The Art (and Business) of Finding More Time: 10 Ways to Organize Your Time and Resources for Maximum ROI

Concrete strategies to gain control of prioritizing your tasks, managing your time and getting yourself organized; Thriving in the Workplace All-in-One For Dummies

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Hoboken, NJ — May 28, 2010 — Time is money. We've all heard it before, but these days it bears repeating. Yes, it's always been important for workers to make sure that they're doing the right things and staying on task, but in shaky economic times it's a matter of survival (your own, career-wise, as well as your company's). Yet nearly all of us are guilty of sabotaging our performances to some degree because we fail to go on the offensive against two specific threats: disorganization and poor time management.

Well, that's true, you might agree. "I know that I sometimes get my priorities mixed up, and that I lose one minute here and there," you might say. "But I'm just a regular Joe — not an efficiency or organizational expert. How can I improve the way I spend my time?"

Enter Thriving in the Workplace All-in-One For Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., May 2010). Comprised of seven books in one handy volume, this reference book aims to give people of all ages, in any job, and in any type of workplace, the information, tips and action plans needed to boost professional value, increase visibility and manage stress.

It's all expert advice — very expert. Thriving in the Workplace All-in-One For Dummies is written by a team well-known authors, including Marty Brounstein, Michael C. Donaldson, Peter Economy, Allen Elkin, Sue Fox, Kevin Johnson, Malcolm Kushner, Susan Manning, Mark McCormack, Bob Nelson, Vivian Scott, Dirk Zeller and Zig Ziglar.

And to the specific relief of the pressed-for-time and organizationally challenged among us, "Book II: Getting Organized and Managing Your Time: Smart Ways to Preempt Problems" provides tools to streamline yourself from nine to five — and beyond.

There's no doubt about it: organization and time management are essential for job stability, career advancement and contribution to your company's well-being. Read on for some ideas to help you take control of your time and boost your own hourly value:

Learn to live by the 80/20 rule. Generally speaking, only 20 percent of the things you spend your time doing produce 80 percent of the results you want to achieve. Yes, you read that correctly! To maximize your productivity, then, you need to identify the key 20 percent activities that are most effective and prioritize them.

To get started, take a look at how you currently use your time. What do you spend most of your day doing? How many things on your to-do list get checked off? Then, identify what you'd like for your 80 percent — your results — to look like. Once you know where you stand and where you'd like to go, reflow your priorities and focus the first fruits of your time and energy on achieving them.

Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize! Prioritizing definitely falls into the "easier said than done" category. After all, there are so many responsibilities that have to be met, and so many "what-ifs" are involved in each decision. It's enough to give anyone a headache! So most of us simply manage by putting out the fires that are burning brightest instead of drawing up battle plans for tomorrow, next week and next year.

If you want to tap into your productivity's full capacity, though, you've got to know exactly what's in front of you and what's coming — and you also need to know in no uncertain terms which ones should be done in which order. In that way, you can progressively work through all the minor tasks that lead to the greater steps that, in time, lead you to achieving your goals. (See tipsheet on page 3 of this article for ideas on how to prioritize tasks.)

Divide (and conquer!) your documents. For many workers, the amount of papers and e-mails that cross the desk on a daily basis is nearly overwhelming — and figuring out how, when and if you should address them can take up more time than the actual tasks themselves. To make sure that you don't drown in a sea of memos, directives, spreadsheets and more, you need to figure out immediately what to do with each one.

Whether you're dealing with physical papers or electronic documents, you have four options to consider whenever something new comes into your possession: Act on it, file it away to be acted on later, delegate it to another, or toss it. That's it. Make it your goal to touch (or click on) each document only once before putting it into one of these categories. This will ensure that you handle each item as quickly, efficiently and accurately as possible. (And guess what? The boldest move you can make is to be honest with yourself about what you can and will make time for — and then having the courage to pitch everything else.)

Make your desk a "no parking" zone. This may come as a shock, so brace yourself: your desk isn't a storage area or a catch-all ... it's a workspace! Remember, less is more. The more pictures, notes, boxes, tools and so on that park themselves on your desk, the greater your odds of being distracted. What's more, a topsy-turvy desk translates into greater stress and the misleading feeling that you have all the time in the world to complete your projects. And let's face it: clutter is never conducive to good thinking.

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Be brutal. Remove everything that isn't absolutely necessary from your desk. Put family photos on your credenza or bookcase. Store your stapler and tape in a desk drawer. And don't be afraid to pitch what you don't use. If you haven't touched something in a year and it doesn't have sentimental value, get rid of it. You'll be amazed by how much a clear workspace promotes a clear mind!

Ask very specific questions. We've all experienced data overload — you might have felt as though your head would explode if you tried to cram one more number, date, spec or explanation into it! Sometimes this avalanche of data finds you regardless of what you've done. But other times, you invite it through a lack of specificity. When you ask a vague question — or one that does not include the salient details — the answer is likely to come back in a variety of forms, most less than helpful.

Specificity cuts out confusion and extraneous detail. When you ask a question, make sure to communicate precisely why you need to know the answer, and what its purpose is. For example, instead of asking, "What is our company's current payroll burden?", you might ask, "What is the average monthly amount we're paying in pretax salaries (no benefits) in all our U.S. operations? I don't need a breakdown, just one number." You'll find that one number much easier to deal with than a 92-page listing of employees and a breakdown of their salaries and benefits!

Guard your domain against time encroachers. Being successful in time management means adhering to your schedule, which happens through controlling interruptions. Essentially, you need to think of your workday as a fortress to which you control access. No, you shouldn't become a hermit, but you should be on your guard against people and situations that pull you away from your goals, dreams, objectives and schedule.

