As we get ready for the new year, we tell ourselves that we’d like to be more organized and more productive. That’s actually a pretty difficult problem to solve until you define what “organization” and “productivity” mean to you, and there is often an emotional component to it that takes time to figure out.
When I was getting started with my own time and task management, I had three basic questions:
- Where is my time going?
- How do I know what I should be doing?
- How do I stay focused during the day?
Where is my time going?
Do you find yourself wondering where all your time went during the day? I have a diagnostic tool called the Emergent Task Timer (ETT), which combines a time tracking form with a physical timer set to chime every 15 minutes. Start the day by writing down what you WANT to get done. Every 15 minutes, you jot down what you ACTUALLY are doing. The results can be surprising, and after a couple of weeks you’ll get an idea of what’s going on.
It’s great for developing awareness of time management, and it’s also helpful if you want to show your boss why you have so little time to get your work done when there are constant distractions. Others have found it helpful for billing time.
You can download the basic ETT forms here; I have some special lawyer billing versions available as well that I’ll find and put back up.
What should I be doing?
When I started doing more freelance design work, I loved the freedom. With freedom, though, comes the responsibility of deciding what to do, and with that responsibility comes the desire to do the right tasks. I start to wish that there was someone smart telling me what I should do, giving me feedback when I did something that truly benefited my business. Since I couldn’t hire a CEO, I made a stand-in tool called the Concrete Goals Tracker (CGT).
The idea behind the CGT is that there is one critical element to a successful business: revenue! However, generating that revenue is dependent on a long chain of events. For a freelance business, the primary generator of new work is (1) making things and (2) showing them to other people. Supporting these tasks are (3) research/development (4) collateral development and (4) talking to people about your work. Anything else is NOT contributing to your business.
The CGT turns these activities into a daily game of earning points for doing these tasks. As you log your points every day, you’ll see what days are good. And, given the natural urge to maximize points, you’ll be tempted to think of new ways to reframing what you’re already doing. It’s not cheating…it’s out-of-the-box thinking!
There are several versions available to download and experiment with.
How to stay focused during the day?
When you have more than a little chaos in your day, there’s the popular Emergent Task Planner (ETP), which is designed to help you “plan your day as it happens”. You start each day by picking a few tasks that you’d like to get done, and then go for it. Refer to the sheet throughout the day, and make it your anchor for determining what to do next when something doesn’t go as planned.
The form encourages you to pace yourself realistically by limiting the number of tasks and providing the means to visualize how much time you have. The ETP also provides plentiful room for you to keep notes on unexpected things, and it’s a good way to keep a log of your accomplishments through the week.
More Productivity Tools
I’ve got a number of other productivity tools that address other challenges, but the above are the most popular I believe. For 2014, I’m going to try to systemize the approach so it’s easier to know which tool might work for what situation. Good luck!