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The Only Time Management Tip That's Worked for Me

Ignore all the other tips, and focus on this one thing.

It's ironic, of course.

Those moments when you need time management help--when your work starts to pile up, your to-do list gets longer, and you reach the point where you are putting in all the hours you possibly can and then a couple of more--are the exact wrong time to experiment with time management techniques.

That is one reason I wasn't a fan. When I needed them, I didn't have the time to learn them.

And while the advice about only handling a piece of paper once, dealing with email and phone calls solely at the beginning and end of the day, and blocking yourself off from potential interruptions is fine, it never seemed to free up a lot of time for me. I really don't work best that way.

So I had concluded that time management is a waste of time.

Notice the past tense.

Let me tell you what changed.

A new thought

I keep looking at people who get a lot done and realized simply saying "time management doesn't work" wasn't very helpful. If I closed myself off from new ways of getting more done, I would be doomed to being stressed and feeling overwhelmed.

And so I started experimenting with various approaches to accomplishing more, and finally hit on one that works for me.

I now rank everything that is important to me--both professionally and personally--on one piece of paper. They are the most important things I want to accomplish written down in list form.

And every day--weekends, too--I work my way down the list.

If item #1 is accomplished, then #2 becomes #1, i.e., my (new) top priority.

If a new goal or objective comes along, it is slotted into the list. It may be the new #1, but odds are it will fall somewhere else. Just because a problem pops up doesn't mean it goes to the top of the list and just because I have a new idea that I'd like to pursue doesn't mean it has suddenly become the most important thing in my life.

There are four extremely nice things about taking this approach.

  1. It makes you stay focused on the things that are most important to you. (You created the list, after all.) If it is on the list, you tackle it. If it is not, it is not worth your time. You don't worry about it, and return your attention to the list.
  2. The list keeps you not only focused but also focused on the right things. You know the third thing on your list is more important to accomplish than item #4. So (you should) tackle things in order.
  3. The things you don't get to are by definition less important to you. (That's why you work your way down the list starting from the top.) Again, that relieves stress. "Yes, I would have liked to have gotten to item #9, but I made it through the first eight," and that's good enough."
  4. It allows you to mix in personal priorities with your professional ones.

It has proven to be very effective for me, and I think it could work for you as well.

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Last updated: Aug 27, 2014

PAUL B. BROWN | Columnist

Best-selling author (and Inc. magazine columnist) Paul B. Brown's latest book, Own Your Future, has just been published. Brown's blog appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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