Time management tips

As a volunteer board member, you should not let your responsibilities get on top of you. If you are starting to feel harried or like you have so much to do you never get anything finished, you need to take on less or manage your time better.

Being disorganised is bad for you and bad for your board – the work doesn't get done, ill-feeling will result if people think you're not pulling your weight and you come out looking bad.

Time management is really a matter of common sense – but it can't hurt to review this list and see if there is anything you could be doing better. Ultimately, it's up to you to find methods or a system that suits the time you have available and the way you like to work. However, the following is a list of strategies others have found useful.

Make a plan

As the old saying goes, failure to plan is to plan for failure. Rather than taking valuable time out of your busy day, setting aside time for planning will ultimately help you to save time.

  • At the end of every day, clear your desk and make a plan for tomorrow. Don't just think about it – write it down (it shouldn't take longer than a minute – a few dot-points should suffice).
  • If you reach the end of the day without getting all your designated tasks done, transfer the unfinished ones to the following day before you go home.
  • Do a weekly or monthly plan as well, noting all the major tasks that need to be done and by when.
  • After every board meeting, make a note of all of the things you need to do before the next meeting (including reviewing the minutes and making a thorough reading of the meeting papers for the upcoming meeting). Schedule time in your diary for each task. Don't have a diary? Get one! (See below.)
  • Don't take it right to the wire when you set your deadlines. Leave yourself a bit of room to move so if something unexpected crops up you will be able to find time for it.
  • A plan should never be set in stone. Retain flexibility and make sure you don't get so stuck to your plan that you can't switch to suit the circumstances.

Get a diary

Only a fool (or someone with a photographic mind) would rely on their memory to keep track of what needs to be done and by when. You need it stored somewhere outside of your brain.

  • Choose a diary style that suits how you like to operate. Some people find a diary that displays the whole week on one page a good way of seeing and mentally planning for what's coming up later in the week. Others prefer an A4 page for every day. Some people find an electronic diary is more convenient than the traditional hard copy (no more white-out required!). Whichever method you use, stick to one.
  • Use different colours, highlighters, asterisks, exclamations marks – whatever method you can think of to prevent all of your tasks blurring together.
  • Carry your diary with you all the time so you can enter things in it immediately, rather than carrying around little slips of paper to fill in later or reverting back to the old memory method. This is where a digital diary can come in handy.
  • Time specific tasks – board and committee meetings, site tours, official functions, etc. – obviously need to go in the diary but it's a good idea to put other things in there too. For example, a week out from a board meeting mark "review meeting papers". A week before your wedding anniversary, write "buy anniversary present". Getting things organised will help ensure you get things done.

Keep lists

The most successful time managers are often prolific list-keepers. Even if you never look at your lists again, the simple act of making them can help you sort out in your mind what you need to accomplish.

  • Make a list of all the tasks you need to do in a given day (or week, or month – or all three), then prioritise them. Start from the top and tick them off as you go along. This simple act will help reassure you that you are making progress and getting things done.
  • Don't waste time making overly detailed lists. A few words should do.
  • Put your lists somewhere prominent (sticky labels stuck to your computer or on your diary can be a great place to store them) so you can refer to them easily.

Just do it

Procrastination is the enemy of good time management.

  • As we have already said, planning is important – however, don't let this become the task and avoid doing the task itself.
  • Try to stick to your priority lists and avoid the temptation to skip unpleasant tasks. In fact, if you try to get them out of the way early you won't waste energy worrying about doing them. As your mother always told you, the sooner you do it, the sooner you'll be done. (Having said that, torturing yourself may not always be the best course of action – see "take a break" below.)
  • Some people thrive on last-minute pressure but putting things off until the last possible moment is usually not a good idea. Chances are you will either run out of time or produce sub-standard work.
  • Don't confuse non-urgent with unimportant – it may be tempting to put off non-urgent tasks but make sure you make time for them well in advance of your deadlines.
  • Make a rule to never handle one piece of paper more than once – deal with things as they crop up and then move on.
  • Try to avoid distractions when you're in the middle of something big; let your phone go through to the answering machine, switch off your mobile and stick a "do not disturb" sign on the door. Don't let the world back in until the task is done.
  • When you're reading through your board meeting papers, have a pen and paper handy and note any queries you have as you're thinking about them. Follow up as soon as possible to get things clarified while things are still fresh in your mind.

Delegate

This is not Gotham City and you are not Superman. Let others carry some of the load.

