What's the #1 change you've made to improve your time management skills?
November 19, 2013 4:36 PM   Subscribe

former chronic procrastinators, reformed flighty people, etc.: What's the #1 change you've made to improve your organizational and time management skills? (new mantra or mindset? taking a course? etc)

former chronic procrastinators, reformed flighty-people, etc.: What's the #1 change you've made to improve your time management skills? One key habit you started? A mantra or mindset you developed? A class or professional development course you took? A book you read? Workbook you completed?
Just wondering if there's a key habit or life event or course you took that helped you get your shtuff together, in terms of organization and time management and getting things done (or getting places) on time. Just looking for one key thing to work on, or one program to really focus on, to prevent getting overwhelmed and not really improving in the end (as that seems to be the pattern....) Thank you.
posted by NikitaNikita to Work & Money (22 answers total) 150 users marked this as a favorite
I enter absolutely everything into a to-do list and I actively work off of it. Everything else is just an extension or refinement of that basic premise: Write it down so I don't forget it, and then make "cross things off the list" my full-time job.
posted by Tomorrowful at 4:38 PM on November 19, 2013 [7 favorites]

What Tomorrowful said. I have a notebook I write down everything I need to do in and check items off as I go. I use Google Calendar (synced with my iPhone) to keep track of meetings, deadlines, and appointments but I haven't found anything I like as much as a good old pen and paper for tracking specific tasks.

My lists are arranged into three categories:

1. Needed to be done yesterday.
2. Needs to be done within a day or two.
3. Needs to be done in the near future.

That's it. I have tried Remember the Milk and similar task management tools and thought they were neat and functional, but I spent way more time updating them than I did actually doing the stuff I needed to do.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:54 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Change the time on clocks, watches and electronic devices. Especially on the cellphone. 5-10 minutes. It won't help with the oh-noo-Im-running-late-panic but helps with being on time.
posted by travelwithcats at 5:01 PM on November 19, 2013

Everyone else in my household leaves for school/work around 6:30 am, and I'm at home as a freelancer. I used to noodle around on the Interwebs for FAR too long because what kind of sane person starts work before 8 am, right? Well, I shifted my work "start" time back by 15 minute increments until it's now around 7:00 am. That extra hour made all the difference in the world in having more time later in the day to do things like make time for exercise or other self-improvement activities.
posted by drlith at 5:12 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Set time time limits. I'm in a rehab kinda program where you only get 30 minutes do all your grocery shopping. Last time I was rushed because I didn't have a list so it made me realize that i need to write things down. This time I was less rushed but realized that I would be even less rushed if I added up how much the grocery trip was going to cost me (we get a specific amount of money).
posted by defmute at 5:16 PM on November 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get busy. Seriously. I am 100% more productive (not hyperbole) when deadlines are tighter. I have til the end of the day to do something? Yeah, still going to be working on that come 8 or 9pm. I have til the end of the day to do five things? Yeah, one or two of them might not get done but the most important ones do and I am more productive overall. It forces you to use your time better.
posted by hepta at 5:16 PM on November 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

During the week I only allow myself to look at "distractions" on the internet twice a day, and for set time limits (i.e. Facebook 10 minutes each time, AskMe five minutes, etc).

I make to-do lists then number them in the order they need to get done.

Sometimes I blast enjoyable music while I do things because I find that the quicker heartbeat/happier mood produced by said music makes me do things in a more timely manner. I also set goals like "By the end of the next song I will have finished X task." Or sometimes, if I have an unedited playlist and something annoying comes up, "I am only allowed to skip this song once I have finished X."

Finally, seconding nimwunnan in that what you do has to work for you. Anyone can prescribe a system and say "Do this! It will work!" but since you're the person who has to make it work, it better be personal to you.
posted by Temeraria at 5:27 PM on November 19, 2013

I have a $1.49 Do Now / Do Later pad from Staples. I use one page per week. Everything to do this week gets written on the left side, upcoming projects go on the right side. I add to the pad as things go along. If there is a long-term project, I write out all of the steps, making sure I put this week's steps on the correct side of the pad. When I finish something, I mark the date that I finished it, and check off the box. (if the week gets insane, I add a sticky note to continue the list.)

