“I can’t get it all done.”  “It’s hopeless.”  “They just dump too much on me.”

We hear statements such as these every time we teach a time management training course.  The good news is that the people there recognize that they are in trouble, and many want help.  Here are 12 concepts we introduce throughout the program.

1. Know What You Really Care About

How can you manage your time if you don’t know what you really care about?  Which project is the most important?  Which client?  What are your short and long-term goals?  If you don’t know, how can you expect to get the most out of your day?

2. Start Your Day with a Plan

When you wake up in the morning do you have a clear plan regarding what you need to get done, what you want to get done, and how and when you are going to tackle each task?  Starting the day without a plan is like running errands without a list.  You are bound to do things you don’t need to do, forget to do things you do need to do, and waste a lot of time going back and forth between activities.

Complicated organizers are not necessary.  A simple list of tasks is enough for most people.  If you don’t have one for today, do yourself a favor; stop reading after the next tip and make one.

3. Be Realistic

Often people either put too much on a list or grossly underestimate the amount of time something is going to take. Just as you can’t bake a quality cake in three minutes, why do you think you might be able to write a great report in that amount of time?  If you are not good at estimating, measure your performance against your estimations.  The more you do this, the better you will get at being realistic.

4. Don’t Be a Slave to Technology

Internet addiction is a serious problem that affects people all over the world.  More common, however, is an addiction to instant communication.  If you are checking your Blackberry 80 times a day, you are wasting time.  Just because you are doing something does not mean you are necessarily doing the right things.  Let technology work for you. Don’t work for technology.

5. Accept the Fact That Interruptions Will Occur

If you work anywhere around people, you must accept that interruptions will occur.  For that matter, even without people interruptions can occur (Remember those technology tools.  Have you ever had one act up?).  If you book your day solid, you will rarely accomplish all that you set out to do.  If you work in an environment that has a lot of interruptions, you may want to leave as much of half of your day flexible by scheduling meetings with yourself.  Then when those unknown interruptions show up, you will be better able to deal with them.

6. Determine How Much Your Time Is Worth

If you are a CEO, you should not be making your own travel arrangements.  If you value your personal time, should you really be ironing or mowing the lawn?  If you don’t enjoy those activities, outsourcing them to someone who is paid less for their time makes sense.  Does the President have time to cook dinner?  Hardly.  His time is worth too much.  Figure out what you can outsource, and get it off your plate.

7. Choose Your Friends and Associates Wisely

Some people require more of your time than others.  Evaluate your relationships.  If you find that certain people take up too much of your time for reasons you don’t like, you need to reduce contact.  Do you have a friend who calls you at work all of the time? Do you have an associate who often stops by to “chat”?  Find better places to focus your energy and surround yourself with people who will support your success and not those who sabotage your productivity.

8. Don’t Give Birth to Monkeys

Having a monkey on your back is a common English idiom for having something unpleasant in your life that won’t go away.  Sometimes we find ourselves with monkeys that we have to cope with.  That’s life.  What you don’t want to do, however, is make monkeys of your own.  Don’t promise people that you will be responsible for things beyond your control.  “I will be sure he calls you back.”  Congratulations on the birth of your new monkey.  You now have to ensure that a follow-up call is made, or you must dismiss your integrity and not worry about it.  Instead, try not to create a monkey in the first place.  “I will pass on that message for you.”  Monkey birth averted.

9. Learn to Say No

Along the same lines as the previous suggestion, you must learn to say “no.”  Other people are looking for people to watch their monkeys.  If the tasks you are being asked to do are not something you really care about, you must say no.  This doesn’t mean that you tell your boss that the task she has asked you to complete is just not that interesting so you must say no.  If you are interested in keeping your job, yes is probably a better (more appropriate) choice.

When you do say “no,” it should go something like this: “Can you stay late this evening to work on this project that just came up?  The deadline is tomorrow.”  “I’m scheduled to pick my children up this evening.  What parts of the project can I help with from home after they’ve gone to bed?”

In that example, you’ve taken care of what matters (your family (see tip one), and you’ve offered an alternative.  “No” does not have to come out sounding like “hell no!”

10. Ask for Help

If you are drowning and you’ve made a sincere effort to follow steps one through nine, you need help.  Ask for it.  “I want to do a good job on these accounts and do not feel that I’m able to given my understanding of the current priorities.  Can we talk about this?”  During the conversation that follows, one of three things should happen: (1) The priorities are clarified, and you can work with the resources you have.  (2) The resources are adjusted, and you can get the work done.  (3) You realize that the relationship is not a good fit and you start looking at other options.

11. Find Time to Recharge Your Battery

If you are out of balance, eventually you are going to run into problems.  Are you spending too much time at work?  Are you neglecting the people and activities you enjoy beyond work?  Are you exercising and eating right?  If not, you can survive – sometimes even for decades.  But why simply survive when you can live?

12. Evaluate Your Progress Against Your Goals at Least Once a Month

Everyone can get out of balance and lose focus if the systematic ritual of celebrating successes and setting new goals is not in place.  On a regular basis, you should schedule time with yourself to see where and how you are.  Are you happy with your ability to manage your time and productivity?  Are you happy with your relationships? What changes do you need to make?

Being productive and staying that way is a continuous process.  Now that you’re done reviewing the top 12 ways you can improve your productivity, what do you want to do today?

Visit our productivity course overviews for more information about time management training.