Top Time-Management Tricks

Tackle that crazy schedule! Readers divulge their secrets for doing it all and still having time to unwind.

October 1, 2006

In a profession that requires you to juggle so many tasks and responsibilities every day, effective time management is absolutely critical to your success. That’s why we asked readers of our monthly Business Tips Newsletter to share their best strategies for achieving their ambitious business goals and still having time for family, friends, and fun.

Through the responses that poured in, it’s clear that how you keep track of your schedule is a very personal decision. It takes into account your technology comfort level, your family demands, your working style, and your self-determination.

Some people can’t live without their PDA (“It’s my best friend!” one reader wrote), while others stick to pencil and paper. Some keep their to-do list in their head, while others say they’d be lost if they didn’t write down a minute-by-minute plan for each day. But regardless of what form their time-management system takes, all agreed on the importance of having one and sticking to it.

If you can find just a few new strategies for keeping your hectic life in order, this article will be well worth the valuable time it takes to read it.

Merge High-Tech with Common Sense

I carry around an electronic PDA and a small but sturdy pad of paper. I found that I don't have the savvy or patience to enter every single to-do item in my PDA, so I put all of my appointments — business and personal — in the PDA, and I jot down my daily and weekly to-do items in my notepad. I set audio reminders on my PDA for my appointments, and I simply check off the items on my to-do list with a pen. It's the best of both worlds for me. — Becky Jordan, RE/MAX Execs, Carson, Calif.

Plan a Full Year in Advance

People sometimes think I’m crazy, but I schedule everything as far in advance as possible. I spend a half day every November laying out my calendar for the entire year ahead. I plan for vacations, days off, PTA meetings, and continuing education. I also slot time for routine events like paying taxes, pre-planning for client appreciation parties, and even taking out the trash! For some people, this may seem way overboard. But for me, it works! I print the calendar and give it to my family and my assistants. Because my schedule is so well-planned, I never miss my children’s events, and to me that’s priceless. — Sandra Harvey GRI, RE/MAX Space Center, Houston

Tell Real Estate Bedtime Stories

I have a 2-year-old daughter who loves when I read to her. In an effort to spend more time with her, while also getting some essential reading done, I read my REALTOR® Magazine aloud to her and review contracts by reading them aloud — very enthusiastically, of course! She really doesn't care what I’m reading, she just loves sitting down with me, listening to me read, and pointing to words on the page. — Latora Joiner-Francis, Classic Realty Group Inc., Hollywood, Fla.

Leave Yourself a Voicemail

As I am running errands, cooking dinner, or trying to fall asleep, and I think of something I need to do, I call my office and leave myself a voicemail message. I use the same strategy for personal reminders when I’m at work — I call home and leave a message. Sometimes when I get back to the office, I wonder who in the world would have called me at midnight, only to realize it was me! — Arianna Jordan Burke, Highlands Association of REALTORS®

Turn off the Tube

I totally eliminated watching television five years ago because I became increasingly aware of how useless and inane most of the programs are. I now have so much more time to do the things I should be doing: keeping up with my reading, getting the laundry and other chores done, making phone calls, and more. — Diane Stephan, Wagner Realty, Parrish, Fla.

Carry an ‘Emergency Kit’

I carry an emergency kit with important forms and presentation materials, along with some essential office supplies, so that I can advance transactions when they spontaneously occur. I don’t have to head back to the office, and I can leave items with the client or customer to complete and get back to me. — Sam Nein, CRS®, CRB®, ABR®

Keep Conversations in Check

This happens to all of us at one time or another: You’re engaged in conversation with a prospect. The conversation gets exciting and interesting. Then you notice that it’s already time to end the meeting if you’re going to make your next appointment on time. To end the conversation without being rude, I say, “Oh yeah, and one last thing …” following by a semi-meaningless question that won’t take long to answer. This sends a signal that it’s time to go, and it almost always keeps me on schedule. —Moe Lakhany, Trump Realty, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

Capture Ideas on a Voice Recorder

When I'm out on appointments I carry a small voice recorder. As I get calls on my cell phone while driving, or when I think of things I need to do, I simply record a quick message, which I transfer to my schedule later when I get home. This is quicker, tidier, and much safer in the car than it would be to jot down notes on a pad of paper or sticky notes. — Nicola Barr, Prudential New Jersey Properties, Basking Ridge, N.J.

