Time Management for Recruiters: 4 Basic Steps (Plus Tips & Cheat Sheet)

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You can either drown in the chaos of a thousand things competing for your attention, or you can practice simple, thoughtful, work-bettering time management.

Surfer riding a large wave.

You can either drown under a thousand competing tasks, or you can rise above the waves with basic time management practices. (Credit: Anton Repponen via Unsplash)

How many calls, emails, InMails, meetings, notifications, reach-outs, offers, screens, intakes, reports, messages, pop-ups, requests, updates, applicants, candidates, managers, leaders, and colleagues do you have to deal with? Talent acquisition is an onslaught of a thousand seemingly important things competing for your attention.

Many of the recruiters I know love it for this very reason. They love the rush of juggling so many moving parts, the multiple ongoing projects, the surprises that pop up, and the tactical maneuvering needed just to keep pace. If they’re not careful, though – if you’re not careful and don’t intentionally manage the deluge, you will drown in the chaos. You will fall behind, forget to do tasks, miss deadlines, groan and roll your head back in frustration, pull your hair out, and ultimately, fail to perform at your job.

How do you avoid drowning? How do you, not just keep your head above the surface, but actually pull yourself up and on top of that moving wave of stuff begging for your attention? How do you get it all done?

Practice basic time management. I know, such a revelation, right? And I know, the thought probably makes you shudder. You might think, “Uh, yeah, just another thing I need to do.” And maybe to start, yeah, it is. But if you don’t control your time, someone or something else will.

It doesn’t need to be complex or high maintenance. A few simple practices – practices designed to complement how your mind operates, work with your instincts, simplify decision-making, and reduce your reliance on willpower – can help you ride that wave.

There are four basic steps:

  1. capture,
  2. assign,
  3. align, and
  4. focus.

Let’s take a closer look. (If you’re short on time, download the one-page cheat sheet.)

1. Capture

Get it out of your head.

Time management for recruiters step 1) Capture – Get it out of your head.

(Credit: Anton Repponen via Unsplash)

Every time you think up or receive a new task to do, write it down. Get it out of your head.

Don’t trust yourself to remember everything you need to do: you won’t. A 2015 study by the University of Birmingham published in Nature Neuroscience found that competing memories interfere with retrieval of each other. In other words, the more you try to remember one fact, the more likely it is you’ll forget another competing fact.

What is your mental to-do list, if not a set of memories competing for your attention? That’s why “capturing” what you need to do (also the first step in David Allen’s popular “Getting Things Done” methodology) is such an important practice.

How to do it

Start simple. Keep your note-taking system easy to do and maintain. You want it to become a reflex. The easier it is to do, the more likely you’ll stick with it.

Choose a tool you already use. You can go analog: a pen or pencil and a blank notebook, a stack of index cards, or a folded scrap of paper can all work. Or, you can go digital: Note-taking apps like Apple Notes, Google Keep, and Evernote; cloud-based word processors like Google Docs or Microsoft Word; and task management apps like Asana and Trello are all effective.

I’ve tried ’em all over the years, having migrated from scraps of paper, to a Google Doc, to Asana. My advice: pick a tool you’re already comfortable with. And whatever you use, make sure it’s something you can keep at your side at all times; avoid software that lives exclusively on your desktop and doesn’t sync between devices, and avoid whiteboards or easel pads that are stuck in one place.

Be specific. When taking down tasks, assume you’ll forget the details – because you will. Ever find a random phone number you scribbled in the margins of a document? Or an unintelligible grouping of words you scrawled out on a napkin? What was that for? What did that mean? We’ve all been there. Don’t put yourself in that situation; capture clear, specific information. Don’t overthink. Don’t filter. Just write it all down.

Giver yourself orders. Tasks are actions. Use imperative verbs to tell yourself what you need to do (e.g. Call, source, email, schedule, meet, review).

2. Assign

Give it time to get done.

Time management for recruiters step 2) Assign – Give it time to get done.

(Credit: Jeremy Bishop via Stocksnap.io)

Give your to-do’s time to happen, because what doesn’t get scheduled doesn’t get done.

How to do it

Set blocking time. At the start or end of every work day, spend 5 to 10 minutes blocking time in your calendar for the to-do’s you captured. Estimate how long you’ll need to complete the tasks, and just get them in there – don’t worry about finding the perfect scheduling quite yet.

Go digital. You could use a paper agenda, but a digital calendar – Google Calendar is definitely the standard, but Apple Calendar works too – will allow you more flexibility as you move tasks around (a little foreshadowing to step three). Plus, you can set up notifications, share events, and benefit from a whole bunch of other memory-supporting features that paper just can’t replicate.

Add 50 percent to your estimate. Tasks always take longer to do than you think they will. Always. This is called the “planning fallacy,” a term coined by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky to describe the phenomenon in which people underestimate how long a future task will take, even when they have done the task before. In his excellent book Essentialism, Greg McKeown suggests that a simple and effective way to protect against this is simply “to add a 50 percent buffer to the amount of time we estimate it will take to complete a task or project.” I concur and find this strategy tremendously helpful at figuring out how much time I actually need to get stuff done. So, if you think you need 30 minutes to complete that report, give yourself 45 minutes and don’t think twice about it.

