I Road Tested 5 Time Management Strategies. Here’s What Worked.
OK, so I’m not great with time. I work as a freelance writer and regularly abandon my post to pluck out a rogue eyebrow hair, play guitar or chuck on a third and utterly unnecessary load of washing with little remorse. I know it’s unproductive, and I know I can do better.
So I decided to put some known time management tools to the test. Over three weeks and across several projects for a variety of clients, I road-tested five popular time management strategies.
Here’s how they performed:
#1 The Urgent-Important Or Eisenhower Matrix
This is a simple strategy in which you create a box and put “urgent” and “not urgent” on one axis, and “important” and “not important” on the other, allowing you to classify tasks into one of four categories:
- Urgent and important – capturing tasks that need to be completed immediately; those done reactively in response to unpredictable events or demands.
- Not urgent but important – denoting tasks of quality, and you should aim to increase the number of projects that reside in this square.
- Urgent but not important – is a deceptive little quadrant. It houses tasks that appear worth doing, but are not, and only act as distractions. Manage, but don’t prioritise these items.
- Not urgent and not important – this quadrant shouldn’t need explaining. It’s the waste quadrant and you should avoid tasks you’re inclined to place here. They are neither important nor urgent, so ditch ‘em.
The beauty of this matrix is that it can be drawn in a notebook, marked up in an Excel spreadsheet or accessed via apps like Priority Matrix.
It’s effective at visually highlighting how misguided our use of time can be, which is an important lesson.
It fails, however, to determine how long tasks take, and relies on your ability to objectively classify work items. If, like me, you’re inclined to distraction, you may need a slightly more heavy-handed approach.
#2 The Pomodoro Technique
Take a timer, set 25 minutes on it. Now, work furiously for those minutes without any distraction. No emails, no quick bill paying, and absolutely no Facebook.
When the 25 minutes is up, take a five-minute break. Stretch, make a tea or fine, look at Facebook. Those five minutes are yours to be spent on non-work tasks.
Then repeat. At your fourth or fifth block, take a longer break, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. It’s that simple.
Software entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo coined it the Pomodoro Technique because he preferred a small tomato timer, but you can use any gosh darn timer you like.
The technique is a favourite of writer John Birmingham, who says it was “probably the most effective time management tool I picked up…I’m still using it years later. And on those days when I don’t it? My productivity falls off a cliff.” Birmingham is the author of a book called How To Be A Writer, so the guy knows some stuff.
The Pomodoro Technique works because it breaks down your time and demands you be as effective as possible in small bursts. It feels, and is achievable. And, with breaks of only five minutes, you suddenly realise it’s not possible to quickly look at social media or just respond to a few emails. Those things take time and are precisely the sort of distractions the Pomodoro Technique works to combat.
You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve once you start juicing those babies. I certainly was.
#3 Eat That Frog Concept
A book with the title Eat that Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time is pretty clear in its intention, and while first published in 2001, I only came across it a few years ago after my manager cast a copy across my desk. Subtle, yeah?
The title is based on a quote by writer Mark Twain, who surmised that, “Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” And that’s the essence of the concept: Do your worst task first, while you’re fresh, focused and unencumbered by meetings or other distractions. Then it’s done.
This strategy is a good one, because sometimes it’s not until you’ve done the hardest or most dreaded task that you realise how much stress not doing it was causing you. You might even find that it wasn’t so hard or awful after all.
While mastering your frog eating, you’ll probably develop a more realistic sense of how long different tasks take, and knowing this helps you manage hard work more effectively in the future. Toad-ally awesome.
I love lists, but they’re bringing me down. I write one every day to summarise the long list of personal, professional and completely unrelated things I want to achieve. Do I get much of it done? No. Why? Because I write down the things I know I can get done, just to have the satisfaction of crossing them off.
Admitting you have a problem is the first step though, right?
That’s not to say they’re totally ineffective, but using lists to manage time efficiently seems to suffer the same shortcomings of the Urgency-Importance Matrix. It relies too heavily on your ability to organise tasks suitably.
However, should you choose to persist with a list, create something that is tailored to you and your work. Lists should always be informed and structured around questions like, “If I get nothing else done today, what single task do I need to complete to make me feel accomplished?” and “How many people are affected by my work?”
#5 An Hour Of Emails In The Morning; An Hour In The Evening
This is a theory I’ve heard bandied about by time-poor colleagues at a range of workplaces, so I thought it worth putting to the test.
Start your day by dedicating an hour to emails exclusively; let’s say between 9am to 10am.
Then, close your email program and focus on meetings, project work or completing outstanding tasks without being interrupted by the pings and ding-a-lings we know so herald the arrival of a new email.
Allow another hour at the end of your day, between 4pm and 5pm for example, to conduct a final review of emails before heading home with a satisfied grin smeared across your face.
Emails can be a rabbit warren of distraction, so any strategy to reduce the frequency with which they invade your day is worth trying. However, its success varies significantly depending on your role.
For example, if you’re a finance manager, you might be able to have strict on-and-off email hours, but if you’re an executive assistant whose role is centred around writing, responding to, and consolidating emails for others, it may not be at all feasible.
As a writer, and someone who relies on emails for pitching, feedback and submission of work, it had only limited value.
Izzy Tolhurst is a copywriter and editor. She writes about music, the arts, employment and international development. She also sings and plays an impressively amateur level of guitar in Melbourne band Go Get Mum. Find her rambling on Twitter @izzytolhurst