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In the past week I’ve had two clients ask me to help them with challenges around their time management.  It’s a common question, particularly in business where, to keep costs down we are asked to achieve more with less. What often happens, though, when we have so many things on our plates is that overwhelm takes over, and our productivity plummets – the reverse of the desired effect – and this in turn leads to more overwhelm as the work piles up and little appears to get done.

I’m reminded of Steven Covey’s story about the rocks, pebbles and sand:

A teacher walks into a classroom and sets a glass jar on the table. He silently places 2-inch rocks in the jar until no more can fit. He asks the class if the jar is full and they agree it is. He says, “Really,” and pulls out a pile of small pebbles, adding them to the jar, shaking it slightly until they fill the spaces between the rocks. He asks again, “Is the jar full?” They agree. So next, he adds a scoop of sand to the jar, filling the space between the pebbles and asks the question again. This time, the class is divided, some feeling that the jar is obviously full, but others are wary of another trick. So he grabs a pitcher of water and fills the jar to the brim, saying, “If this jar is your life, what does this experiment show you?” A bold student replies, “No matter how busy you think you are, you can always take on more.” “That is one view,” he replies. Then he looks out at the class making eye contact with everyone, “The rocks represent the BIG things in your life – what you will value at the end of your life – your family, your partner, your health, fulfilling your hopes and dreams. The pebbles are the other things in your life that give it meaning, like your job, your house, your hobbies, your friendships. The sand and water represent the ‘small stuff’ that fills our time, like watching TV or running errands.” Looking out at the class again, he asks, “Can you see what would happen if I started with the sand or the pebbles?”

I love this story, and have heard it many times and with slight variations, but the message is always the same. Make sure you start with your big rocks and fit everything else around them.  This is a great strategy for anything you want to achieve, whether in your business, work or private life.

Setting boundaries is important, too – make sure you don’t take on extra work that you just don’t have time for, without getting agreement on what won’t get done, otherwise you will be working long hours, stressed and potentially heading for burnout.

If you are part of a team, or a team leader/manager, is there spare capacity amongst your colleagues for them to take on new tasks? Delegating down offers them a chance to step up – they may relish the challenge – and perhaps come up with some new ideas.

If time management is a challenge for you, here are some tips – please share any other ideas that have worked for you in the comments:

1. Identify your top three goals. Make a list of the weekly tasks supporting those goals, schedule activities in your calendar,  evaluate your progress each week and re-adjust accordingly.
2. Focus on the task in that moment – don’t multi-task – it’s counter productive.
3. Automate productivity by scheduling activities on the same day and at the same time each week.
4. Review your progress at the end of each week. What worked? What didn’t? What can you do differently?
5. Make sure you schedule some down time – give yourself time to relax – mentally and physically so you can reflect, recharge and rejuvenate.  Find what works for you – some people like listening to music, reading a book, meditation. Don’t underestimate the importance of taking time out – you’ll find you can tackle the challenges with a fresh mind when you’ve had a break.

But I’m curious – what time management strategies work for you? I’d love you to share in the comments below!