11 Tips for Time Management in a Web Worker World

The Brazen Careerist blog points out “10 tips for Time Management in a Multitasking World.” It’s a great list. My professional career began over 17 years ago. I have only worked in a traditional office setting for the first 6 of those years. Since then, I’ve been based out of a home office. Folks often say, “I don’t know how you work at home…I tried but there’s always something in the house I end up doing that takes me away from getting anything done for work.” I assure you, getting distracted by housework is not my problem. Without feeling that anyone is directly monitoring your activities, it’s way too easy to be distracted by an over-stuffed to-do list and jumbled priorities. How often do you get to the end of your day and feel like you’ve worked so hard and have nothing to show for it? It’s not like anyone saw you slaving away at your desk.

So I present you Brazen’s list, with a web worker twist…

1. Don’t leave email sitting in your in box.
If you are familiar with the Getting Things Done methodology, this is rule #1. If you leave the email sitting in your inbox, you will end up reading it 50 times before you act on it. That’s a waste of time and energy. Touch each email only once. If you can answer it in less than 2 minutes, do it. Otherwise, figure out how much time you’ll need to deal with it, and assign the appropriate action to it. Don’t look at it again until you’re ready to do it. For example, if you need to make a phone call to deal with the email, then put the email in your @calls list and don’t pull it up again until you’re picking up the phone. If the email is simply informative, or there is nothing you will need to do within a short time period, file it.

2. Admit multitasking is bad.
Bad multitasking is bad. Good multitasking is when you break your activities down into discrete steps (in the GTD world, they’re called “actions”) and complete an entire action before moving on to the next one. For example, you get an email from a client asking you to make a change on their website. You need to reply to the client to let him know you’re on it. You need to make the change. You need to proofread or test your work. You need to upload the change to the site. You need to close the loop with the client to let him know it’s done. That’s a single task with 5 actions that have to be done in sequential order. Don’t start the email and then get distracted. Finish the email and send it. Then move on to another action, even if it’s for another task. Projects have phases. Phases have tasks. Tasks have actions. Multitasking in the middle of an action is bad. Jumping around between tasks is not. When you are working at home you are only measured when you produce results. No credit for just showing up. You produce results by completing actions and closing the loop on tasks.

3. Do the most important thing first.
The “most important thing” is so 5 minutes ago. Before I stop working each day, I decide right then what is “the most important thing” for the next day. In the morning, I check email first. Each email is judged against “the most important thing” from the night before. If “the most important thing” is still “the most important thing,” then that’s what is done first. When that action is done, I check email and make sure the next “most important thing” is still “the most important thing” and so on. A web worker doesn’t have someone standing over their shoulder setting priorities. It’s a constantly evolving process that only you can manage.

4. Check your email on a schedule.
I see this all the time and I just can’t agree with it. If you’ve broken up your tasks into actions, then it’s easy to find the time to read email in between completed actions. Follow the rules: if you can get rid of the email in under 2 minutes, do it. Act like your email is a hot potato and it won’t pile up or get in your way. Make sure your “most important thing” of the moment is always at the top. Goodness forbid you miss that 2:30 deadline to get a fax back because you read your email at the scheduled time of 3 pm.

5. Keep web site addresses organized.
Have one trusted system for organization. If you like to copy/paste websites into a Word file, then always do that. If you like to write things down on a pad of paper, then do that only. Don’t have websites in del.icio.us, websites in an email, websites in a file and websites on post-it notes.

6. Know when you work best.
Funny thing is, if you don’t know when you work best your colleagues certainly do. The more you work from home or remotely, the more the people who work with you begin to learn your style. If you are most productive at 10:30 at night, you can bet the email asking you to do stuff starts coming in at 9 pm.

7. Think about keystrokes.
If you’re on a computer all day, keystrokes matter because efficiency matters. “On any given day, an information worker will do a dozen Google searchers…How many keystrokes does it take? Can you reduce it to three? You might save 10 seconds, but over time, that builds up.”
Um sure, whatever. For me the goal is to get the computer to think and move as fast as I do. When my creativity and thought process is flowing, I don’t want to be held up looking for a menu command.

8. Make it easy to get started.
We don’t have problems finishing projects, we have problems starting them…make a shallow on-ramp…I try to break own my projects into chunks, so I am not overwhelmed by them…
Once again: Projects have phases. Phases have tasks. Tasks have actions. Strike that balance between available time and available resources to complete an action. If you don’t have 30 minutes of available time, don’t start an action that will take 30 minutes. You’ll just end up stressed and disorganized. See the mountain as a series of very small steps. Before you know it, you’ll be halfway up. Schedule your time-sensitive actions and tasks for the day first, and then fill in the gaps with actions that have looser deadlines. Make a point of doing at least three non-critical actions a day, and at least one “I don’t want to do it” action a day. Do it anyway. Otherwise you’ll end up procrastinating yourself right up to a deadline.

9. Organize your to-do list every day.

Once a day? Too broad. Every task on your plate has a next action. Keep the list of next actions for every task/project close, and be prepared to reorganize them after every completed action. Unexpected things happen and priorities shift. It soon becomes habit. If you are using Outlook for email, I can’t recommend the Getting Things Done add-in strongly enough. It’s got its bugs to work around, but it’s an incredible tool for filing and processing email into discrete actions.

10. Dare to be slow.

Remember that a good time manager actually responds to some things more slowly than a bad time manager would. For example, someone who is doing the highest priority task is probably not answering incoming email while they’re doing it.
I would argue that it’s not about speed, it’s about priorities and breaking larger tasks down to smaller actions. It may appear that you’re taking a longer time to complete a task, when what you’re really doing is taking bigger gaps between actions.

and let me add an 11th one:

11. Close the loop.
No dangling threads. There is either something you need to do or there isn’t. Decide that quickly. When the task is done, don’t forget the action of getting that task completely off your plate. Send the email, make the phone call, file it. Whatever. When it’s done, it’s done. Get it off your desk. Don’t spend hours working on a task and then let the very last action of a thank you email to the client (or sending the invoice) sit in your to-do list for days.

Finally…don’t forget to make sure you have a few @fun actions in there too. Don’t read that joke from your friend now, put it aside and wait until you really need that laugh in between actions. And then don’t feel guilty for taking the time to read it.

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