At the end of the week I enter the things I've done as completed Tasks in Outlook's task list. This is my digital record of what I've done that comes in mega-handy come yearly review time. I carry over the undone tasks to a fresh page for the new week.

I've tried using strictly Outlook's task list, Remember the Milk, Teux Deux (it almost did it for me, but then it changed) and a watered down GTD system. This dumb $1.49 notepad does it.

That, and a magnet on my cube wall with Eleanor Roosevelt's "Do the thing you think you cannot do" quote. Because most of the time I put things off, it's because I'm anxious about it. That quote reminds me that I need to run that meeting, or delegate that task or (ulp!) make that phone call.
posted by kimberussell at 5:44 PM on November 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

Mine was a super weird thing. I've always done the list making and the calendaring and whatever and I'm pretty efficent. But the thing that really took me the rest of the way (especially about a lot of small stakes stuff like household things, writing emails, whatever) was considering that time I spent thinking about doing things and not doing them as part of the time it spent to do the thing. So, like if I walked by the birdfeeders and they needed feeding, my thought process was that I could do it now and it would take five minutes, or I could continue to remember that this needed doing at which point I've been carrying around this idea in my head for that whole time. Getting things done gets them out of my mental to do list which frees up a lot of weird little brain space for moving forward, not beating myself up for not doing things. Some emails, by the time I've written them I feel like I've spent five days not-writing them and the damned things only too 5-10 minutes to write. That's stupid. So now I try to make the task itself take less (life) time by doing it closer to when I think about doing it, the first time.
posted by jessamyn at 6:16 PM on November 19, 2013 [130 favorites]

The biggest thing for me was realizing that I am a morning person. Once I figured that out, it was easy to start doing the more brain-intenstive things before lunch and save the more mundane, rote stuff for the afternoon. You may not be able to do this, but I was able to shift my working hours, so I start earlier. I have an hour before the rest of the staff starts to arrive and I can get a lot done in that hour before work starts for everyone else.
posted by dogmom at 6:28 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am most productive when I do the things I am dreading the most first. It's amazing how much smoother the sailing is when I no longer have to worry about a boring or otherwise unpleasant task on the horizon. Also, creating a rewards system helps. No beer today until the leaves are raked!
posted by LBJustice at 6:42 PM on November 19, 2013 [10 favorites]

I started getting up an hour earlier. And, going to sleep 2 hours earlier. Everything else followed without much thought. I am much more efficient now.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:30 PM on November 19, 2013 [6 favorites]

realizing that I am definitely a night owl and only taking night shift work - I can sleep in until I'm rested, and get stuff done all night
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:03 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Taking days off and slow days. I was working while sick or exhausted that stretched sick periods far longer and made me less productive. Taking a solid day of rest or deciding that (like today!) I need a couple of hours to rest before hitting my to do list helps a lot. Yesterday was a slow day, so I redid my to-do list to shorter and simpler things and got them done instead of trying and failing to do my planned to-do list.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:49 PM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

For travel, that's really in your own hands. I simply give myself two hours to get anywhere so that I have a cushion of time to cover the walking part of the journey. A bus is a good place to relax and do research on my mobile phone.

For work. I tend to cycle through an array of activities during each week. I will keep what I am working with on my desktop and devote two or three hours per day to each issue in a loop from around 8 in the morning to 6 or so at night. I make time for lunch and to go out for shopping.

The most important part is to be willing to say no to short-term fixes.
posted by parmanparman at 1:36 AM on November 20, 2013

I've adopted a sightly modified, weekly version of Bullet Journal, which includes the GTD two-minute rule - if it can be done in under two minutes, it's not allowed to go on the to-do list but must be taken care of immediately.

Like LBJustice, getting the dreaded items on the list out of the way first thing gives me a real boost, because it makes everything else on the list seem so much more manageable.

