Every team I’ve ever worked with struggles with time management. While we attend meetings, answer emails, and respond to unexpected challenges, we yearn for professional development—the first to go in times of frenzied task-switching.
My team at Unboxed is no different. We want to produce high-quality results, deliver on-time and on-budget, and acquire new skills—so we have to find smart ways to manage our time and focus rather than multi-task. Here are five time management hacks that will help you and your team members meet deadlines and achieve your professional goals.
Hack #1: Plan your week
Time box: 30 minutes
My weekly planning process, inspired by Getting Things Done by David Allen, begins first-thing Monday when I get to my desk. It goes like this:
- Review email using the 4D method: delete, do, delegate, defer. More about this in Hack #2.
- Refresh Friday’s to-do list. Add any email items that need to be addressed today.
- Prioritize professional development. Schedule time for continued learning. (And if that time is late Friday afternoon, it might not happen. Earlier in the week is often better.)
- Update this week’s calendar. Add any personal appointments such as the doctor, dentist, kids’ functions, etc. Create space for focused work. Make sure there are no overlapping meetings, and if that can’t be done, start declining meetings based on priorities.
- Email any out-of-office reminders. Communicate schedule changes with affected team members.
I used to plan for the upcoming week on Fridays. However, I found things often came up over the weekend that forced me to re-do the plan. Planning on Fridays also caused me unnecessary stress because I was thinking about next week’s work over the weekend, when I needed to be present for my family. Planning on Monday fixed those issues.
Hack #2: Review email with the 4D method
Time box: 10 minutes
I typically look at email three times a day—in the morning, after lunch, and close of business. The 4D method works like this:
- Delete when possible.
- Do what’s asked if it takes less than two minutes.
- Delegate if someone else should, or could, handle it.
- Defer the task to a better time if it takes longer than two minutes.
I disable email notifications so I can stay focused. My team knows if they really need me, they can call, text, or come get me.
Hack #3: Complete a daily debriefing
Time box: 15 minutes
Hack #3, a retrospective of the day, is important because it allows my brain to shut off on the evening. Here is the daily debriefing framework I use:
- Log today’s accomplishments.
- Identify any impediments, who can resolve them, and specifics that will help resolve them.
- List things that need to be done tomorrow.
- Review email.
- Look for ways to improve. Ask:
What didn’t go as smoothly as it should have?
What can I do better tomorrow?
When we slow down and ask questions like, “Is there anything I can do that will improve mine and my team’s productivity going forward?” there’s a side-benefit: we foster company-wide process improvements.
For example, I was in a meeting last Friday, and I noticed another team member’s scheduling system was pretty time-intensive and cumbersome. I wanted to help, so I made a note of it during my daily debriefing. When I plan my next week (Hack #1), I’ll look for a free block of time we can use to collaborate on a better method—which will result in increased productivity for the company. Time management for the win!
After the daily debriefing, it’s time to turn off the work brain. Everything necessary for tomorrow has been written down, so there’s no need for it to consume any more brain space and energy today.
Hack #4: Unplug
Time box: Daily
It’s extremely important to come into work with a fresh set of eyes and a fresh brain. If you’ve had a chance to step away from your tasks, you’re less likely to get spun out, and you’re more likely to be free and creative.
Need more convincing? Read the article Darwin Was a Slacker and You Should Be Too. After an overview of Charles Darwin’s daily—and surprisingly pleasant—routine, it argues Darwin and his amateur scientist/author/social reformer/lawmaker contemporary John Lubbock weren’t accomplished despite their leisure; they were accomplished because of it. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explains:
“…despite their differences in personality and the different quality of their achievements, both Darwin and Lubbock managed something that seems increasingly alien today. Their lives were full and memorable, their work was prodigious, and yet their days are also filled with downtime.”
Ernest Hemingway wrote from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz “worked as a civil servant,” and “mainly wrote fiction in the late afternoon, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.” Writer Alice Munro: 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.; and Gabriel García Márquez: five hours a day.
It’s better to come to work rested, refreshed, and ready to be in peak productivity mode. In a recent FastCompany article, Lydia Dishman explores Project: Time Off’s new report, The State of American Vacation. The report found that:
“…planning a vacation in advance led to better follow-through and using more of the time available to take off. Further, planning was responsible for a mood boost. Workers who planned their vacations resulted in increased happiness across nine factors, including professional success, financial situation, and their company.”
We should follow the example of accomplished men and women before us—and be willing to step away from our desks, go for a walk, and plan (and take!) vacations.
Hack #5: Gut-check meeting agendas
Time box: As needed
As a team, we plan most of our meetings (both internally and with our clients) at least two weeks in advance, generally during sprint planning. So, when I receive an ad hoc meeting invite, I immediately evaluate it. I ask:
- Does it have an agenda?
- Does it have clear goals or desired outcomes?
- Is it as short as it could be?
- Do I need to be there?
If the answers aren’t clear, I’ll ask the organizer, “Hey—what’s the agenda for this meeting?” Typically when someone sits down to write an agenda, they realize the meeting actually can be shorter, or the tasks can be accomplished in another way.
I love to read, and there are some great resources out there that can help you learn more about time management best practices. My personal favorites are Slack by Tom DeMarco, Getting Things Done by David Allen, and SCRUM: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time by Jeff Sutherland.
Share Your Time Management Hacks
At Unboxed, we love to find ways to help people be more productive in their jobs. So, if there are any time management hacks that have really helped you achieve your goals, please share ‘em in the comments below!