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How to Manage Your Time and Prioritize Your Workload

Topics: Career Advice
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Are you the kind of person who struggles to get a handle on your to-do list? Are you sometimes scared to even start a list because there are too many things to capture? Whether you’re trying to be more efficient, trying to get more done, or trying to find a way to work in uncertain times, you’re not alone.

Right now, as we grapple with the ramifications of COVID-19, many of us are facing a new way of working, plus trying to stay on top of priorities in a rapidly changing and uncertain environment. Finding your focus can be tough at the best of times. In what feels like the worst of times, it’s infinitely harder.

As a career coach, I help professionals do their best work and achieve their biggest goals. Dealing with work during a pandemic is daunting and unprecedented. But we are all in this together with our fears, concerns and challenges. How we work and what we do will vary, the circumstances we face are unique, but often the challenge of “how do get this, this AND this done right now?” is pretty much universal.

If you’re looking for help on managing your time better and prioritizing your workload here are some ways you can achieve both objectives.

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Get Clear on the Big Picture

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When it comes to prioritizing your to-do list, it’s important to consider the big picture. What matters most and what is most critical. If you have a boss, to do this effectively you both have to be on the same page.

Use team meetings or one-to-one sessions to full effect. Everyone’s management style is different and it’s likely you’ll already know what you’re working with. Even if you’re clear on your to-do-list, it’s important to make sure you both on the same page about the key responsibilities and goals for your role.

There’s nothing worse than devoted tons of time to complete a task, only to learn your manager is frustrated because they wanted you to invest your time on something else entirely. Where possible, you should establish a clear sense of what’s required and what is time sensitive.

Schedule Your Most Important Tasks

When you know the lay of the land, you can then start figuring out the best way to get things done. I always advise my clients to plan out their workdays in advance. If there are regular deadlines you know you need to meet, figure out how much time you need to get the work done and factor in extra time just in case something else gets in the way. I rely on my weekly planner that includes prompts for me to write down what I’m focused on this week. Jotting down the priorities before the week begins reminds me to find time for the things that matter.

Often, it’s easy to feel like you’re running out of time each day. To-do lists can feel never-ending and if you find you’re not getting through everything you need to, it’s time to take a step back and reflect. There are only so many hours in the day. To be productive, you should prioritize what matters most, so the most critical tasks don’t get dropped.

An amazing coach, Stephanie Zhong of Dear Anne Media, gave me a fantastic tip that I now apply daily. She recommends writing your top three priorities for the day on an index card. If you don’t have an index card, Post-it notes or a small piece of paper will work. Her advice is to have your top three must-dos in a place you can see them all day. If your priorities are written in a planner or notebook that you glance at occasionally, they may not stay front of mind. Propping the note on your workstation, carrying it with you as you work or sticking it on your screen will keep you on track as a visual reminder.

Make sure you have allocated time to achieve your prioritized tasks. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Dependent on your work environment, this may require working with your manager or team to ensure you have the time you need at the start of your day. Alternatively, you may have the autonomy to block out time on your calendar to make sure you can get your priorities done.

If your priorities are regularly occurring tasks, create a schedule and habits that allow you to do your best work. For example, if there’s a weekly report you need to send out every Fridays by 11 a.m., track back from that deadline to create mini milestones and create the processes to support them. Don’t forget to allow yourself wiggle room, as there are likely to be things that pop up that could derail you.

Troubleshooting Procrastination

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If you struggle with procrastination, you’re not alone. Truth be told, I had to work through it to complete this post on time for my editor. Few of us are immune to the self-sabotaging behavior that results in putting off a task we know we really need to be tackling. When you know what needs to be done, but you’re having trouble getting started here are a few troubleshooters you can try.

Step 1: Imagine how you’ll feel when you’ve completed the task.

If it helps, give yourself the incentive of a reward. I personally like positive reinforcements such as rewarding myself with my favorite snacks or indulgences, versus penalties. After all, if you don’t get your deliverable done explaining why to your manager, or your editor in my case, will be penalty enough.

Step 2: Block everything else out.

Minimize any possible distractions that will get in the way of getting started. This could involve closing internet browsers, muting Slack, shifting your location, or putting on headphones. Whatever it takes for you to get focused, do it.

