It’s the last quarter of the year, which means it’s crunch time at work and at home. The convergence of holiday planning and year-end deliverables can rattle even the best time managers, says Renee Cullinan, time management pro and co-founder of Stop Meeting Like This. But not if you have the right strategy. These tactics will help you tackle your to-do list like a champ, and ensure your holidays are actually happy this year.
Don’t just list. Create a system of tasks that sorts and prioritizes. Cullinan suggests a few different ways:
- By time: Organized by tasks requiring less than 15 minutes, 15-60 minutes or more than an hour.
- By importance: “Rocks” are critical tasks; “pebbles” are important, but not critical; and “sand” would just be nice to accomplish.
- By due date: Include tasks for today, this week, this month and this year.
All three strategies help you better organize your day and highlight items you can do on the fly. “Use spare moments while you’re waiting for a meeting to start or standing in line to complete one of the quick hits,” Cullinan says.
Multitasking may feel more productive, but research says you’re better off systematically working through your list, one task at a time. “It’s a misconception that humans are good at multitasking,” says Danny Garcia, marketing operations manager at Stacklist. “We focus best on one task, and if we’re in ‘deep work,’ distractions take away all the momentum.”
Speaking of distractions, constantly checking email is one of the biggest, says Alex Moore, CEO of email productivity company Boomerang. “Receiving an alert every minute for a new email is productivity kryptonite—not to mention, it takes 64 seconds to recover from being interrupted,” he explains. Instead, set aside 30-minute periods a few times a day when you can carefully read and respond to messages.
Another pro tip? Create a secondary account for things like newsletters and promotional mail, suggests Maura Thomas, founder of RegainYourTime.com. “Use a Gmail account with automatic forwarding for anything you actually want, like travel confirmations, while still protecting your ‘real’ account,” she says. “It’s like having a personal assistant for your email.”
An organized inbox can save you time and ensure no message goes missing or unanswered. E-business consultant Alastair McDermott finds the “Do, Defer, Delegate, Delete” method most effective.
“If it takes less than five minutes to reply, forward, process, tag or file, I will do it immediately. If it will take longer, or doesn’t need [immediate] action, I will defer by using an email scheduling tool like FollowUpThen that moves it out of my inbox until a particular time period passes,” McDermott says. “If the email action is for someone else, I will forward it with a note. And if it doesn’t fall into one of the first three categories, I remove it from the inbox.”
Whether you’re coordinating meetings or parties, firming up times and dates with multiple people can be time-consuming. Garcia suggests simplifying the process with tools like Doodle, where you send recipients a link or embeddable calendar widget with various time and date options, and all they have to do is select what works for them.
Being strategic with your time can help you get more done without sacrificing precious personal time.
“If you look at my calendar, you’ll see color boxes everywhere,” says Skillify‘s managing director Shireen Jaffer. “I schedule time for everything, from sleeping to meetings to working out to brainstorming.” She says the strategy helps her both avoid distractions when necessary and soak up her free time because she’s exclusively planned for it.
One of the biggest seasonal time-sucks (and wallet drainers) is gift buying. So consumer spending expert Andrea Woroch suggests researching deals as soon as possible, and knocking out much of your shopping in one shot.
“There are several holiday promotions to help you spend less on gifts over the next several weeks, [but] it’s important to know which event will feature desired items at the best prices,” she says, adding that DealNews.com is a great source of information. For example, you can take advantage of Free Shipping Day on December 16, when thousands of retailers waive shipping costs and minimums.
Cullinan suggests outsourcing whenever you can. “Pay the babysitter a little extra to wrap presents with the kids,” she says. And if you’re mailing cards, create your greeting through a site like Minted, which offers free address printing. All you’ll need to do is stuff and stamp.
When possible, turn errands and social engagements into chances to bang out multiple to-dos. Need help trimming your tree or putting up decorations? Buy refreshments and turn it into a trimming party.
“Headed to Trader Joe’s to shop for the holiday dinner? Grab stocking stuffers and your contribution to the office party while you’re there,” says Cullinan. Or tack on a holiday errand before or after you meet up with a friend.
Friday afternoons are notoriously difficult when it comes to staying focused. “Since most people have tuned out, it’s not the best time to send emails or start new assignments,” says Bryan Robertson, chief revenue officer at Mindrya. “But Fridays are an excellent day to plan your schedule [and] make sure you hit the ground running when Monday morning arrives.”
Plus, you’ll be less anxious about the week ahead on Sunday evening, since you already know what’s on your plate and how you’ll tackle it.