This blog post is about how to be better at managing time, so I won’t waste any of yours. If you are routinely described by others as “dependable” AND you feel content with how you spend your time, you are the shizzle. We all aspire to be like you. By all means stop reading now. If you’re constantly letting others down and you are totally okay with that, you can stop reading too. You probably won’t act on any of the advice here so go do whatever it is you do.
If, however, others describe you as “dependable” but you feel more like a doormat; or if you’ve been accused of being a flake but you sincerely want to change that perception, then by all means, keep reading.
Whether you’re a Time Management Master (TMM™), a Doormat or a Flake, you’re still good people. The difference is best visualized this way:
What qualifies me to give advice on time management? For the past 20 years I’ve worked in graphic design in one capacity or another. And few professions need to manage their time like graphic designers. Currently, my official job title is Shape Shifter because I do so many different jobs in order to make our studio run. My responsibilities include (but are not limited to) project management, vendor partnerships, proposal writing, client communication, and managing the studio calendar. In addition to that I hire and mentor the interns, develop strategy for and manage all social media efforts, write blog posts and track website analytics, handle all project billing, complete marketing research, develop and test audience personas, enter design competitions, follow up on new business leads and basically solve any other issues that might pop up. And water the plants. So, yeah, I have to be pretty good at managing my time and the time of my team members. Despite all this I usually leave by 5:00, my coworkers (mostly) like me, and I’ve only almost burned the building down once.
Over the years I’ve determined that time management all boils down to two key things:
- Knowing yourself
- Defining priorities
I suppose if self-awareness and rock-solid priorities were simple, we’d all be Time Management Masters. And yet, here we are. Some people believe that all you need is the latest time management widget. But, there are about a gazillion apps and tools out there so how do you know which will work for you?
Know Thyself: Your personality type affects how you manage your time.
It seems a new personality typing self-help book comes out about every month, but one categorizing tool has stood the test of time-The Myers-Briggs psychological personality measure. By assessing the source of your energy, how you gather information, how you make decisions, and how you deal with the outer world, you can get a better idea of why you work the way you do, leverage your strengths, and focus on finding tools that help you overcome your weaknesses. By choosing one trait from each of the four categories below (see slideshow based on information from SkillSoft) you can see how your personality type influences your time management needs.
So, what did you discover about yourself? I learned that I am an introvert who gathers information by sensing, makes decisions by feeling, and deals with the outer world by judging. At first this assessment doesn’t appear to be consistent but it means that I’m an independent worker who defines a problem using facts and data, decides on a course of action based on core values and empathy, and implements an organized plan to go about solving that problem. I need more time to process information and I tend to organize my thoughts visually, so finding a tool that helps me plan in a visual way is a must. And I need a way to keep from being distracted.
It’s also important to understand how our co-workers’ personality traits influence their preferences for managing time. Each member of the Fifth Letter staff (including our Marketing Strategy Intern, Charles and frequent collaborator, David, from Honestly Co.) evaluated themselves and this is how our team pans out (below). Notice that Elliot and David (top two) are mostly opposite on each of the categories. That balance makes them great collaborators. In fact, they’ve given several talks about how to collaborate.
Of course, our life experiences also play a role in shaping how we work. For example, coming from a large family or playing sports can prepare you for working with a group (despite being an introvert). Caring for a special needs child or an aging parent can help us learn to adapt to changes (despite our need for control). A combination of personality and life experiences have shaped me and my teammates into the kind of people who can understand our client’s needs (sometimes even better than they do), perceive their customer’s needs, devise the best plan for solving both of their problems and managing the tasks to carry out that plan.
How we roll at Fifth Letter
Within a period of one year, the staff size at Fifth Letter more than doubled. We needed to find new solutions that would allow us to be more collaborative, nimble, flexible, organized and conscientious with our time (time is money, after all, no matter what you do for a living.) We needed something custom but didn’t want to spend a small fortune on software. Here are some strategies that have been working for us:
Time Tracking: We’ve always tracked our time with a tool called Function Fox but it’s even more crucial as our team grows. For a modest monthly fee, we track how we use our time on the various tasks needed to complete a project, but we can also track the time we spend checking email or in staff meetings. Of course it’s necessary to check email and attend meetings but they can be major time sucks if we allow them to get out of hand. Keeping track of our time in this way also helps us to be more accurate when estimating the time needed to complete future projects. After seeing how useful this technique is at work I’m considering an app like Toggl. to track my personal time. (Do I really want to know how much time I spend on Facebook in a weekend?!)
Avoiding distractions: We all have to deal with distractions. Whether it’s never-ending email chains, noisy co-workers or spending so much time talking about getting the work done that there isn’t any actual time left to do the work, I’ve found the best solutions are old-school (or “analog”, if you’re under the age of 30.)
- Since I am easily distracted by noise (conversations in the hallway, music playing, coughing, sirens outside our building) I’ve found that a white noise machine is effective when I really need to focus. (There are plenty of apps for this too.)
- Several of my co-workers only check email at designated times so they’ve set an out-of-office response with instructions to call if immediate assistance is needed.
- We hold an all-hands-on-deck staff meeting every Monday morning at 9:00. We aim to meet for only one hour. Cell phones are not allowed. We review what we accomplished the week before and what we need to accomplish during the week ahead. We divide. We conquer.
- First thing each morning we hold a small team stand-up meeting to review our tasks for the day using a high-tech device we call “the board”, which consists of sticky notes arranged in columns. We meet for no more than 15 minutes. There is no small talk. We assign only tasks that can be completed in a day. We help our teammates clear obstacles. The goal is to remove all the sticky notes. Pulling them off and throwing them away is oddly satisfying.
For more great tips on conquering your day, check out Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus & Sharpen Your Creative Mind (Edited by Jocelyn K. Glei). It’s written for creatives but there are plenty of useful tips that will work for you no matter what you do.
My experiences working in this field have taught me a lot about time management. I’ve learned that task management, project management and time management are not the same thing. Rather, task management and project management are only part of time management. (If you need help with project management, I highly recommend the book “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland and J.J. Sutherland. For the short version, check-out this article: “Embracing Agile” also by Jeff Sutherland.) Time management, on the other hand, is the art of managing your time effectively while leading a purposeful life. In order to do this, you need to know your priorities, which help us determine which tasks and projects are worth doing and which are a waste of time.