I’m not sure about you but in my past jobs, I would always feel stressed and caught off-guard when my boss would casually ask me what I’d been working on all week. As I would start to recall my week, I would find that I didn’t actually have much to show for my own work, instead, I’d been only too willing to help others out with their work. With the stress and late nights that followed to actually complete my own work, I wish I had prioritised differently.
It was only in the last couple of years that I fully understood the power of saying no, switching distractions off, updating and actually using my daily to-do list and sticking to time limits. Not only am I much more productive, efficient and effective during my work week, I feel less stressed, more motivated and fulfilled and, I have much more time to do things outside of work without thinking about work.
A little off-piste but if you are a people pleaser, a perfectionist, have high expectations of yourself and take pride in your work, you’ll find that you’re only too ready and too quick to say almost ‘yes’ to everything. You probably not only promise to help, but to do so in a very short space of time.
About a year ago, I went on an intensive graphic design course just as a hobby and to help me with creating presentation material for work. One particular lesson that I have carried forward and will always be thankful for is the art of managing expectations, valuing your own work and accounting for ‘thinking, reviewing and editing’ time. We were told that if a client requests a new logo for example in half a day, we should tell them that it will take us two weeks.
Why? Firstly, if I don’t deliver (which I likely won’t) in half a day, the client won’t be happy. Two, once I have an idea, I might be able to deliver it, but how long until I feel inspired and arrive at that idea? I need to carry out all my research, explore alternatives to reach the best design, refine and edit to make it ‘perfect’. Perhaps if I had a bit more time, I could also allow myself to take a step back for a several days and return to my design to see if it really is the finished product. What if my client requests changes once all that’s done? Not to mention, I need to fit this work in around all my other commissioned work. It won’t take half a day, it will take much longer and not only will I be stressing myself out, I will also be setting both my client and I up for disappointment. A short turnaround with poor quality work is likely to have negative consequences, my client will likely go elsewhere next time and perhaps even be prepared to wait a month.
Lastly, how could I justify charging my client £2,000 for work that takes me only half a day to complete? Firstly, I think we’ve reached the conclusion that it won’t take me half a day to complete anyway and secondly, if I charge for half a day, I’m certain to make a loss whilst my client is set to gain significant value from a strong, representative and unforgettable brand logo.
We’re the professionals, we’re the ones doing the work, we know how long our work takes, we should know how this work might affect the other commitments we have made to others - we should be the ones making a decision on how long it will take. Don’t be pressurised and don’t fall into the trap of over committing and over promising. Be the professional, value your work, be realistic, and make sure to deliver when you say you will and ensure the work delivered is your best work - your client, boss, colleague - will acknowledge you for it and would much rather have good quality, finished work, than a half completed product. Quality should always be the first of your priorities.
I thought I’d put that out there just in case anyone else finds it as useful as I have, but here are some easy to implement yet highly effective tools to significantly improve your ability to better manage your time at work.
1. Write a to-do list at the end of each day without fail
This will set you up to get going right away the following day, help you avoid procrastination, ensure you don’t miss anything and free your thoughts during the evenings and mornings. The time it takes for you to write a list at the end of the day is nothing compared to the alternative - time spent thinking about what to do and jumping from task to task.
2. Prioritise wisely
Focus on things that will provide you with the biggest return and focus your priorities based on importance rather than urgency. Eliminate any tasks that you shouldn’t be performing in the first place and delegate them to someone else if you can. Number your tasks 1 to 10 - 1 being the highest priority. You really shouldn’t have more than 10 tasks on your daily list. Too many tasks on one page can be de-motivating, cause stress and be counter-productive. Anything that is of little importance and urgency, delete it off your list completely.
3. Set time limits
Set realistic time limits for each task. If it’s one big task, split it into smaller, easier to manage tasks and set time limits for each. Stick to time limits and even if you haven’t completed the task, if it’s not urgent, move on to your next task and go back to it. Take note however to set a longer time limit next time you have to do the same task.
4. Understand your most productive hours
For most of us, we should aim to start more intensive, demanding or creative work early in the morning, this is usually when we are most productive. However, individuals differ and so, you should learn your natural patterns of productivity and optimise your best hours organising relevant tasks around these hours.
5. Organise your day in blocks
For example, Monday 9 - 11am Task 1, 11am to 1pm Task 2, 1pm to 2pm Lunch, 2pm-5pm Task 1, 5pm to 5:30pm admin including plan for the following day and rounding off tasks performed during the day. Don’t forget to add in buffers and short breaks after each task, 5-10 minutes at least.
6. Avoid distractions
Turn off email notifications and allocate two times of the day to open, check and respond to your emails. For anything important and time sensitive, you will most likely receive a telephone call. Put your personal phone away and switch it to silent. Going back and forward to emails whilst working on other tasks will set you back at least 15 minutes. Avoid browsing through social media, various news and industry websites, endless clicking and scrolling cycles. Whatever you do, avoid the temptation to multi-task - it doesn’t actually exist, your brain can’t think of two things at the same time.
7. If you feel stuck...
Go for a short walk, grab a hot drink, ask a colleague for help or talk to someone (sometimes you will find a solution to your own problem just by talking about it), work on something else for a short while and return to it later. Whatever you do, don’t sit and stare at your work for longer than 10 minutes - it won’t be of much use.
8. If you feel you have more work than you can handle...
Speak to your manager or try to delegate tasks to others. Feeling stressed about fitting all your work in is counterproductive as is overworking.
9. Say no.
If you need to decline a request from your boss or colleague, unless it’s super important, urgent and you’re the only one that can help, politely decline or, inform that that you won’t be able to perform the task right away but you could find some time to do it the following week. Rather than doing a lot of tasks that yield little value, focus on completing fewer tasks that yield more value. Similarly, if you are set a task that you know you don’t have the skills and knowledge to do, it’s ok to say no or, request that someone else guides you and that you anticipate it will take you x amount of days to complete. If you feel stuck and feel like you are not getting anywhere with your task or it's no longer relevant or of value, stop working on that task, tell your manager and/or find a solution i.e. delegating it to someone else, getting more support and guidance, eliminating it completely.
If you have any tools or ideas that have helped you in the past or even now, please write to us, we’d love to know!
Keep an eye out for our next post to be released on the 2nd of May on improving Interpersonal Skills.
Good luck and best wishes,