Woman in home office.
Managing our time is already a challenge most of us have to overcome on a daily basis. Eventually, you learn which techniques work and are able to get into a groove. Then, something unexpected happens — an illness, a lost client, a PR nightmare, a natural disaster, or a global pandemic — and all bets are off the table.
Of course, when a crisis strikes, time management is almost impossible. Competing demands for your time, combined with new priorities and fears, can cause you to freeze. It’s no longer so easy to determine what deserves your time or how you can make the biggest impact on the world around you.
These five strategies can help you take back your time and get things done — no matter what.
1. Adjust your schedule.
In a perfect world, you’d be able to work when you’re most productive. According to a Fast Company/SurveyMonkey poll, “a majority of people (61%) say they feel the most productive in the morning, with 22% saying they feel most productive in the afternoon, 10% in the evening and just [7%] late at night.” Regardless of your own personal productivity peaks, you may not be able to work during your preferred times when dealing with a crisis.
Take the COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home restrictions put into place to flatten the curve. If you were a parent, that meant you had to homeschool your children at specific times. For most of us, that was probably during our morning primetime. But because family comes first, you adjusted your schedule. Perhaps you woke up earlier and worked because your kids had classes or switched around your schedule to work primarily in the afternoon. The point is that you can maximize your time and productivity if you simply recognize the trade-offs for what they are and adjust accordingly.
2. Plan your day.
While socially distancing, I used this time to finally get around to some home repairs. At the top of my list was optimizing my home office because I was obviously going to work from home more often than I ever had. I ordered a new standing desk and some shelves so I would have a motivating and organized workspace at home as well. Unfortunately, I misplaced the instructions for the shelves, and it took me much longer to assemble them.
This is similar to the idea of managing your time. Without a plan, you won’t be able to structure your workday effectively. You’ll waste time trying to figure out what needs to get done. Even worse, you may spend too much time and energy on the wrong activities.
Even during a crisis, you must identify your priorities. Preferably, you’d do this the night before or first thing in the morning. It’s a simple act that forces you to determine your most important tasks — usually only three items — that need to be scheduled ASAP.
For anything that’s not urgent, but still important, you’d make space on your schedule at a later time. Better yet, you can delegate less important and less urgent tasks to others, deleting the time wasters from your calendar.
Speaking of your calendar, I would also review this every morning to make sure everything’s still intact. I suggest catching up with family and team members so you can share plans and manage expectations. Most importantly, this allows you to check in on their health and well-being.
One more thing: Don’t make your daily schedule too rigid. You should leave blocks of time free so you have the availability to address emergencies, take a break, or attend to your own self-care.
3. Focus on one thing at a time.
You may think you possess the superpower of doing two things at once. While that may be true when your work doesn’t involve cognitive tasks, the reality is that multitasking isn’t possible. In fact, according to research, it can lower your IQ, reduce your performance and efficiency, and even cause brain damage.
As if that weren’t bad enough, multitasking is counterproductive because it will take you longer to complete tasks. The reason? Switching costs.
“Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks,” explains the American Psychological Association. “Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error.”
Professor Jill Klein from Melbourne Business School says it’s not all bad news: “On the bright side, we can use our inability to multitask to our advantage. When we’re anxious, we tend to ruminate — that is, to think about the bad things that can happen, sometimes in vivid detail.” I’m sure this has been common for most of us during COVID-19.
“Rumination is a cognitive activity, so doing another cognitive task will take your mind away from anxious thoughts,” adds Klein. “Counting backward from 1000 in sevens (993, 986…, for example) makes it impossible to ruminate. If your anxiety returns, start counting again, and keep practicing.” I’d also recommend scheduling “worry time” into your day so you can get negative thoughts out of your head, which should help you focus on your priorities.
Klein notes that most of us do our best thinking while active. If you need to dissect a problem or brainstorm new options, try taking a walk or cleaning the kitchen. Putting your body in motion can knock the cobwebs loose.
4. Be proactive, not reactive.
According to The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s influential book, proactivity is cited as the most important characteristic of effective and successful people because it lays the foundation for the remaining six habits. How can you be proactive with your time?
If you’ve identified your priorities and added them to your calendar, you’re already on your way — this prevents less important items from eating up your time. As an added perk, this will help you establish and stick with a routine.
Other tactics to try include only focusing on what you have control over and implementing a “no” policy. For example, if you have a “No Meetings Wednesday” policy, you never accept a meeting invite on that day.
Most importantly, being proactive is avoiding any potential conflicts in advance. Examples of this would be not double-booking events, knowing the difference between what’s urgent or important and what’s not, and not overcommitting yourself.
5. Set boundaries with technology.
By all means, use technology to your advantage. Whether it’s Slack to communicate and collaborate, Zapier to eliminate tedious manual tasks, Buffer to automate your social media efforts, or Calendar to save time on scheduling, these tools are indispensable.
At the same time, you need to set limits with your technology use. If not, it can easily lead you to become distracted, overwhelmed, or fatigued. While Zoom has become a widely popular and helpful tool during COVID-19, it’s also created a phenomenon appropriately called Zoom fatigue that can be more exhausting than in-person events.
When it comes to technology, only use the tools you need and are comfortable using. A crisis isn’t the time to learn how to use a new piece of complex technology. Moreover, when a task requires deep focus, block out distractions by turning off notifications, silencing your phone, and working on a private or “incognito” browser.
Schedule times to disconnect. Whether it’s taking a 15-minute break to meditate or go for a walk or vowing to not check your inbox past a certain time, you need to unplug from technology to reduce stress and recharge.
Crises happen. You’ll likely feel more stressed and distracted. You can still take control of your time by being flexible and proactive and focusing on what truly matters. That will empower you to make the most of the time you have.