Step 3: Break your task down into smaller pieces.

Start by diving the task into smaller manageable steps. In my case, for this post instead of thinking “I’ve got to write 1,500 words in one go,” I started detailing what I wanted to share and creating bullets with ideas for each section. This immediately made what I needed to do next more tangible and attainable.

We all have different work styles. If it helps try the Pomodoro Technique which involves doing focused work on your task for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, jumping back in for 25 more minutes, taking another break and so on. I personally prefer to do 45-minutes bursts, then take a 15 minute or so break to regroup. Find the rhythm that works best for you.

Step 4: Jump in

Next, you need to rip off the band-aid and just start. Often our minds inflate the task to be bigger, scarier or more laborious than it really is. Just get started, plus the sooner you start, the sooner it’s done

Once you’ve started, keep at it. That takes discipline. If you commit to doing something, do it. After all, do you want to be known as the person who can’t be relied upon?

Mastering Your Mindset

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If you need help staying on track with a task, especially if it’s an on-going one, guaranteed you’ll find a treasure trove of apps for that. We’re pretty much at the saturation point where there’s an app for everything, but in this case, I don’t want to direct you to a list of magical downloads. The most critical tool you need to harness is one you already own. It’s your mindset.

In the bestselling book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen R. Covey reminds us that “the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves.” Psychologist Gay Hendricks takes this concept further in his book The Big Leap, with his explanation of the concept of Einstein Time. Hendricks argues that instead of seeing time as a limited resource, that we ourselves create time and decide how to use and apply it. As a result, we have the choice to create time, or we can create time pressure. We get to decide by the actions we take in the time we have.

If you start with the mindset that you can and will get your prioritized tasks done, and then take action you’re more likely to succeed. If you start off feeling anxious or discouraged, or feel time is against you, it will be harder to push through.

If you tend to overpromise and underdeliver, it’s time to break that habit, even if you’re missing personal deadlines you’ve set for yourself. Sometimes we drastically underestimate how much time is needed to get certain things done. Be objective and realistic about the time you have, the steps involved and what needs to be accomplished.

If you have lots of things to tackle pick one thing you must do first. I try to do “the worst first” which allows me to get the task I’ve been dreading out of the way at the start of the day. Set a time limit and stick to it. Working to beat the clock can be a great motivator to get a task done. Remove any distractions so you can focus on what you need to do and get it tackled faster. If it helps, create a personal incentive as a reward for finally getting the job done.

What to Do Next If You’re About to Blow a Deadline

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If you’re feeling overwhelmed, burned out, or worried you’re going to blow a deadline, don’t stick your head in the sand. Most problems are solvable, but you must be prepared to explore possible options. If time is running out for a critical task, here are some damage-limitation options to consider.

Start communicating and problem-solving with key stakeholders before you get to a time-critical point of no return. Provide an update on current status to manage expectations and establish if there’s any flexibility in the scope or deadline.

If there isn’t, make suggestions on how to deliver the most critical component needed. It could be getting help or input from others, adjusting an approach or shifting resources or focus to get you where you need to be.

If you’re part of a team, find out if anyone can help. Asking for help and admitting you’re struggling can seem scary, but don’t be afraid to do it. If you hit a breaking point and feel that there is too much on your plate, you should say something. Your honesty will help the whole team and will benefit your work in the long run. If you have too much on your plate, talk to your manager before you blow your deadline. Be honest, avoid complaining and offer proactive solutions that can help.

Because we’re hardwired to keep pushing ourselves forward it’s not uncommon to feel like we’re not doing enough. As you work through your to do list don’t forget to write down your accomplishments and the things you’ve completed that matter. Don’t just focus on what you haven’t gotten to yet on your list. Every evening, I make a daily note in my planner of the things I’ve done. By the end of the week I’m always pleasantly surprised at what I’ve recorded. Without fail, it’s more than I remember and it’s motivating to read. So, keep track of what you’re completing and remember to reward yourself for your results along the way.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have any go-to tips on how to manage your time? We want to hear from you. Share your advice in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Octavia Goredema is an award-winning career coach and writer. You can find her on Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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