Show bosses you can organise yourself to land top roles, writes Diana Clement
Time management: it's sometimes more important than actual skills when it comes to getting ahead in a career. What's the point in being good at your job if you can't get anything done?
It's all too easy for work to be derailed by time-eaters such as meetings, ad hoc requests and the distractions enabled by technology - including email and mobile phones, says Megan Alexander, general manager at Robert Half New Zealand.
If you're procrastinating when you should be getting an important job done, you're unlikely to land that next big role. Conversely, being known as a good time-manager will help progress your career within the organisation and outside of it.
If you're not careful, your entire day could be spent checking and replying to emails and chasing up loose ends on the internet. We've all done it - the word "Houdini" in an email led this journalist to lose half an hour on the internet finding out about the man behind the legend - just to realise that a deadline was looming.
Kim Hope, an associate of the Capability Group who runs time-management courses at the University of Auckland's Centre for Continuing Education, says taking time out to reflect on your use of time can be useful. In many instances people are adding more to their to-do list every day than they can possibly get through, she says. The participants on her course say they need to use their time more effectively, but have no idea how to change their ways.
Among other things, Hope gets participants to look at ways they can invest time to make time. That might include learning to touch-type or breaking a habit.
Get time management right and there's a good chance you will be noticed - by your colleagues, employers and even others in the industry who see you achieving goals.
Kelly Services marketing manager Victoria Robertson says there are ways to demonstrate your time-management skills during the job-hunting process. "[In your CV,] incorporate specific examples of when you have achieved results and outcomes within the allotted timeframe," says Robertson.
"For example, an event planner's job is likely to have daily, and even hourly, deadlines, compared to a long-term deadline expected from a researcher, so your project-management examples should reflect this. If applicable, include any delegation of tasks."
If you're not an organised, efficient time-manager, it's time to change. As well as reducing stress, good time management means that you can prioritise. Instead of trying to get everything done in order and have important projects slipping, you can focus on the most important task at hand. Say goodbye to backlog and "time regret". As one Chinese proverb says: "No amount of gold will buy you time that has passed." Alexander's top tips that can help you take control of your day are:
Analyse your schedule.
Keep a detailed work diary, which will tell you where your time really goes.
"For the next week, make a point to write down what you do and when during the work day," she says. "Examining how you spend a typical day at the office will help you to identify when you are most productive, how often you sort through emails, make phone calls or engage in meetings." You'll also find how often you are interrupted or distracted, and by whom.
Develop an action plan and set aside time windows.
Reviewing emails, making and returning phone calls, or catching up on articles in industry publications are best conducted in "time windows", says Alexander. Your schedule of time windows should also take advantage of your body clock. "If you are sharpest before lunchtime, schedule more difficult tasks for completion in the morning hours."
Let messages wait.
Bad email and voicemail discipline steals time and distracts you from more demanding tasks. "Unless your role requires it, try to avoid reading and responding every time a new message arrives. Instead, schedule times throughout the day when you focus exclusively on messages. You'll cut down on ongoing anxiety while making your responses less hasty and more useful."
Turning off email notifications and closing down the chat window can save up to an hour a day of wasted time.
You can't solve a technical challenge while talking on the phone, filing paperwork and planning for an upcoming meeting. "When working on a crucial assignment, give the issue at hand your undivided attention so you do it right the first time. Fight the urge to multitask, which often impedes real productivity by leading to oversights and errors."
If you're prevented from completing important tasks by unnecessary interruptions, close the door and tell your colleagues you're off limits for a period of time so you can focus on your work. Interruptions break your train of thought and it can take a while to get back to full capacity.
Build in rewards.
Keeping to a schedule is challenging because it takes discipline. Give yourself credit for adhering to your agenda and accomplishing all "must-do-today" items with a reward such as a daily coffee or a lunchtime walk.
Alexander says people also need to be realistic. "Some days you will be more productive than others, so don't worry if you get off track temporarily."
But as the old adage goes, rules are made to be broken. It you need to take extreme measures to overcome old habits, then it's worth getting electronic assistance from internet and smartphone applications.
Simple internet-based products such as RescueTime or RWorks can help you analyse where your time is going, showing you what you've been doing at the computer. RescueTime claims to add three hours' productive time to the average person's day.
Although a small amount of leisure surfing on the internet can be good for focus, you can find out with software such as RescueTime where you are being distracted and even voluntarily limit the time you are allowed on particular websites. Software such as this can launch reminders whenever you're distracted from the activity you planned.
There are many to-do list applications available for the PC or smartphone, such as iProcrastinate Mobile and Remember The Milk.
But even using simple programs such as Microsoft Outlook to its fullest capacity can help save time, adds Hope.
Some lower-tech devices can also be useful - such as old-fashioned countdown timers on your desk which alert you when it's time to move on or to complete a task.