  • If you're running short of time, work out if there is anyone who could do the task better or more quickly than you can. Sometimes the hardest decision is to acknowledge that you can't do everything.
  • Think carefully about who you delegate work to. There is no point getting others to help out if you are going to have to spend a lot of time fixing mistakes or chasing up unfinished work.
  • Delegation does not mean palming off your work onto someone who is already up to their ears in their own.

Lighten the load

Sometimes a particular task might seem too enormous to contemplate. There are some strategies you can use to get it done with minimum amount of pain.

  • Divide intimidating tasks into sections and tackle them one at a time. For example, don't list a task as "relocation", divide it into manageable chunks such as "obtain quotes," "check local sites," "consult real estate agents," "connect services," etc. You'll get immense satisfaction from being able to tick your way down the page.
  • If it is not possible to break a task up into parts, allocate a fixed amount of time to it every day.
  • Work when you're at your best. If you're not a morning person, don't try to force yourself into reading complicated reports over breakfast. Save the task for when you are at your brightest; it will take half the time and effort.
  • Don't try to be a perfectionist – you will just end up wasting a lot of time on small, probably inconsequential details, rather than moving on to the things that really matter.

Get organised

Putting a little bit of order into your day will increase your productivity and efficiency immensely.

  • Choose a working environment that suits you. Sitting at the kitchen table with the radio blasting suits some people, for others only a quiet study will do.
  • Having piles of things on your desk is distracting. Everything screams "Look at me! Deal with me!" Put away things you've finished with and try to clear your desk at regular intervals.
  • Don't waste time on searches. Organise your work area and your papers into a system where you can easily find what you need. Divide your work into piles or files (files are better than files as you can get them off your desk):
    • A reading pile/file for things that need to be read. This is the pile you take with you whenever you're going on a drive in the country or to a waiting room (see "use dead time" below);
    • One for each ongoing issue / topic;
    • One for old minutes/agendas – you might need to find one quickly.
  • Don't be scared of the recycle bin. If you have no further use for a document and there is no legal or practical reason to keep it, throw it away.
  • Don't let emails rule your day. Set aside fixed times each day to check them (say, once when you get in, once after lunch and once before you go home, or less or more often depending on your needs). Deal with your emails one by one – try to resist the urge to skip to the more interesting sounding ones – and don't be scared of the "delete" button.

Set goals

If you don't know what you want to achieve, you can't expect to achieve anything much.

  • Write down your short and long-term goals and review your list periodically to make sure you're still on track.
  • Make sure your goals are realistic. Don't set yourself up for failure by taking on more than you can handle. By the same token, don't make your goals too easy either – set yourself some challenges.

Learn to say no

Anyone involved in running a community group knows that those people who are prepared to get in there and do the work tend to be rewarded with more of it. If you're shouldering more than your fair share of the load, it's probably time you learned to say no.

  • Before you accept a task find out exactly what it entails – and how much time it might swallow.
  • Make an honest assessment of the time you have available and don't be afraid to say no if you think something will stretch you too far. It is better to say no now than do a half-hearted effort later.
  • Don't forget balance. Save time for your family, exercise, social events, etc.

Bring dead time back to life

Think about all the time you waste in the course of a day and try to find ways to use it better.

  • Use waiting and travelling time – if you have an appointment with a doctor or a dentist, or you are taking a train or a bus, throw your meeting papers or reading file in your bag.
  • Carry small amounts of reading material with you in case some dead time crops up – a traffic jam or a delayed meeting, for example.

Take a break

Everyone needs time to re-charge energy levels, so take a break when you need one. Soldiering on may ultimately be counter-productive.

  • Try not to get stuck down on things. If something is bugging you, put it aside for a while and come back to it later when you are fresher. It is amazing how solutions can sometimes present themselves when you have stopped thinking about the problem.
  • Don't wear out your attention span – if your mind starts wandering and you can't afford to take a break, switch to a different task for a while.
  • Find time for yourself, whether that means a quick cuppa, a five-minute walk, a night out, or a holiday.
  • When you're taking a break, really take a break. Don't bring your work on holidays with you.

Identify the culprits

Work out what your own individual time wasters are and make plans to eliminate them. Some common ones include:

  • Losing focus and following tangents
  • Reading interesting but ultimately unhelpful articles
  • Procrastination
  • Acting with incomplete information
  • Allowing unnecessary diversions (such as long-winded personal phone calls) at crucial times
  • Fighting fires – spending time reacting to crises rather than planning to reduce the chance of such problems occurring in the future
  • Being supplied with poorly written or structured reports
  • Failing to plan
  • Spending a lot of time on things that don't matter very much and neglecting those that do
  • Poorly structured and/or long-winded meetings
  • Spending time constructing a beautifully phrased letter when a quick phone call would do.

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