Get Things Done: The Definitive Guide to Ruthless Time Management

time-managementTime management is about power. It has nothing to do with iPhone apps or colored office labels.

It’s about ruthlessly controlling your time so you can accomplish more.

These ideas will offend some and inspire a few–but there’s a reason only the minority are successful.

Why do so many feel overwhelmed so much of the time?

Years ago, I was running ragged, trying to work a full-time job, running two business and juggling a family with a newborn. I couldn’t keep up. I had to slow down and figure out where my time was going or I was going to lose my mind.

When I reviewed my schedule, I realized I was “busy” most of the time, but I wasn’t accomplishing much.

Back then my days as a detective started out like the movie Groundhog Day. I got to my desk at 7:15 AM — not because I was productive then, but because my boss showed up at 7:30. As long as we beat him in, I was good. 

I would fire up my computer and just stare at it like the scene in Office Space. When my boss walked in, we gathered around and talked about nothing for an hour. Seriously nothing, but my boss liked it, so we complied.

Eventually I wandered back to my desk and do the least demanding task I could find—check email. If email was asking too much, I could always check in at Facebook.

Eventually it was time to cave in and read emails — the same emails I already read the day before. If I read one too many times, I might act on it until someone from another cubical would interrupt me for a coffee break. Rinse and repeat and occasionally squeeze some work in.

That is a typical day in corporate America. It was my workday before I started businesses, had a family, and started to lose my mind.

There are books, seminars and coaches that promise to help you organize and manage your time. Much of that stuff recommends different colored labels and other complicated inbox management.

Most of that stuff is waste of your time.

Here is what really works — without giving you busy work.

Clarity

There are two reasons we never get anything done.

1. We waste time when we are vague about our priorities.  If you chronically run out of time, your goals are unclear. And forget multi-tasking—it’s impossible.

2. We do busy work to avoid doing things we fear. This is why we start our days checking email or Facebook instead of calling prospects to make a sale.

The key to effective time management is to get crystal clear about what you want to accomplish. Without clarity, it’s easy to get distracted by time wasters and other peoples’ self-created”emergencies.”

Very few people value their own time, so why would they ever value yours.

Eliminate everything that’s not fulfilling or profitable. Be ruthless about removing the least profitable or less fulfilling things and only do the stuff that yields the highest return.

In other words, only do what you love, or makes you a lot of money. The rest is garbage.

Start Each Day Running

Clearly divide work and pleasure. Work is what you would never do if you were rich. Play is the stuff you would pay to do. Few have a clear distinction between the two.

Because we’ve been programmed that everyone takes preciously eight hours to do their job, we fill those hours regardless if we need that time or not. Instead of working, we fill the time socializing with co-workers we would otherwise never spend time with.

Instead, write a nightly list of the one or two major things you want to accomplish the next day.

Do not write a giant to do list; just a couple of high return projects. When you start your work day, do nothing until you accomplish your tasks. No gossip, email, Facebook, voice mail or anything else.

Just get it done and get out of there. If you want to maintain friendships with co-workers, do it outside of hours dedicated to work where you can really enjoy it.

Peak Productivity Times

Many productive people script their entire day. This works very well if you have a tendency to procrastinate. By scripting your day, you’re likely to accomplish more than if you don’t.

I do the opposite and schedule time off. I work from home or a coffee shop, so I have a tendency to keep working unless I’ve blocked out time for exercise or family.

I’m more productive at odd hours. It’s common for me to wake up at 3:00 AM and work for a few hours and later wrap up the following day at 3:00 AM. I suppose I’m a bit neurotic.

I am almost worthless between six and nine in the morning, so trying to force myself to work during those hours is pointless. I do well working with clients in the early afternoon when my energy level is higher and I do my best writing after 10:00 PM. Trying to mix those times makes me less productive and unhappy.

 It’s important to do what fits you rather than what someone else does. The point is, define your peak productivity hours and only work within them.

Batching

Limit repetitive tasks such as email, paying bills, reading mail, voice messages, and returning phone calls to weekly or monthly scheduled times.

These things are notorious distractions. The problem comes when you’re working on a project and you’re interrupted by a call or email. Not only does it interrupt you, but your attention shifts from your productive work, to someone else’s crisis.

When you receive a call, email, or letter in the mail, nine out of times it’s bad news (bills, taxes, government interference, etc) or it’s someone who wants something (salesman, etc.) Occasionally you receive a birthday card or check, but those are the minority of messages.