Also, I've realised that I'm completely useless every day between approx. 16:00 and 17:30, so I try to schedule mundane "administrative" tasks that don't require much focus (or even a quick nap) for that time of day.

But really my entire approach boils down to an earnest effort at structured procrastination. :)
posted by wavelette at 2:13 AM on November 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

In my line of work there is a saying that if you are not at the jobsite 15 mins early, you are late. I brought that into the rest of my life and it helps keep me from running behind all day. Also seconding getting the tough/most important things out of the way which leaves you with more energy for the rest of the stuff.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 10:21 AM on November 20, 2013

Break to do list items into the smallest unit possible. For example, scratch "Clean bedroom" from to-do list. Replace with "Clear off items on bedside table" on to-do list. Check off each item as you go. Add 1 to 3 new items each time you do a task. It will make you feel like a champion and it has a snowball effect.

Make all to do items immediate or near immediate.
posted by mermily at 11:56 AM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

After trying countless time management techniques, I cannot speak highly enough of aTimeLogger, an app I have for my iPhone. You can customize it to reflect what you're working on and group tasks; for example, I have one large group for Work, which includes things like writing, interviewing, etc. Every time I switch a task, I press a little icon on the app and the timer starts.

Throughout the day, you get to see where your time is going; you can also set limits and goals. (I recently pressed the 'internet' icon, which is under a broader category I made of Goofing Off. Yes, I give myself a limit for how much goofing off to do each day.) After a week or so, it became automatic and I don't even think about using it anymore.

Maintaining a food journal has been shown to be amazingly effective for those who want to lose weight and maintain weight loss because we are all horribly subjective and underestimate how much we eat. Maintaining a constant idea of where your time goes, I argue, works the same way: it's instant feedback (the only kind that really works), and makes it absolutely impossible to b.s. yourself about where your time has gone. I really can't recommend it enough.
posted by blazingunicorn at 12:53 PM on November 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Change the time on clocks, watches and electronic devices. Especially on the cellphone. 5-10 minutes. It won't help with the oh-noo-Im-running-late-panic but helps with being on time.

Not an option with any modern cellphone - they automatically sync their time to time servers when they connect to cell service.
posted by de void at 12:53 PM on November 20, 2013

Not an option with any modern cellphone - they automatically sync their time to time servers when they connect to cell service.
My iPhone has an option to turn that off. Settings -> General -> Date & Time -> Set Automatically
posted by soelo at 2:10 PM on November 20, 2013

Eliminating distractions! There is plenty of research on willpower and how it is a limited resource, so make focusing on work easier for yourself and remove the possibility of being distracted so that avoiding these distractions isn't even an ongoing choice.

For me, and probably most of us, my biggest weakness was spending a great deal of time surfing the web when I wanted to be doing focused work on something else. My solution:

Step 1: Install StayFocusd Google Chrome extension (or the parallel on whatever browser you use). Put all of your favorite time-sink sites in and then block them for an hour or two. Yes, you could theoretically just open up another browser, but you probably won't (and if you find yourself doing that I'm sure you could find something similar for other browsers).

Step 2: Turn off your phone if possible, or at least disable notifications.

Step 3: Get away from people.

Step 3: Start working. If you're doing computer work and you find yourself staring at the screen spacing out, that's ok. As long as you're putting in the time don't stress about your productivity level. You'll eventually get tired of staring and you'll start working.

This strategy is how I finished my thesis and it's completely changed how I do work. I originally found myself taking a Facebook/Metafilter/whatever break every few sentences and if I didn't stop myself these breaks could stretch on for 15 minutes. That doesn't sound like much but it adds up, and at the end of a 6 hour "work" period I'd feel like shit because I barely got anything done and spent most of the day surfing the Internet and feeling guilty about it. If you can't surf the Internet but every hour or two, you can get shit done and then surf the Internet for 15 minutes guilt free.
posted by Defenestrator at 9:33 PM on November 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

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