Six strategic steps for effective time management

When a deadline is approaching for submitting a project or assignment, many of my students (and managers around me) start wondering about effective time management. They ask how great achievers of our time, like Elon Musk and Jack Ma, can handle so many projects at once and effectively manage their precious time. My answer is that they use sophisticated scientific approaches to effective time management. Here are six essential steps for developing strategies for effective time management

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Frame from the film "Alice in Wonderland"

1. Systematic approach

Stephen Covey in his classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People teaches one very important lesson, which applies to everyone. The lesson is that an effective time manager needs to develop a personalized and systematic approach to time management by identifying and tailoring the most effective management system for individual needs. The key is to develop your own operational code or ritual in writing down your actions, goals, objectives and/or plans. In our class exercises, we brainstorm special notes, charts and tables or work on utilizing an application on smart gadget. Whichever system you choose, the important thing is to consistently use it, starting right now – not next Monday or next month or next year.

2. Set priorities strategically

The idea of setting short-, medium- and long-term priorities strategically is so important for effective time management that the MIT Sloan Executive program even teaches in depth what they call “Seven characteristics of effective strategic priorities.” The main challenge is how to wisely identify your priorities without falling into two essential traps – building a dream castle or flying too low. 

Many classic time-management books suggest using SWOT analysis (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) or its numerous variations (important-not urgent, less important-urgent, etc.). I often suggest to my students an exercise writing between 15 and 20 priorities on separate sticky-notes and sticking them on the wall or even on the ceiling, arranged according to their time-management needs. The other option is to draw a “problem tree” where each sticky-note (priority) is seen as the depiction of a problem, which you should solve and move to the next priority or larger challenge. 

3. Deconstructing your priorities into small timeslots

During the past decades, multitasking has become a norm for many students and managers. However, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) suggests that multitasking is often misunderstood, as humans are not computers and cannot effectively run several programs/projects simultaneously for a long time. Every large priority requires specific steps and actions. The idea is to allocate for every specific priority definite timeslots of 20 or 30 minutes and run them continuously. For example, a 20-30 minute timeslot per day for writing your assignment, another timeslot for completing your business plan and so on. Just imagine – dividing a working day into 20-minute timeslots allows you to work intensively on almost 20 steps/projects a day, especially if you set a timer to discipline yourself and eliminate distractions.

4. Knowing how much to delegate and to whom

Sometimes it seems more time-saving and less troublesome not to delegate anything and to do most of the work yourself, as it would take much longer to explain, to communicate and to check the final results. However, it is important to delegate and delegate wisely by choosing appropriate people, and working with them systematically. That way it is possible to build a team of people around you or around your project. The first steps are time-consuming but over time, you will build strong working relationships with both virtual and actual groups of like-minded people.

5. Thinking like a CEO

Many studies by the HBR suggest that CEOs are very much like other people in everyday life, but successful CEOs are very different in their thinking and they are usually best-of-the-best in managing time effectively. The long list of HBR interviews published on this topic produce a long list of qualities – from attention to detail to out-of-the-box vision or problem solutions.

However, what we can learn from these HBR studies can be boiled down to one important formula: your ability to psychologically imagine and train yourself as a CEO through meditation or mental exercises. Mediation and development of emotional intelligence (dealing strategically with emotions and emotional communication) can help you to be more focused on effectively managing your time and inspire to think like a CEO, especially around achieving your goals and objectives.

6. Revolutionize your personal approach to time management

We are surrounded by modern technologies, gadgets and applications for managing our time. Unfortunately, the truth is that we make very little use of these devices to improve our strategies for effective time management. I was surprised by statistics: Kazakhstan has about 20 million gadgets in the hands of people, but very few actually use them for improving their time management. We conducted a quick survey among students and faculty in Almaty City in spring 2019, which confirmed these results. We asked, “Do you use gadgets or applications for improving effective time management?” Almost 58% of respondents replied that they do not! 

Use applications, software or gadgets for improving your time management. Make an additional priority of spending at least 20-30 minutes per week for testing new and not-so-new gadgets, office or home robot and/or applications to identify which ones could help you optimize the way you manage your time.

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