I’ve been self-employed as a writer for 15 years, and I like to think my time management skills are pretty solid. I don’t sleep in during the week, or spend the afternoons binge-watching "The Act" on Hulu.
Still, there were times I felt unfocused or distracted or scattered. Apparently, I’m not the only one. Anita Williams Woolley, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says, “What all the major gurus of time management say is that people struggle when they don’t have clear goals and they focus on too many things at once.”
So with tasks snowballing and deadlines approaching, I took a close look at my workday habits and in late 2018 launched three strategies to help me stay on task and minimize distractions. They worked — for the first three months of 2019 I billed 65 percent more than I did in those same months in 2018.
These productivity boosts can’t get all the credit for the increase in my income. But knowing how much time I have available, and deciding the best ways to use that time, helped me get more of my work done efficiently. Here’s what I do differently now:
1. I PLAN OUT MY DAYS WITH ZERO-BASED SCHEDULING
This time-management system helps you build your focus by having you account for every minute of your day. Before I tried it, I had the wrong idea — I imagined a grim slog through tasks, checking one item off only to replace it with another, from dawn to dark, day after day. Not a minute free if an inspiring idea hit. No time to even make a cup of tea.
So I stumbled into it by accident. I started roughly mapping out my days in a paper notebook — not just my work assignments, but my early morning dog walks, evenings volunteering to teach English, and nights watching baseball (go Iron Pigs!)
I liked the sense of structure that zero-based scheduling gave to my day, so I traded up to the Self Journal (which I should note has a lot of other productivity-boosting features). I’ve added weekly, monthly, and quarterly planning to my routine. That planning helps beat procrastination — I can’t put off today’s research knowing that tomorrow is booked solid with interviews.
I’m not a scheduling zealot — I’ll allot a 10-minute task to a 30-minute block, so I have some cushion. I might leave an hour or two open in the afternoon, to be filled by whatever turns out to be a priority as the day goes on. And I see that this system could be valuable for weekends and days off, but for now I’m leaving those days free.
Time management and organization expert Frank Buck is a proponent of this gentler version of zero-based scheduling. “You can map out a typical week to see how much time really is spoken for and how much there is for serendipity,” he says.
I like having at least a rough idea of how my workday should unfold — the structure keeps me from jumping from task to task without a plan. Plus, the system forces me to estimate how long tasks might take, and seeing how accurate I am makes it easier to estimate the time I’ll need for future tasks.
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Williams Woolley thinks zero-based scheduling works well for a lot of people. “It really does make sure you’re not overly optimistic about how much you can fit in to the time allowed,” she says. “It helps people stay more realistic.”
She points out that it’s not for everybody. “There are people who really hate structure. They hate it when their day is scheduled,” she says. And it might not work for people in jobs where they have to be responsive because of their role or the expectations of their boss or other employees.
2. I GET SOME CONTROL OVER MY INBOX BY SNOOZING GMAIL
I know I’m only supposed to check my email a few times a day. But I need to send out emails to schedule interviews, share published articles with sources and request photos to run alongside stories. Every time I’m composing an email, I’m exposed to what’s sitting in my inbox, new or old.
I thought I could ignore those messages, but each of them was tugging at my attention a little bit — read me! Reply to me! Open this link! To pare down these distractions, I started either replying or snoozing everything in my inbox twice a day. I can usually clear my inbox in 10 or 15 minutes.
Buck is a fan of the snooze feature. “For years people had to use some other source to make that email go away and come back when you wanted it to,” he says.
It took me a while to get the hang of snoozing. At first, I would just push everything I could off to the defaults “tomorrow” or “next week.” Now I’m more thoughtful about when I want to see these messages again.
That’s a better tactic. “Snooze can supply a helpful reminder as long as you treat it the same as any other incoming email and put it in your main system of prioritizing tasks,” says Williams Woolley.
I like to keep my mornings clear for writing, so I snooze anything that can wait until 1 p.m. I use Gmail for work and personal communication, so nonurgent emails like bill payment reminders get snoozed until the 15th or the 30th of the month. Things I would like to read go to Friday afternoons, when the week is winding down. And anything that gets snoozed more than two or three times gets a hard look — can I delete this or unsubscribe?
3. I SCHEDULE TASKS FOR TIMES I’LL BE ABLE TO ACTUALLY DO THEM
I’m pretty good about managing appointments — for example, I learned long ago not to set the reminder for a flight for 10 minutes before takeoff. But my to-do tasks like following up with sources, sending out invoices, or remembering to pay quarterly taxes were just piling up in a non-prioritized list that felt so overwhelming I didn’t even want to look at it (not a good idea at tax time).
Now, I use Google Tasks to pop them onto the day they either need to be done or the day I think I’ll have time to get them done. Tasks work well with personal to-dos, too. My Costco shopping list, reminder to give the dog her medicine, and the registration deadline for the next SAT all get assigned tasks.
Some people, like me, blend tasks with calendars. Others like to keep them separate. Buck says, “That is one of those things heavily debated in the productivity space.” He prefers to keep his calendar clear for appointments, with a separate to-do list — in his case, on Remember the Milk — for things that could be done anytime today, say, or this week. He sees the calendar as a guide for where you need to be, and the tasks a guide for what you need to do.
Either way, tasks need due dates. “That keeps it from being this long list of tasks. It’s a whole bunch of short little lists,” Buck says. He says with task lists, when you think of something that needs to be done you can throw it on the list and give it a date. Then at the end of every day, you can identify the five important things you want to tackle the next day.
Williams Woolley points out one scenario where putting your tasks on your calendar can help boost your productivity — when you’re working with other people. “A major impediment can be linking up with other team members,” she says. “Teams are more productive and more effective when people are responding to each other fairly quickly.”
So, if you can schedule time to work on a project at the same time as your team members, you’ll be able to quickly ask questions of and respond to each other.
What I want to do is craft a list for tomorrow that’s irresistible. I want to word those tasks so clearly that it attracts me to them. I want to jump in and get them done.
Frank Buck, organization expert
Buck also recommends making your tasks seem easy. “What I want to do is craft a list for tomorrow that’s irresistible. I want to word those tasks so clearly that it attracts me to them. I want to jump in and get them done,” he says.
He compares the task list to a buffet. “People shy away from a long to-do list. They feel it’s so demoralizing. But when you walk into a buffet are you demoralized that there’s so much offered? You’re not going to eat it all. You’re going to make your choices, and tomorrow you get to come back again and try other things.”
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