So, how do you discourage "invaders" from coming around? Try closing your office door for starters, or putting a post-it on your cubicle that reads "Busy. Do not disturb!" Also, be proactive in choosing the ground on which you engage others. Reach out to coworkers and collaborators so that they don't drop in on you. Schedule as many meetings ahead of time as possible. Discipline yourself to check your e-mail once every hour (if realistic) instead of every five minutes. Remember: It's your time, so make sure you're in charge and not at the mercy of others!

Make preemptive "appreciation strikes." Unless you work in a vacuum, you'll inevitably have certain clients or contacts who suck up a lot of your time and energy because they want to be involved in every step of the process, say, or because they're just friendly by nature. To cut down on their well-meaning but workflow-disrupting interruptions, employ a preemptive appreciation strike!

Send a handwritten thank-you card for their business or for their birthdays. Make a (brief!) call to them on a regular basis. Deliver added value for your services by, for example, forwarding articles of personal or professional interest. Most likely, you'll find that these individuals will be quite content with your relationship — and they won't be constantly pestering you in order to improve it.

Plan your procrastination. You've known how disastrous procrastination can be since grade school. If you leave something to the last minute, you're stressed and your task may not be accomplished satisfactorily — or at all! Nevertheless, it's a stark fact that you can't do everything at once. Some things you simply have to put off.

The secret to successful procrastination is to do it deliberately, based on the time you have and the status of the tasks. Take a look at what's on your plate and choose the tasks that are the least time-sensitive and least at-risk, and then postpone them for a bit. In other words, allow yourself to procrastinate. But give yourself a deadline by which to complete those tasks. Taking your time can sometimes be a good thing — decisions made in haste or tasks completed under pressure might result in a damaging outcome.

Capitalize on the carrot-or-stick principle. Remember when you were a kid and you had a chore to do? "Clean your room now, and you can stay up and watch a movie," your mom said. "If you don't, though, you're going straight to bed after supper." Well, that approach still works today. The nature of humans is to move away from pain and toward pleasure, so when you're setting up a prioritized plan, use the carrot-or-stick approach to motivate yourself toward accomplishment.

When you feel the urge to procrastinate, what you need is an incentive (the carrot!) to keep pressing on. For example, promise yourself a latte and a scone after you turn your proposal in to your boss. Or, on a larger scale, plan a Caribbean vacation as a reward for completing your freelance writing project. On the other hand, don't forget about the stick. Failing to meet your responsibilities always has consequences. They may be immediate or delayed, but they'll always come, so figure out and remind yourself of what they are.

Check in with yourself every Friday. One way to determine how effectively you're managing your time is to check your results by tracking them on an ongoing basis. Each Friday evening, perform both a weekly review that focuses on the past week and a periodic review of where you stand in relation to your overall goals.

This is a time for you to replay the tape of the week, looking at the highs and lows. What problems and distractions did you face? What made you want to pull your hair out? On the other hand, what worked well? Which days proceeded smooth as silk? And most importantly, what were the differences in those days besides the outcome?

As for the periodic review, look back over your job description, key responsibilities and the ways in which your performance and success are measured. Then ask yourself how well (or if!) you're meeting those responsibilities and expectations. In spite of side tasks that pop up and tangents that present themselves, it's essential to remember why you're "there" in the first place.

In the end, we all have the same amount of hours in our days, but we don't all use that time equally well. However, if you take control of managing your time and organizing your resources, you'll be assured of using them in a way that you really want to — and you'll reap a return that fulfills your life and attracts successes.

It all boils down to this: know what your time is worth. And invest it wisely!

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Prioritizing Pointers: Five Steps to a More Productive Workday

From Thriving in the Workplace All-in-One For Dummies (Wiley Publishing, Inc., May 2010)

Prioritizing daily tasks is key to successful time management. When you prioritize, you make sure you accomplish the most important tasks first. Make time management a habit, and your stress level (and your boss's!) will thank you. Follow this process:

1. Start with a master list. Write down every single task, both mundane and critical, that you need to accomplish. Don't rank the items at this point. Be sure to include routine duties. Neglecting to schedule the humdrum to-do items can topple your well-intentioned time-block schedule.

2. Determine the top priority, A-level tasks — things that will lead to significant consequences if not done today. Focusing on consequences creates an urgency factor so you can better use your time. If you have a scheduled presentation today, that task definitely hits the A-list.

3. Categorize the rest of the tasks. Use these categories:

  • B-level tasks: Activities that may have a mildly negative consequence if not completed today;
  • C-level tasks: Activities that have no penalty if not completed today;
  • D-level tasks: D is for delegate. These are actions that someone else can take on;
  • E-level tasks: Tasks that could be eliminated. Don't even bother writing an E next to them—just mark them out completely.

4. Rank the tasks within each category. If your list has six A items, four B items, three C items, and two D items, your six A tasks obviously move to the top of the list, but now you have to prioritize these six items in order: A-1, A-2, A-3, and so forth.

What about the D items? They're ripe for being delegated to someone else. Consider the 85/10/5 rule: You tend to invest 85 percent of your time doing tasks that anyone else could do, 10 percent of your time to actions that some people could handle, and just 5 percent of your energy goes to work that only you can accomplish. Hone in on the critical 5 percent and recognize the remaining tasks that are easiest to delegate.

5. Repeat this process each day. Some of the Bs will move up, but others will stay in the B category. Some of the Cs may leapfrog the Bs and become the highest priority As.