbox empty.
  5. Read a good book on effective delegation and start working on it.
  6. Ask yourself this question whenever an interruption occurs: “Is it important? If I don’t do it will it have a negative impact on my life?” If the answer is, “no,” dismiss it and get back to the important tasks at hand.
  7. Be patient and forgive yourself on bad days. Think about what went wrong and work to prevent it from happening tomorrow.

I would be a liar if I said I had all the answers. I don’t. I’m learning a lot of this as I go,  so I have one request and one last piece of advice.

My request: Please help me and other readers out by leaving your own suggestions below. Do you have a technique that works well for you? Share it with us. Have you been trying out and finding some of my suggestions effective? Some ineffective? That’s great! Tell us about it.

That brings me to my last piece of advice: No one is successful in a vacuum. Are you struggling to manage your time? Ask friends, coworkers, or colleagues for advice. Ask someone to hold you accountable. Offer to hold someone else accountable. And always feel free to give me a shout. My Twitter handle is in the bio below, and I’d be happy to chat with anyone that wants to.

I’d wish you luck but you don’t need it. You just need to choose to make whatever you want to change happen.

About the author Matt McCormick @Technori
Matt McCormick is founder and owner of JCD Repair - an iPhone, iPod, & iPad repair store with locations in Chicago, Seattle, and Madison, WI. In previous lives, he's run a one-man company building websites for small businesses, been a developer at Microsoft, lectured on operating systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and spent three years selling robotics equipment. He has a Bachelor's in Mechanical Engineering and a Master's in Computer Science. He also reads too many business books and is frequently up for a beer.

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