Instead of allowing repetitive interruptions, schedule when you will check email, voice messages and other similar tasks so you only deal with each message once.

For example, when you sit down to review email, handle each email through it’s completion, rather than re-reading the same email daily until you finally decide to deal with it.

Never check email, mail, voice mail first thing in the morning. Bad news always mentally distract you from accomplishing your most important and productive work. Finish your daily goals, then tend to messages.

Incoming Calls

For peak productivity, limit access to your direct phone number and email address. In a perfect world, the only people that would have your business contact information would be your assistant. This is not always possible, but the closer you get to it, the more productive you’ll be.

While I’m working, I have all incoming, unscheduled calls forwarded to my assistant or voice mail. This is productive for both parties because it allows for better preparation and a more efficient future call. If I take an unscheduled call, not only will I be unprepared but I will also be distracted by whatever I was working on beforehand.

My voice mail encourages people to send an email instead of leaving a voice message. When people write their requests, instead of leaving a voice message, they are usually better able to articulate their needs.

Most calls can be eliminated by using focused emails written at both parties’ convenience.

Sometimes, a phone call is more efficient, but there must be a clear agenda and a predetermined end time to the call. Miraculously everything will get done during the allotted time.

Occasionally people refuse to indicate the purpose of the call, because they are either unclear themselves or they want to sell something. I love sales people, but I do not tolerate cold calls.

Email

Email is an efficient way to communicate which has almost replaced mail, but that blessing is also a curse. The ease of email has encouraged people to send a message every time a thought pops into their head.

We’re all guilty of this and have sent multiple messages, one after the next, because we didn’t take a few moments and organize our thoughts.

Here is the key to email

  1. Do not have conversations by email.
  2. Put as much time into writing an email as you would a letter. This little extra time will save you in the end.
  3. Writing a short message is an art–develop that skill.
  4. Practice “if/then” writing. This practice can eliminate several back and forth messages. For example:

Please read the attached contract. If it is acceptable to you, please sign it and email it back to me and we will begin the job.

If the contract is not acceptable, please edit the attached document to your liking, sign it and return it to me. If I agree with your changes, I will sign it and begin the job.

Sincerely,

Chuck J. Rylant

Can you see how this one email can eliminate many additional emails and phone calls? This is a powerful technique.

Lists

I work off three lists. Usually they are in a simple spiral notebook , but there are times I’ve used a electronic documents.

If you use an electronic format, use software such as Dropbox to be sure it follows you everywhere you go and is available on your smart phone.

1. Waiting for list

This is perhaps the most important list idea I’ve ever learned. It’s frustrating for productive people when you get get stuck waiting for an employee, contractor or vendor.

It’s easy to submit your request and forget about it while you wait for a response from the other party. Unfortunately, very few people do what they say they will, so these things often fall into a deep, dark black hole and never resurface.

On a side note, if you want to be a rock star employee or service provider, simply do what you say you’ll do without being reminded. Since 80% of the population doesn’t, you’ll stand big time.

Keep a running list of each thing you’ve delegated, to whom, and the date it’s supposed to be returned. Review your list daily. When the date passes with no word, you’ll know you have to follow up.

2. Project list

This is the list I keep of every project I’m working on or plan to in the future. When I have multiple projects going, I will have multiple lists so I can include each step or idea that is part of it.

This is a great list to keep by your bed so when an idea pops up at 3 AM, which is when they always do, you can write it down and fall back to sleep. Otherwise, you’ll never fall back to sleep or you’ll forget the idea.

 3.       To do list

I keep this list small and re-write it every night. This serves two purposes. If I dump everything just before bed, it will help me sleep, otherwise I’ll be up all night thinking of everything I need to do the following day.

Secondly, it allows me to start the next day at full speed.

Eliminate meetings

I’ve wasted thousands of hours of my life in meetings. I can never replace that lost time. If you haven’t attend enough meetings to discover the truth yet, meeting are always a waste of everyone’s time.

Meetings generally serve a few purposes, none of which includes getting things done.

Meetings are common in non-profit organizations and corporate environments where there is a surplus of time and little accountability of results. The people who set meetings often do so because they are an institutionalized practice in the organization.

Meetings provide a platform for people to get attention who would otherwise not get it.

Meetings rarely result in productivity. If you attend meetings, stop at all costs. If you host meetings, ask yourself why.

Summary

In a nutshell, these are the most important time management strategies I know. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time, money and energy studying and experimenting ways to get more done in less time.

