Master your time, not just manage it, by focusing on what's important.

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We all have so much to do. Worse, it seems that the more we accomplish, the more work we are given. Imagine waving a magic wand that allows you to finish eight hours’ worth of work in only seven. What would happen to that extra hour?

You know the answer: It would just fill up with more work. You wouldn’t be “ahead.”

It’s not that you shouldn’t try to, say, keep a to-do list, streamline repetitive tasks and batch related ones, organize your projects in order of importance, declutter your workspace, and in general, work smarter, not harder.

But no matter how efficient you make yourself, you still find you have more tasks than you can manage.

You only have so many hours in a day! So use them wisely by learning to master your time, not just manage it. How? By focusing on what’s important, learning to say no, and reining in “urgent” tasks.

What’s an “urgent” task? Hint: They are often announced by bells — the pinging of an email, the chiming of a text, the ringing of a phone. Not only do these ding-dongs keep us from doing real, productive work, they also put us in reactive mode. We are always putting out fires, never building systems to prevent those fires in the first place.

So, where you can, eliminate bells. Check your email only at set times, let voicemail answer your phone, and turn off automatic notifications. Then designate a time for dealing with them — an hour just before or after lunch, for example. You’re not ignoring these tasks. You are just addressing them in the most efficient and least intrusive way possible.

Next, work on your ability to say no. You really don’t have to volunteer for every committee or attend every luncheon or respond to every request for input or advice. We want to be nice people who say “yes” but here’s a little secret: People who have harnessed the knack of saying “no” are more respected by work colleagues.

Once you’ve wrestled the so-called urgent tasks into submission and learned to say no, focus on what’s important — whether it’s creating a new product, building a bridge, developing a lesson plan or preparing an agenda.

This is your real work. Treat it as the high-priority, truly urgent activity it is!

Karen Burns is the author of The Amazing Adventures of Working Girl: Real-Life Career Advice You Can Actually Use. Email her at