The ability to zero in on one’s schedule and make the most of limited hours is a highly desirable attribute in workplaces everywhere and a key survival trait in response training environments, where bureaucratic hurdles, schedule wrangling, and other factors may place added pressure upon what little free time the coordinator has available.
It is good, then, that many of the skills and strategies deployed by effective time managers are imitable. Often, a relatively small set of adjustments are all it takes to make meaningful change — a fact that sticks whether you feel time management skills are holding you back or you simply wish to make better use of the hours you have. Perhaps even better, many of these skills translate to other areas of life, making them the rare improvements that carry beyond the desk.
Start with the following ten tips and see if your schedule doesn’t feel lighter in a matter of days:
- Plan your day before you start.
Creating a plan going into the day, whether you do it the night before or first thing in the morning, can help prioritize new assignments that crop up during the day. It can also help sidestep distractions or issues that invariably pop up once the day begins. Since you already have a handle on the important planned tasks of the day, it is that much easier to compare unplanned events against them and see which deserve your immediate attention (and which you can put to the side or delegate, as discussed below).
The plan you build is the first line of defense against an unpredictable day. Create your list in a way that best suits your preferences and strengths. Since the practice is as much about awareness as it is order, scrawling your big to-dos on the back of a napkin may be as effective as building your plans hour-by-hour in your calendar software of choice.
- Drop the myth of multitasking.
We know now that multitasking is not the productivity hack we once thought it was. Per the American Psychological Association, people who “juggle” tasks generally suffer ill effects. The work they do tends to be slower, more error-prone, and of a lower quality than those who focus on one task at a time, despite an illusion of productivity on the surface. For instance, you may appear to save time by building a training schedule while simultaneously taking an important teleconference. However, if you fail to retain information from the call and make several avoidable errors in your schedule, the makeup work you do will take longer than the one-and-done approach.
As such, you are much more likely to save time by batching your tasks, focusing on (and finishing) one thing, and moving on. If needed, schedule an appointment with yourself and respect it as you would any other appointment. Do not let the myth of multitasking steal time from you on the back end.
- Compress your time with self-imposed deadlines.
Deadlines are an inherent part of the working world and something employees at every step of the organizational hierarchy must deal with. If your productivity has ever suffered in the wake of a supposedly “open” day (read: a day where you are free to set your own pace), you know this to be true — sometimes, because the human brain is hardwired to heed deadlines, the lack of a time constraint works against us. If your productivity or ability to focus struggles when you do not have a hard date, try setting a self-imposed deadline and see what you can accomplish.
- Pick up the phone to avoid back-and-forth of emails when you can.
Other timesaving tips have less to do with psychology and more to do with physical limitations. Take email and text-based conversations, an increasingly popular mode of communication in this increasingly digital era. While they can be an effective way to communicate when the information shared is simple (or does not require much feedback), many ideas are much more efficient to share and receive vocally.
It may be wise to take a step back and consider how much time the act of communicating takes from your day. When a conversation is complex or likely to require a lot of back-and-forth — or you are currently embroiled in chatter that meets those criteria — you are probably better off speaking to the handset or meeting in person, even if it means the talk has to wait for a better time.
- Use rules to manage your inbox and designate times to read those rerouted emails.
An inbox clogged with important (but non-urgent emails) such as industry newsletters, listserv messages, and organizational news can be poisonous to overall productivity, a fact owing once again to basic human psychology. Because human brains are “hardwired to pursue curiosity,” according to research from ComputerWorld, you can draw yourself down an unproductive email rabbit-hole before you even realize what you are doing. Be deliberate in reviewing these messages. Set up inbox rules that route them to appropriate folders that you can read at a later, designated time, thus adding more structure and control to formerly “mindless” email browsing.
- Schedule an email response time.
As a final email item, some conversations must be text-based, but that does not mean you need to follow up immediately. Instead, put control over text-based conversation back in your own hands by scheduling a dedicated response time: a set period (or, if you do a lot of unavoidable email, periods) where you do nothing but read, process, and respond to the messages addressed directly to you.
For the uninitiated, this tip may sound like it strays too far into micromanagement. In reality, however, it has several advantages that tie back to other practices in this list. By turning off email alerts and saving them for a set period, you avoid the phone-induced state of multitasking you enter every time that black rectangle in your pocket buzzes; by only doing text communication at a set time, meanwhile, you allow yourself a purpose-built moment to devote yourself fully to the task. In both cases, the practice encourages healthier time management by exerting greater control over your schedule, and that makes it worth a try.
- Manage your energy.
High-glycemic foods, like sweets and white starches, can give you a quick energy boost only to lead to a crash later. Instead, fuel up with healthy items such as vegetables, fruits, and lean protein sources. If you need a small boost of energy in the afternoon, get up and move around for a few minutes rather than reaching for caffeine, which can negatively affect your sleep. Finally, be sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Even minor dehydration can have an impact on cognition, which can in turn diminish decision-making, situational understanding, and ability to make changes on the fly, all three of which have their own impact on time management.
- Go with your flow.
Your level of focus and energy can all leave a mark on your ability to perform tasks within a designated timeframe. If you feel your focus faltering, simply taking a five-minute stretch/walk break may be enough to pull you back into the present. Therefore, switching tasks every 60 minutes, where possible, may be the perfect rotation in terms of efficiency.
Obviously, you will not always have leeway to decide what and how long you work on a given task. By paying attention to your mental state and being less stingy with short breaks, though, you can usually work in a manner consistent with your own capabilities. This can result in better work done over a shorter time — and thus, better overall time management.
- Follow the Two-Minute Rule.
David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” productivity technique (popularly known as “GTD”) has amassed a large following online, a testament to its effectiveness and applicability to working life. It is also too complex to cover succinctly in a single article. However, one of GTD’s core tenets lends itself quite nicely to the training environment (and coordinator’s hectic task list), namely the widely popular “Two-Minute Rule.”
In short, make it a point to immediately handle any tasks you feel can be done in two minutes or less. If it cannot be done in two minutes, defer it or delegate it. This high-level practice gives you granular control of your minute-to-minute activities, keeps longer items front-of-mind, and effectively keeps you in a state of perpetual prioritization: Over time, deciding what needs done now and what needs a push to the schedule (or your subordinates) becomes second nature, getting you in the same mindset skilled time-managers have cultivated for years.
- Make use of available tools.
As part of the job, first responders are required to perform many dangerous and high-risk tasks that—due to rapidly changing conditions, public needs, and budget cuts—are creating a demand for new and different training options.
Software, such as FirstForward, can radically alter how an organization handles training validation, sourcing, tracking, and delivery, thereby solving endemic problems with the old training delivery model. FirstForward aggregates the highest quality training for public safety, and allows individuals to track training completion and certifications in a free portable training record. Digital record keeping also enables organizations to not only save money on tangible items such as paper, ink, and filing cabinets, but also through efficiencies, such as fewer personnel hours involved in researching and finding records, managing training, and completing performance evaluations.