At the end of a busy day, sometimes it’s hard to figure out where the time went. The following excerpt from the book Getting Work Done provides a simple process for you to prioritize your work and understand how you’re actually using your time.
What goals are you aiming for in your work? Does the way that you are spending your time actually correlate to those goals? Without answers to these questions, you won’t know how the many tasks on your list should be prioritized, organized, and ultimately accomplished.
List your goals
Ideally, you and your manager should meet at the start of each year to formulate a set of performance goals. From your discussion, you should understand how those goals tie into the company’s aims and mission. You likely also have your own personal career goals. Together, these may look something like, “Improve people-management skills. Manage six new products. Handle contracts for all of the department’s new products. Develop vendor-management skills.”
Revisiting them now, write these goals down—on paper or in a note-taking app if you prefer. You will use these goals in two ways: first, to prioritize your daily work; and second, to gauge your progress (in other words, to benchmark what you’re accomplishing and whether the changes you make as a result of this book are effective for you). By referring back to this list regularly, you’ll be able to identify which tasks are most important for you to tackle so you can plan accordingly.
Track your time
Once you’ve identified your goals, it’s time to examine how you’re currently spending your time. Are you working on the things you should be doing—the things that will allow you to reach those goals—or are you getting bogged down by unrelated tasks or unexpected crises?
In order to truly understand where you are spending your time and to identify whether you should adjust your workload, track your work for two weeks by completing the following exercise. You may discover that your results don’t align with your goals. The point is to uncover where that misalignment occurs so you can correct it.
First, write down your activities. Consider this a brain dump, and leave no stone unturned. List all of the tasks you perform, meetings you attend, and even the time you spend socializing or procrastinating at work. It can help to look back over your calendar for the last week or two to get a sense of your range of activities. Once you have a full list, break it down into broad categories so you can track the amount of time you spend doing tasks in each category. Some categories to consider include:
Core responsibilities: day-to-day tasks that make up the crux of your job.
Personal growth: activities and projects that you find meaningful and valuable, but may not be part of your everyday responsibilities.
Managing people: your work with others, including direct reports, colleagues, and even your superiors.
Crises and fires: interruptions and urgent matters that arise occasionally and unexpectedly.
Free time: lunch breaks and time spent writing personal e-mails, browsing the web, or checking social media.
Administrative tasks: necessary tasks that you perform each day, such as approving time sheets or invoices, or putting together expense reports.
Seeing your work broken into categories like this will help you visualize how you’re really spending your time, and you may already be getting a sense of whether this lines up with the goals you identified.
Then, track your time. Once you have your categories established, begin tracking how much time you spend doing tasks in each. You can estimate by the hour, or if you want to dig deeper into your habits, you can get more granular. To record your results, use either an online time-tracking tool or a standard calendar; to analyze those results, use a spreadsheet like the one depicted below. List each category in its own column, and write the days of the week in each row. Calculate the time you spend on each task for each category for the next two weeks and put the totals in the corresponding categories.
At this point, you may be thinking, I’m busy; I don’t have time to log everything I do. It’s true: This system does require an up-front investment of time and effort.
But logging your tasks and how long it takes to complete them will let you clearly see where you’re spending too much time and where you need to begin to reallocate time to achieve your goals. If you want to improve your people management skills, for example, you may realize that devoting 10 hours a week is not enough; perhaps you need to ofﬂoad some administrative tasks so you have the additional time you need for that goal. By making small, deliberate shifts in how you spend your day, you’ll ensure that you’re investing the right amount of time on the tasks that matter most, making you more efficient at achieving your goals.