Time Management

by Di McLanachan

How can I best schedule my work?

Working to a plan is essential if you wish to maximise your productivity at work, achieve objectives and targets, and meet deadlines on time, every time. However, a plan that is overwhelming in content and which has no flexibility or contingency time built in to allow for unexpected events and interruptions will become de-motivating and useless. A good plan is one that

  • Captures everything that needs to be done
  • Schedules those tasks in priority sequence, depending on their urgency and importance
  • Does not over-estimate how much can realistically be achieved in a normal working day.

The frequency with which you plan your schedule will depend on the nature of your job. Many people do it once a day. Find out what time of day suits you, but it is best to keep to the same time each day if possible. A common time to do it is last thing before you finish work for the day, while things are still fresh in your mind.


Although diaries and things-to-do lists are both scheduling tools, they fulfil this function in different ways. A things-to-do list or daily task card is a prioritised list of tasks to be accomplished during a specified period. A diary serves as a reminder of appointments, who are you meeting, where you need to be and what time you need to be there. It also provides an instant overview of how your time is being utilised and therefore how much time you have available to tackle your things-to-do list.

A diary can also act as a prompt to retrieve items from the bring-forward system and to remind you of date-specific events. It can be either in hard copy, paper form or system-based, such as Outlook. If you use a traditional paper-based diary, make sure you write all entries in pencil. Why? Things change!

A diary can also be used as a central point for recording ideas, goals, your more profound thoughts, anything that you would like to be able to access easily and, if appropriate, daily. This is an excellent way of maintaining visibility of goals – an important factor in goal achievement. For more information on this, see the topic on Goal Setting.

Can I stop being late for appointments?

If you are someone who tends to cut it fine when getting to appointments, then schedule in your diary the time at which you need to leave your desk as well as the time of the appointment or meeting. Allow contingency time, particularly if a journey is involved, and then focus on this leaving time rather than the scheduled start time of the appointment/meeting. If you have calculated the time to leave your desk correctly and you focus on meeting this deadline, you will never be late again for an appointment. This technique is particularly helpful for Type A people. If you use Outlook as a diary, you could set it to give you an audible prompt at your scheduled time to leave.

Things-to-do lists

The best time to write your daily things-to-do list is at the end of the day, ready for tomorrow. Your last action is to gather together the tasks still outstanding from the day; add the new ones for tomorrow, and plan your schedule. In a way, it is like dumping your schedule out of your mind and onto paper. This can clear the mind so you can better enjoy your family and home life without thoughts of work intruding. Your schedule will be there waiting for you to pick it up fresh in the morning and just get on with it.

If you end up with a list that looks daunting, then you can create a sub-set of items and capture them on a daily action card.

Imagine that tomorrow you will only able to achieve six things from your things-to-do list, but those things are so worthwhile that their achievement will enable you to feel that you’ve had a really productive day. What would those six items be? Identify them and write them down on an index card.

This will be the list you work from, ticking each task off as you complete it. When the final one is accomplished, tear up the card in the satisfying knowledge that you have focused on and achieved all the most important things you needed to do that day.

Ten more tips for your to-do list

If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by your list of things to do (and who doesn’t have days like that), try some of these strategies for regaining perspective and control.

1. Diarise it

Instead of keeping one big ongoing list, write to-do items in your day-timer or calendar according to when you will do them. If you have a big project that you need to start, set aside time for it and write it in your calendar. Create building blocks of time that will support you in completing a big project. For example, half an hour a day adds up, when you are working on a larger project. Schedule time to focus on what you want to achieve.

2. Group it

Divide tasks into categories (such as phone calls, errands, writing), so you gain momentum and save time by doing similar items at set times.

3. Prioritise it

Clearly identify the most important items on the list with stars, or arrange all items in order of their priority and work down from the top. See also How do I prioritise my workload?

4. Highlight it

Rather than crossing completed items off a list (which makes your accomplishments invisible), highlight items with a marker as you complete them. Focusing on what you’ve already done creates energy.

5. Slip it

Write individual items on post-it notes and place them around your work space. As you complete each item, crumple the slip with great glee.

6. 80/20 it

We usually get about 80 per cent of our results from 20 per cent of our work. Leverage your time and resources by concentrating on the 20 per cent of items on your list that will generate the biggest impact.

7. Prune it

Many of the other 80 per cent of the items can probably be safely ignored or delegated to someone else. Do so, and cross them off your list.

8. Divide it

Keep separate work lists: one for work and a personal list at home. Separate tasks within your list that can be done quickly and effortlessly in one day from projects that are long term and will take more time to complete. The filing can be completed in a day, while restructuring the company can’t.

9. Play it

Draw a visual playing board for to-do items and provide rewards to yourself for reaching certain targets. Make it a game.

10. Capture it

Have a capture page where you write down any items, calls, communications or actions that you’ll need to take action on. This page starts today, and anything you capture today will happen tomorrow earliest. Let paper remember, so you can forget.