Technique #1: Make and use lists. There is not a single time management discipline or system on earth that doesn’t revolve around making and using lists. You cannot carry it all in your head. For years, I’ve operated with four basic lists:
1. My Schedule. This is for the entire year, day by day.
2. Things-to-Do List. This is a basic “Things-to-Do” list organized by month, week, and day, prioritized as As, Bs and Cs.
3. People-to-Call List. My third list is a “People-to-Call” list, also prioritized alphabetically.
4. Conference Planner. This is just a page for each person I interact with a lot, where I jot down things I need to talk to them about as they occur to me in between meetings or conversations.
You have to get some sort of regimented, regularly used list-making system working for you. If you aren’t making lists, you probably aren’t making a lot of money either.
Technique #2: Tickle the memory with tickler files. The idea is simple: You have 90 file folders: red ones numbered 1 through 30, blue ones numbered 1 through 30, and white numbered ones 1 through 30 that represent the current month, next month and the month after that. Let’s assume you agree to follow up with a client on a particular matter on the 10th of next month. Take either that client’s whole file or that piece of correspondence or a handwritten note, and plop it into the blue file folder numbered 10. And forget it. On the 10th of next month, it’ll pop up all by itself and remind you to do it. Used right, tickler files reduce clutter, serve as automatic memory, and help organize daily activities.
Yes, I’m well aware that there are all sorts of “contact management programs” for computers, pads and phones that can substitute for the file folders in a drawer. If you prefer that, by all means, be my guest. But manual, automated, physical, virtual, or hybrid, a tickler file system can be a very good friend.
Technique #3: Minimize meetings. Nothing ever got done in a meeting. I hate ’em. For a lot of people, meetings are a place to hide out. Or preen and be important. But they’re not a place to actually do work or get anything done. You need a strategy to avoid them. If you lead meetings, you need a strategy to abbreviate and focus them. If you must attend meetings, you need a strategy to escape from them at will.
Technique #4: Block your time. Most people’s schedules only have their locked-in-stone appointments with others. Mine also has my pre-allocated, locked-in-stone appointments with myself and my work. For each year, a lot of time gets locked down months ahead. For example, I clump most of my necessary phone appointments during a month into one day and book my Phone Day in each month a year ahead.
Month to month, I book in various work appointments: speaking engagements, coaching meetings, the time blocks for writing my monthly newsletters or for work on a book. My goal is to have as little unassigned time as possible. If you lay your calendar out before you and pre-assign or block as much of your time as possible, as much in advance as possible, you will then leave yourself only a small amount of loose, unassigned time. By blocking time for important, high-value functions, you prevent the demands of others from moving your best-value activities from number one to number ten on your list, over and over again.
Technique #5: Profit from “odd lot” time. Everything is now portable. A seminar by a great speaker, just about any book ever published, how-to information of every variety–it’s all on audio CDs and DVDs, accessible through online media, inside your Kindle or Nook or iPad. You can use YouTube for something other than watching kittens water ski. Or you can make sure you have an actual book with you at all times. There is no excuse to simply waste time while waiting in an airport, stuck in traffic, parked in a reception room.
Some people give their odd-lot time to returning calls, texts or emails, or to talking on the phone. This is a mistake for three reasons. One, you’ll be doing it hurriedly and without proper preparation, and if any of it is important, it’s too important to do poorly. Two, it’s a bad precedent to set with those who have access to you and with whom you communicate. If you inject randomness, you lose the ability to impose organization. Three, it steals time you need to think, to read, to listen, to get and process input. Constant connectivity makes Jack a dull boy, dull meant as synonym for stupid.
Disciplined use of the time everybody else wastes can give you an edge. The now rich and famous writer of legal thrillers, Scott Turow, wrote his first novel using only his morning commutes into New York City on the train. All around him, others just killed the same time. For most people, these minutes don’t matter. But they can. So when you say to yourself “it’s only 10 minutes,” you miss the entire point of time.