Include the in-between tasks. Don’t forget to pencil in all the little mundane but unavoidable stuff: commuting to a meeting, prepping for a call, breaks, checking email, etc. Getting this stuff on your calendar helps you understand how much stuff you can realistically complete in a day.

Adopt visual cues. A great feature available in most digital calendars is the ability to create multiple calendars that display on the same schedule. You can create different calendars for different types of tasks, each with different privacy settings, notification defaults, and color-coding to provide a quick, visual point of reference. Personally, I use five calendars: Work/Busy, Work/Available, Personal/Busy, Personal/Available, Personal, and In Transit. You could have different calendars for meetings, calls, interviews, sourcing, reporting, and other common types of tasks.

3. Align

Schedule it for optimal timing.

Time management for recruiters step 3) Align – Schedule it for optimal timing.

(Credit: Georg Nietsch via Unsplash)

You don’t work in a vacuum. Hiring priorities shift, budgets change, colleagues are out sick, and your own energy changes throughout the day. You could work hard to fight the inevitable circumstances outside your control. Or, you can work smart – get more done, more easily – by moving the tasks blocked in your calendar to times that take advantage of circumstances.

How to do it

Time to align. Once you get all your to-do’s onto your calendar, take another 5 to 10 minutes to set them at exactly the optimal time to make them happen.

Go for 90. Schedule your work in 90-minute blocks, followed by 15-minute (or even 30-minute) breaks. Several years ago, I learned about K. Anders Ericsson’s famous study of violinists, and how the top performers tend to work for 90 minutes followed by a break, in cycles. Since then, that’s pretty much exactly how I’ve scheduled my days: 90 minutes on, 30 minutes off. And, at least in my case, it works; I accomplish better work.

Put number one first. Get the most challenging or important task done first thing. Whether or not you’re a morning person, you’re apt to experience ego depletion and decision fatigue as your workday progresses. This means that by the afternoon, it’s harder exert self-control over yourself and make good choices – in other words, it gets tougher to solve problems and complete challenging work.

Be kind during your downtime. Schedule easier, repetitive, or rote tasks during the period of the day you are least energized and focused, likely right before lunch, and mid-afternoon. Personally, I schedule calls, meetings, and admin tasks during the slowest parts of my day – work that is less mentally taxing.

Think ahead. What can you do today that will make your life easier in the future? Could you send reach-out InMails on Thursday instead of Monday, so your inbox is full of replies at the start of the week instead of the end? Could you schedule a little extra time to finesse the format of your report, to increase readability, create a template, and reduce the time you need to put it together next time?

Learn from (your) history. When your day deviates from your schedule – and, of course, it inevitably will – update your calendar to reflect how you actually spent your time. This will help you understand your levels of energy and focus from morning through to night. You can then use your calendar history as a reference for plotting out focus-demanding tasks and regenerative breaks at the ideal time.

4. Focus

Get it done by taming distractions.

Time management for recruiters step 4) Focus – Get it done by taming distractions.

(Credit: Vladimir Kudinov via Stocksnap.io)

Time to get stuff done. But accomplishing the tasks you set out to do requires focus. And focus is hard to come by, when notifications, instant messages, new-email pop-ups, and all sorts of other digital interruptions bombard you from every direction.

Perhaps the most dangerous distractor is your phone: always at your side, always tempting you to indulge in that dopamine rush you get when you send a funny Snap, get likes on your Instagram posts, or find new emails in your inbox. Many of us are unaware of the drug-like effects social media and other phone apps can have on our brains.

Your phone – and all the other digital communication tools that surround us at work – are addictive productivity-killers. To accomplish the tasks you set out do, and accomplish them effectively and efficiently, you need a strategy to tame the distractions.

How to do it

Practice tech-free sprinting: If you struggle to focus at work and keep your paws off your phone, try this 14-minute tech-free sprint – adapted from Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen’s book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-tech World.

  1. Set your phone, Slack, and other disruptive gadgets to Do Not Disturb.
  2. Turn on a 14-minute timer.
  3. Place your phone upside-down out of arm’s reach.
  4. Practice giving your full attention to one task – work!
  5. When the timer sounds, let yourself check anything for up to one minute.
  6. Start again.

With practice, work your way up to 19 minutes, then 29 minutes.

Set and forget DND. Do Not Disturb can be preset to automatically turn on at specific times – in Mac OS X,in iOS on your iPhone, in Slack, and in Android. Configure the settings once to give yourself focus-time when you need it, and forget it. Don’t worry about missing out on anything genuinely urgent; most devices and applications can designate specific phone numbers, repeated calls from the same number, or urgent messages to come through.

Automatically track your habits. Apps like RescueTime for your desktop and Moment for your phone track how and when you use your devices. Install them to take learn your habits; how do you actually spend your time on your computer? How often do you really pick up and check your phone? The data doesn’t lie. Learn the facts about your screen time, and use that knowledge to make your device usage more intentional and take back control of your time.

Christian De Pape, Recruiting Social’s Head of Marketing and Content
About the author

Christian De Pape is the head of brand experience at Recruiting Social. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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