However, it is not really about getting more done, it’s about doing more of the things you want, and less of the stuff you don’t.

This article is a culmination of my experience and my adaptation of ideas I discovered in three of my favorite books on the subject.

Getting Things Done, Four Hour Work Week and No B.S. Time Management for Entrepreneurs.

Please share your time management strategies in the comments. 

Comment rules: Please use real name — no keyword stuffing.

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19 Responses to Get Things Done: The Definitive Guide to Ruthless Time Management

  1. Great post, Chuck, and very important. We can make more money but we can’t make more time. And as you point out above, if we guard our time and learn how (and when) to be our best and most productive, we can have more time AND more money

    Thanks for sharing this. I love your writing and picked up some great tips.

    Happy New Year!

  2. John Taumoepeau says:

    Great post. The truth is sometimes hard to hear. The part on meetings had me laughing hysterically. I am going to incorporate these principles immediately.

    Thanks

  3. Christy Farmer says:

    Hi Chuck, you really nailed it on clarity. There is no sense wasting our time on things that leave us unfulfilled. When I find myself unfulfilled in anything, I reassess why I found myself in that position in the first place and make changes accordingly 🙂

  4. Curt Fowler says:

    Chuck –
    Great article. I’ve read 2 of the 3 books you reference & like the highlights you have taken from each.

    Like yours, my business is virtual or out of my home office. You mentioned sending your emails to your assistant. I am trying to find the right VA, but I am currently struggling. Any suggestions based on your experience finding the right virtual assistant?

    Thanks for your help – Curt

    • Chuck Rylant says:

      Thanks Curt

      I’ve had/have similar experiences Curt. It isn’t as easy as you’d think. I’ve tried three professional services that offer live phone and email answering with terrible results, so I don’t recommend that.

      The best luck I’ve had is reaching out to my network of friends and in social media. I’ve had most success with at home mothers or those recently divorced and in transition. Not that I’d limit my search to that, that who has just worked out best so far.

      However, I’ve found those people start out motivated and do a great job and tend to lose interest. It’s probably not as fun as they once thought and/or their life changes.

      I’ve also realized that in the beginning I expected them to think as I do and I was wrong in those expectations. Instead I make very simple written procedures that anyone can follow and it helps.

      One trick is to run an ad and build in some hurdles that test their true desire and ability to follow directions.

      I wish I could provide a great source for you, I’ve just not found the perfect place.

  5. Time is a very important factor in our lives and we have to manage time wisely. Its so true that we can make money but we cannot make more time. Its really important to manage time properly in order to have a more organized life.

  6. I’ve read scores of articles on this subject over the years, and I have to say this was the best one yet. It triggered some solid ideas that I’m already putting into practice and they are working. Thank you so much.

    Kristin Zhivago
    Author, Roadmap to Revenue: How to Sell the Way Your Customers Want to Buy

  7. Kim says:

    Thanks Chuck, this is very powerful information that you’ve provided here and I can relate greatly to all of these ideas! I’m glad twitter brought us to being friends (snadkis) because although I focus on stress management/laughter therapy, one of the main causes of stress is dealing with time management efficiently, so they actually go hand in hand. I’m glad we share these philosophies on life and look forward to more from you!

  8. Michael McGehee says:

    Great advice Chuck. After speaking with you a while back, I immediately implemented these concepts and found they work really well. Its now especially hard to sit through a forced meeting I can’t escape without laughing and knowing what a waste of time they are.

  9. Chuck rylant says:

    Those same meetings we endured together used to drive me nuts too Mike 🙂

  10. Susan says:

    Chuck –
    I came across your site via a book review you did (http://www.amazon.com/Official-Rich-Guide-Information-Marketing/dp/1599184109/ref=cm_rdp_product).

    As an efficiency consultant, I absolutely will share this blog post with my customers. You go into specific details on how your life works better because you work differently now. Wonderful!

  11. Lori says:

    GREAT article! And wonderful advice. One of the effective things I’ve learned also is when someone asks for your help in the office, ask yourself “what if I do/what if I don’t?” A lot of times we take time to help others and there is absolutely no value to us to help and it will actually make us further behind. I’m not the best at saying “no” but this tactic helps me stay on track (sometimes).

    Thanks Chuck!

    • Chuck Rylant, MBA, CFP says:

      Thanks Lori. That’s a great idea you shared. Like a litmus test before you take action — consider the consequences either way. So simple, but I never thought of that.

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