Once you know where your work hours are going and have thought a bit about your personal work style and the constraints of your job, you can move on to figuring out how to cut out the time sinks and get more efficient. Personally, I am most at risk for sliding into time wasting when I don’t know what I need to do next and when the thing that I need to do next isn’t particularly interesting. Both problems can be addressed with my number one tool for getting more efficient: the old-fashioned to-do list.
Revamp your to-do lists. Chances are, you already have a to-do list or five, and are therefore skeptical that a to-do list will be any help whatsoever. I urge you to give them a second look, though. Good organization is essential for getting your work hours under control, and a good system of lists is one of the easiest (and cheapest) ways to get organized. You will almost certainly want to customize a system for yourself. However, it is often useful to have a starting point, so here is what I do: I have a few “global” lists of things that need to get done. Items on these lists are always associated with a due date of some sort, even if I have to assign one myself. These currently include my departmental goals list, a running task list for my work projects, and a global to-do list of non-work tasks. These lists change slowly, because they mostly contain large, multi-step projects.
I have an “upcoming tasks” list, which includes only the tasks that I plan to complete in the next week or two. This list always has my top priority items (according to due date). It usually also has some “gee, it would be nice to get this done” tasks. These are tasks I can work on if I finish all my top priority tasks, or if I am having a low motivation day and need something lighter but still productive to work on. This list needs to be updated once a month or so, because it contains specific tasks, i.e., the things I need to do to complete the projects on my global lists. If I’m really busy and/or really struggling with motivation,
I also make a daily to-do list. This list actually sometimes lasts for a couple of days. If I’m really busy, it has only the most urgent things on it. If I am struggling with motivation, it has “component” tasks on it. I take whatever big task I can’t motivate myself to tackle and break it down into little tasks. Then I put some of the little tasks on my daily to-do list and put the list in a place on my desk where I can’t avoid seeing it. This list changes every day or two, as I complete the tasks on it and need to refresh it from my “upcoming tasks” list.
Learn how to prioritize effectively. I have noticed a strong correlation between the unwillingness (or inability) to prioritize work and long hours worked to meet deadlines. People who struggle with prioritization sometimes look at people like me and assume that we must not have as much work to do. That is not true. At times, I have ridiculously long to-do lists. I always leave work with things left to do. However, the things left on my to-do list are almost never due the next day. I make the tasks that need to be done earliest my top priority, and I complete those first.
Prioritization is not as simple as picking the large project with the first due date and working on that project’s tasks. Particularly if you are working on a team, you need to also know which tasks will delay a project, or you will create a time crunch for yourself later. If I have two projects, one with a deadline in three months and one with a deadline in one month, I might still prioritize a task from the first project higher if that task needs to be completed before another team member can begin his work. For instance, let’s say I need to complete a functional specification for a new software project my team is starting and I need to revamp a data entry form for another project whose due date is just a few weeks away. Chances are, I’ll do the functional specification first, because the software developers can’t begin to code the new software until I complete that functional specification. It is worth needing to work slightly longer now to complete the specification and the data entry form, so that the new project doesn’t get behind schedule and create a major time crunch for me later.