Short on time and want some simple time saving strategies? In a Harvard Business Review study managers were questioned three times over 10 years to establish what their number one issue was in being a manager. Every time, the number 1 reason was they were too busy. So whether you’re a manager or an individual contributor, we could all benefit from saving some time.

1. Use to do lists – if you are not yet a lover of (to do) lists then now is the time to convert. Not only do they help in organising all the mental tasks we often have whirling around our heads they also provide a mechanism to clearly prioritise, reduce overwhelm and increase productivity. A great strategy for them is the To Do List rule of 3:

1) Have a master to do list that has everything on it that needs to be achieved, including longer term projects

2) From that master, at the same time every week (as it’s habit forming) create your weekly to do list. Ensure this ONLY has items on it that need to be achieved or worked on in some capacity that week

3) Each day, from your weekly list, curate a daily to do list – this is the single best way to focus your time and effort and remember, you should ONLY have items on your daily list that have to be started or completed THAT day.

And importantly, make sure you cross off the tasks you complete as it gives the brain a little rush of endorphins and encourages greater productivity.

2. Focus your efforts – one factor that can be very detrimental to effective time management stems from a lack of clarity and focus. When we are unclear of our goals or the bigger picture objectives it can cause us to waste time on unnecessary activities. Make sure you have a good understanding of what’s expected of you, the team, the department and the organisation and then align your goals with that. Once you have clear direction and some nice SMART goals it’s much easier to focus your time and energy towards achieving them.

Add to this and maximise your efforts by resisting the urge to multitask. Studies have shown that when we switch between high-value activities it can take our brain up to 15 minutes to refocus. One of the best time management tips to help with this is to turn off email and Teams notifications so that you choose when to check them throughout the day, rather than them interrupting you and draining your brain as a resource.

3. Plan for your energy levels – we all have peaks & troughs of energy throughout any given day and so we need to plot our tasks accordingly. Reflect on your working day: when do you naturally have the most energy? Is it first thing or maybe later in the afternoon? Plan the tasks that require the most brain power and focus for these times. The easier, less crucial tasks like replying to emails, do in the lower energy slots like after lunch. And if you are a manager, remember when you are high energy may not be when your direct reports are.

4. Use procrastination to your benefit – for inspiration watch the TED talk, ‘The Surprising Habit of Original Thinkers’ by Adam Grant to see how a little bit of deliberate procrastination can allow for additional unconscious creativity. If you find yourself banging your head against a wall when you are trying to plot out a project or design a presentation – park it – do something else, have a break and then come back to it afresh – our minds tend to work out solutions in that downtime – especially if it’s guilt free.

5. Eat that frog – In Brian Tracy’s book on time management he highlights how too much unnecessary procrastination – otherwise known as faffing about – can lead to low productivity – so ask yourself what are you really putting off? Is it because the task is too high level or overwhelming? If so, break it down into manageable chunks – what’s the very first thing you could do towards achieving it? Is it because you are overwhelmed or feeling out of your league? if so, what could you do to overcome that/ who else might be able to help or advise you? Once you’ve identified the big task that’s been hanging over you (Tracy calls them Frogs) make sure you tackle it first thing – ‘Eat that Frog’ – the rush of those lovely endorphins you get from clearing it off your to do list will make you even more productive after. The best part is what he says to do if you have two frogs 🐸 – eat the ugliest one first.

6. Take breaks – when we are up against it with so much to do, the tendency is to power through and keep on working like a juggernaut. This is actually a false economy, as we will eventually burn out and become less productive. A more efficient strategy is to take regular breaks – even if for only 5 minutes – that mental break allows us to recharge and boost our productivity.

So the next time you have a high brain powered task to work on, try this out with the Pomodoro Technique developed by then university student, Francesco Cirillo who used his tomato (Pomodoro in Italian)-shaped kitchen timer to break work into intervals. Say you anticipate the task will take you 2 hours. Set a timer for 25 mins and work solidly, then take a break for 5 mins, repeat this four times and you earn yourself a 30-minute break – repeat as required.

7. Prioritise what to do when – using Covey’s simple time management matrix (7 Habits of Highly Effective People) take your tasks from your weekly to do list and put them into these four categories to prioritise what to work on when:

– Urgent & Important – we call these ‘A’ tasks. Important means High Value tasks – those tasks that would reap big benefits if done and catastrophic consequences if not done. Urgent means they must be completed or started today to meet a deadline. If we don’t plan these tasks effectively they can end up creeping up on us and then we feel as if we’re constantly firefighting so instead we want to be able to identify these in advance so we can schedule when we’re going to be doing them which leads us to the next category, what we call our B tasks.

– Not Urgent & Important –  our B tasks – these are also high value tasks but they are non-urgent which means we don’t have to do them today – instead we schedule them. For each B task – assign it a date when it needs to be done and then on that date it will become an A task because you planned it to be – not because it crept up on you.

– Urgent & Not Important – C tasks – these are tasks that must be done today because they are urgent but they’re less important – the world won’t end if you don’t get them done. These could be things like emails and timesheets – ideal for tackling in our lower energy pockets because they just don’t need as much brain power as A’s and B’s.

Not Urgent & Not Important – our D tasks they’re not urgent, they’re not important – but they might be if you never did them ever. So perhaps work out why they’re still on your To Do List time and time again. Perhaps they are things you need to Ditch and get rid of or perhaps it’s something you could Delegate.

Once you get to grips with the ABCD method, you can simply add the letters next to each item on your weekly To Do List and plot out what you’re going to do on each day. And then on your daily list you will only have A’s and C tasks to focus on rather than your brain being distracted by trying to remember everything else you have to do that week. Do the A tasks when you have the highest levels of energy and do your C tasks in the slumps. And how do you know which to do first? Remember the frogs and eat the ugliest one first.

There is a subtle irony in that sometimes it takes a little time to save a lot of time, so make sure you use your time wisely to employ one or two of these time saving strategies and notice the positive impact it can have throughout your working week.