Saturday 23 August 2014

Time Management Tips to Boost Your Productivity

(A shorter version of this article was originally published in CityAM. A talk on time management and personal leadership is here.)

At work, often the last thing you can do is work.  Emails flood in, colleagues make urgent requests, and fires need to be fought.  But, a few pointers can help us get the most out of each day.

Focus on the Important, not the Urgent

Traditional time management involves writing a “To Do” list and doing the Urgent tasks first.  It’s extremely addictive to tick Urgent things off your list – but you may end the day having done 9 Urgent tasks, but not the 10th, most important one.  Stephen Covey, in his excellent book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, instead advocates tackling the Important tasks first.  Urgent tasks are those that you have to do, externally imposed by others, and often low-hanging fruit – so it’s tempting to start with them.  Important tasks are those that you want to do, internally generated by you, such as developing a new idea.  No-one’s nagging you to do them, and they take significant time.  So if we don’t prioritize them, they’ll get swept aside by the Urgent. 

Covey also emphasised that people act differently when keeping score: you’ll run faster if wearing a stopwatch.  The same is true for work.  Have a stopwatch on your desk, and start it when working on an Important task.  Stop it when you’re distracted to surf the internet, or respond to an Urgent email.  Set yourself a target of how much real work you aim to get done that day. It will change your behaviour.

Control Your Email

Urgent email burns a hole in your inbox and demands to be attended to.  How can you focus on the Important, but still meet your deadlines?  Create a sub-folder called “Today”, and another called “This Week”.  When urgent emails come in, file them in the appropriate subfolder.  When they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind, freeing you to do the Important tasks.  Then, in the late afternoon, after the Important duties have been accomplished and when your mind is less sharp, you can turn your attention to these folders.

What if the Important tasks involve writing email?  Select “Work Offline” so that you’re not distracted by incoming email when doing so.  Change your settings so that you don’t have the “new email” little envelope in the bottom right, which demands to be clicked on.  Remove the “new email” chime for the same reason.

Emails to mailing list (e.g. advertising special offers) are neither Urgent nor Important.  Such emails will have “Unsubscribe” at the bottom.  Create a new sub-folder called “Mailing Lists”, and use a filter rule (in Outlook, go to File – Manage Rules and Alerts) to automatically move messages with the word “Unsubscribe” into this sub-folder.  You can read them at the end of the day.

Outsource and Automate

Many emails you send will contain stock phrases, e.g. directions to your office.  In an Outlook email, go to Insert – Quick Parts, and save these phrases, so that you can paste them into an email at a flash. 

For incoming email that you can give a standard response to, but don’t trust an auto-responder, create a sub-folder that your secretary has access to.  File these emails into the sub-folder, and inform your secretary of the stock responses to such emails. 

For non-work-related admin, use a virtual assistant (e.g. AskSunday or GetFriday).  For example, a virtual assistant could download all talks from a website, or delete duplicate photos from your computer. 

Use Natural Stimuli

On the hour, every hour, do a short physical activity – a set of press-ups if you have your own office, a brief walk if not.  This accomplishes two goals.  First, the actual activity is energizing.  Second, you’ll try to complete the task in hand before the next enforced break.  I dislike doing press-ups, so if it’s 10:50am, I think “I only have 10 minutes before an unpleasant activity” and make the best use of them. 

As an alternative to coffee, Jamie Oliver recommends a fresh chilli.  One or two seeds will give you a pick-me up.  Sounds maverick? Maybe so, but a lot of punch can come from something very little.  That’s the art of time management.


  1. Awesome tips. One will surely get aligned with the work structure with these tips being followed with. The main objective of any time management is to have a streamlined and structured way to manage the work without resembling any procrastination being caught up with.

    After a long struggle with the time, I believe that time tracking keeps more importance than time management. Its been one great though that small segment collectively makes a big segment successful.

  2. Thanks very much for your interest Scott. I fully agree with you with time tracking - I have a spreadsheet showing how much time I spend on different activities each week. You behave differently when "keeping score" - even though I'm not competing with anyone, nor is my spreadsheet public, but it still makes me want to use my time for productive activities.

  3. Great informative post. Thanks Scott. I would also suggest that the best way for better time tracking is the use of some great time management app and the one I prefer and use is Replicon time management software.

    Earlier I used apps such as Google calendar and Basecamp but later switched to Replicon cloud based solution as it is pretty hassle free. Again, being cloud based it can be easily accessed from anywhere. Unlike similar apps such as Harvest which has got issues like downtime and speed, Replicon is definitely a much more worth option.

  4. Time management is definitely a great aspect to boost your productivity as well as increase the overall efficiency of the business. I personally used various apps such as Harvest & Toggl though due to issues like downtime and speed had to switch to another great application from Replicon. This is really a nice to use application with some really cool features and can be accessed from any location using a web browser.

    It makes a nice tool with lot of feasibility and due to its simple features, it is definitely a great application.

  5. Time management is crucial to always improve your performance in business. I used Replicon for some time, now I use TimeCamp in my office. It's necessary to predict time and costs of next projects and watch employees that are not so much in their tasks.