If you are a multi-tasker and pride yourself on working on several things at once, you might be surprised to discover that you're not getting as much done as you think.
"It's not clever to have lots of applications open and lots of things going on," says Robyn Pearce, one of the world's leading time-management experts. "There is vast research to show that if you try to do a whole lot of things concurrently, you take longer than if you're doing things consecutively."
Pearce says that having good time-management practices in place is the best way to survive in today's highly technological workplace. And the more we try to do at once, the less we will achieve. Pearce was a real estate agent who never had enough time and couldn't distinguish between urgent and important tasks. "I just let everybody demand my time and I was very bad at prioritising."
Pearce is the author of About Time - 120 tips for those with no time. One major time-waster she talks about is meetings. She says you should ask questions before you just trot off to every meeting that comes up.
Is the meeting related to your overall goals? Which part of the agenda will need my input? Since I may have to leave after my contribution, what time will you be dealing with topics relating to me? Are decisions likely to be made that only I can make, or can I delegate?
Pearce says many people have been able to increase their billable hours by following her advice. She says being time-poor is simply a perception. Technology gives us the impression that we have less time because of the interruptions caused by email, social media, texts and phone calls.
If we are deeply concentrated on a complex task, these interruptions can cost us up to 20 minutes by the time we're able to pick up where we left off. That's shown by research done by the organisations which have created most of the information overload in our modern work life - Intel, Microsoft and Google.
"What they are looking for is ways to minimise the impact of their own technology, which is quite interesting," Pearce says.
"The solution is fairly simple. We control these technological intrusions, not the other way around.
"Email alerts: disable. Phone: off. Social media: closed. Co-workers: I can't talk now, I'm in the middle of something.
"Many knowledge workers will lose about 28 per cent of their day or 2.1 hours a day to interruption."
Pearce says workers need to create a strategy to give themselves dedicated chunks of time in which to concentrate. One way is to set aside "red time" and "green time", or designate a "power hour".
"It will be a chunk of time that you're working on something that requires concentration where you don't take interruptions ... You can also interrupt yourself unnecessarily by having too many windows open on your computer, for instance."
Pearce also recommends setting aside a chunk of time to read emails. Surprisingly, she advises against doing this first thing in the day, because it can derail you from the main project that you had planned to work on.
"With many people, we'll find that once they get into the emails, an hour or two hours can elapse. It's because it is an addictive medium."
Emails should never be considered a live medium, because that would require constant monitoring and not allow people to concentrate on important tasks.
"Don't automatically leave the email going all the time and showing alerts, so that you're not distracted by the visual or auditory signal that comes at you."
This might seem like a big ask, particularly with micro-managing bosses expecting instant attention.
In this instance, Pearce says to have a polite word with your managers. Let them know that you're not watching your inbox constantly so that you can concentrate on a task and get more work done more effectively. Have a block of time set aside for email.
"We educate the people around us how to treat us."
Another part of time management is working with your body's natural ultradian rhythms.
Pearce advises taking advantage of the body's six to eight peaks of energy during the day, which last from 90 to 120 minutes. In between these peaks is 15 to 20 minutes of fatigue where we can't work as effectively. "In the ebb cycle, it's not a negative. It's a recharge and restoration period. The body will tell you when, if you're noticing it, you need to get up and walk away. Once your attention starts to drop off, that's when it's time to step away from the computer."
It remains fairly taboo in the Western world, but napping improves concentration, lowers stress and boosts energy. It's even recommended by ACC to fight fatigue.
"Power-napping is a really practical strategy," Pearce says. "You can lie down for 15 to 20 minutes. You're really going into an alpha state. It's more of a meditative state. Hardly anybody will drop into a really deep sleep in that short ... period of time."
The boss may not allow naps, but Pearce says some people nip out to their car during lunch and have a rest.
If you can just implement two or three new time-management behaviours in your working day, it can make a significant difference.
"If you've got poor time-management skills, it's going to impact your effectiveness no matter how clever you are at everything that you have learnt from university or wherever else."
*Contact David Maida at www.DavidMaida.com