This time of year is a busy one for Santa, but maybe not for you. Maybe you’re off work for the seasonal holiday now, on vacation from your studies, or your clients are on holiday so you are too, by extension. Maybe it’s time to have a bit of a think about how you’ll manage your time more successfully in the New Year. As it’s Christmas, as well as sharing some tips on time management in general, I’m going to relate them to Santa’s life, too. If you’re reading this, F. Christmas, I hope they’re helpful!
Work to your strengths
I think this and the next point are key. You should know by now when your good – and not so good – times are for concentrating and getting things done. The key is then to arrange your day to match these peaks and troughs, aligning your work patterns to your personal patterns. This is easier when you work for yourself, but is manageable when you’re employed, too. I hope Santa’s best late at night, as his main workflow is obviously when he can zip through the dark skies! I’m best in the early mornings, so now I like to get a chunk of work done before breakfast, and when I was working, I liked to start as early as I could. I have a slight lack of concentration after breakfast, so I am scheduling in some down time or some smaller, achievable tasks for then, and I’m hopeless after lunch – but I can work fine if I have a big deadline, so I either work to a deadline there or accept it’s not a great time and do something else. People think ‘larks’ can be annoying and smug, but I’d love to be able to work late into the night. I know I will make mistakes then, as I’m not a ‘night owl’, so if I have a big project to push through, I’m more likely to get up extra early. When are your good and bad times? How can you tweak your work schedule to get the most out of them?
Blocks of time
This is the other important one, in my opinion. Say you’ve got presents to wrap, letters sent to the North Pole to read, and deliveries to make. Don’t hop from one to the other: put aside a block of time to concentrate on one thing and that thing only, whether it’s catching up with emails for half an hour, spending 15 minutes reading Twitter, or putting in an hour on that big project. When I was a training manager I learnt (from theory and experience) that people can’t concentrate for more than 45 mins to an hour at a time, so make sure you work in a 5 minute break after each hour-long block. If you have something that you don’t fancy doing, set a timer to 30 or even 15 minutes and do just that thing for at least that length of time. Often you will get into the swing of things and may be able to carry on longer.
When you’re concentrating on one thing, don’t let the others distract you. Santa doesn’t screech to a halt just above your chimney to answer his elf and safety hotline, and if he does, he needs to stop doing that (wear and tear on the reindeer, for a start!) There’s rarely something that won’t wait an hour. Phone calls, OK, but if you really need to concentrate, turn voicemail on, too. I keep my BlackBerry on my desk: it alerts me if an email comes in and I can very quickly check if it looks urgent without opening and reading it on my PC – works for me! Doing something wholeheartedly for that block of time will work far better than swapping to something else part way through.
Lists and priorities
It seems so obvious, but write a to-do list, either at the end of each working day, or the beginning of the next one. I split mine into work to do, work admin and other – as someone working from home there is always something like posting letters to do, and even if you work with other people you may need to pop out on an errand. As for Santa, well, his to-do list will vary according to the season, but I doubt there’s ever only one task, even on Christmas Eve (stock up on reindeer fuel, schedule toilet stops, get red suit dry-cleaned … ). I tend to write one set of lists then actually order the things for the day, with closer deadlines taking priority over more distant ones (I use a Gantt chart to record those).
Not all time is billable time
I record my billable hours in a diary every day. That’s hours I’ve worked on projects that I’m getting paid for. I can then see how much I’m making per hour, per day and per week, to make sure I’m on track with my targets. Santa needs to get a certain number of presents delivered to a certain number of houses per hour. But I’ve learnt that, just because you’re sitting at your desk for 7 hours, you’ll rarely do 7 hours of billable work (unless you’re a lawyer or suchlike and every single task is assigned a project code). You’ll have emails to answer, blog posts to write, social media to engage with, toilet breaks – and if you work at home, that mid-afternoon shower, gym session, answering the door to salespeople … Even Santa has to refuel the reindeer and restock that sleigh. So don’t beat yourself up and feel unproductive if you haven’t done 7 hours billable work in 7 hours at the desk. But do use chunks of time for the non-paid work and even take a note of it to see where you can refine the process.
This is a posh word for putting systems in place – whether on paper or using the computer and various bits of software. Santa has a production line of elfs taking care of gift wrapping and labelling. When I do a transcription, I upload the tape into my software and create and save the Word document. Every time I finish a project, I put it on my invoice spreadsheet, generate and send the invoice (or add the line to the client’s monthly cumulative invoice) and change the colour of the red line on my Gantt chart. Morning, lunch and evening I check my bank balance and enter anything that’s come in or gone out on my spreadsheet. On the last day of the month I prepare and send my monthly invoices. If you have systems you don’t have to think about, you won’t waste time reinventing the wheel every time you come to do something.
Take advantage of other people’s peaks and troughs
I know that not many of my clients are up early, so when I’ve dealt with anything that’s come in from America or Asia overnight, I will have a good few hours without interruptions to get on with projects on which I need to concentrate. I also know that a lot of emails are likely to come in just after lunch – both from awakening North Americans and other people who seem to work hard in that hour or so. Santa, of course, needs to take advantage of his clients’ hours of sleep. So I can plan around that, and also use other phenomena, like the gym being quieter and more pleasant to visit (and more efficient to get round) in the daytime – the other Saturday I got what amounted to a free personal training session because I went early and no one else wanted the Lower Body Workshop class on the mats! Use your knowledge and experience to take advantage of what you know about how other people work – and use it to help you be more efficient.
Build in breaks
If you’re working in an office as an employee, the Working Time Directive (or your country’s equivalent) comes into effect, telling you when to take rest breaks and how long you should work for in a day/week. If you’re a student, self-employed, or packing presents in your own Lapland factory, it’s harder to make yourself do this. But it’s vital to take breaks, to get yourself moving, get away from the screen and revitalise yourself. I recommend taking some exercise every day – be it a gym trip, a run, a walk in the park or some energetic hoovering. You’ll get a better perspective on things, too – I’ve written many blog posts while out running that I couldn’t think up in front of the computer! And get away to eat something at lunchtime, rather than snaffling a sandwich at your desk.
So, I hope these tips have helped you – and Santa – plan your time a bit more efficiently and use it more effectively. If you have any more tips, I’d love to hear about them!