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A Professional's Guide to Office Time Management

By Nathan Strum

Time management is one of the most important skills anyone can develop. The ability to manage time effectively is critical to success in any industry or field of endeavor. However, it is not always clear exactly what is meant by "time management." What are the methods we can use to manage time more effectively? How can we track progress and make improvements in our time management strategies? While there are many schools of thought on every aspect of time management, some time-tested approaches remain consistent.

Developing a plan is the first step to time management. Without a plan, it is impossible to know where you are going. To manage time effectively, you need to become adept at planning for both long-term and short-term goals. Without advance planning, long-term goals often fall by the wayside. However, it is exactly these longer-horizon goals that benefit most from planning. Long-term goals should be broken down into actionable tasks by week. When large items are broken down well, they can become part of your to-do list.

Your to-do list is where your plans intersect with your day-to-day life. Each of the items on your list should bring you closer to one of your goals. However, you might find that not every item on your list for a day can get done; that's why it's important to assign priorities to different tasks. One of the most famous systems for setting priorities comes from Stephen Covey, author of the acclaimed book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey recommends breaking items into four categories based on whether they are urgent, important, both, or neither.

Deadlines make tasks urgent, while items you simply wish to achieve within a given time are not necessarily urgent; you may have to work harder to make time for non-urgent items that are important. An item's importance is determined by its relationship to your goals. Importance is a sliding scale - few items are completely unimportant or unimportant in all situations. For example, recreation is rarely urgent, but it becomes increasingly important as you work more and feel a keener need for time to yourself. Urgent, important items are usually top priorities, while items that are neither urgent nor important have a tendency to be last on a person's list.

How can you eliminate time management problems like procrastination? Good daily habits are essential. In addition to having visual representations of your plans, such as schedules and lists, you should also check your progress toward your goals on a weekly basis. Small victories in time management and goal attainment can gradually erode even the most ingrained procrastination habit. However, you should support your new time management approaches with positive habits: Develop your to-do lists late in the afternoon and review them in the morning each day. Reviewing your progress toward goals should be an early part of your weekend.

Time management might look like something harried and unpleasant, but it is truly vital to achieving long-term success. It is important not to get "stuck" on the details of each passing day; instead, think of time management as a comprehensive approach to your goals with weekly and monthly dimensions. Get into good habits and reward yourself for success. Before you know it, you will be accomplishing more than you ever have before. As you practice time management, it becomes easier and the tasks that are important get done faster.

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