Take Inventory of Your Time

You must control time or time will control you. To begin effectively managing your time, you first need to understand where you’re wasting time. So before you create your schedule, spend a couple of “average” days keeping close track of what you do and how long it takes.

Once you have an idea of what your days are like, recreate your schedule by filling in the “non-negotiable” events, such as your weekly sales meeting and picking up your child from school. Next, schedule “quality of life” activities, including exercise and social events. The time that’s left over is for your core work activities. Schedule blocks of time for prospecting, client appointments, follow-up, inspections, paperwork, and other things you have to do.

By scheduling personal and quality of life issues first, you’ll be more likely to be happy and productive during your actual work time. — Vincent Giordano, Exit Realty Professionals, Baton Rouge, N.O.

Just Say No

I focus my business development on the people and activities that I enjoy most and say no to anything out of my target market. This makes events, lunches, and volunteering fun and exciting because I love what I’m doing and the people with whom I’m doing it. My enthusiasm also makes me a much more fun and interesting person to prospective clients who participate in the same activities as me.

I’ve learned that when you’re focused, it’s easy to decide when to say yes, and when to smile and say “no, thank you.” I don’t feel guilty about declining because I know I’m giving 100 percent in many other ways. Saying “no” gives me the time to invest in myself, my family, and my business.

— Dana Kunz, Pacific Union GMAC Real Estate, Greenbrae, Calif.

Do It Now, Not Later

Never, and I mean never, put a call on hold. Nobody is more important than the person you’re talking to right now. When clients get used to the fact that you never put them on hold and that you return their messages in a timely manner, they’ll appreciate your attention and become loyal sources of referrals. This also goes back to my practice of handling something once, and only once.

If you have an invoice, pay it while you are reading it. If there is a dispute, resolve it at once. Most things take a very few minutes to handle, and as soon as they’re accomplished you have time for important things like creating a new campaign or calling your sphere of influence. If you set things aside for later, you’ll find that later never comes. Phone calls don’t get returned, deadlines get missed, bills don’t get paid, and you have a long to-do list that will drive you crazy. — Tom Bernardo, GRI, Prudential Florida WCI Realty, Ft. Meyers Beach, Fla.

Customize Your Grocery List

It took a little time to devise, but my customized grocery shopping list has been well worth it. I took about 120 common items that I purchase, and typed up a grocery shopping list, arranged by my store's floor plan. First, I wrote out the list, then I walked the store, noting the aisle number besides each item. I typed it up in order by aisle. It came out to be four columns, so I print it two-sided, then cut it down the middle. Each full sheet makes two shopping lists.

I don't backtrack through the store because I know where everything is located, I buy fewer impulse items, and I skip aisles that I obviously don't need to take. The result: My shopping time is cut in half. If I'm really in a hurry, my daughter goes with me, we tear the list down the middle, and we both grab a cart. We start and opposite sides of the store and meet at the checkout. We can be done in 10 to15 minutes. I can't tell you how many times people in the store have seen the list in my hand and stopped me and asked, "Where did you buy that list?" — Rhonda Stanton, Redlands Real Estate, Redlands, Calif.

Attack the Pile

With me, it's the little things that get out of control and make me crazy. When I start to feel overwhelmed with clutter, whether it's on my desk or in my home, I take a short block of time — 20 to 45 minutes — and I turn off all communication; I let voice mail take over. Then I just attack the pile. I'm always amazed at how much I can accomplish in this short period. Once things are organized and the clutter is removed, it's easy for me to get back on task. — Ellen H. Engels, Weichert, REALTORS®-Northeast Group, Sarasota Springs, N.Y.

Save Time and Gas Money

I've always been good at prioritizing my day, but with the increased demands on my time and the increased cost of doing business — fuel in particular — I now plan out my appointments and trips so that I do things in the most efficient order. I fill in the gaps between scheduled appointments with phone calls and both business and personal stops I need to make along the way. — Warren Rebman, Hughes Group Real Estate Services, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Put Personal Time on a Pedestal

Twelve years ago I was working full time and raising two daughters on my own. I was almost always on the phone or running to and from appointments. Then, I had a wake-up call. My oldest daughter asked me how long my appointments usually last. I told her that it depends, but that they’re normally 30 minutes to an hour. Without skipping a beat, she asked if she could have an appointment with me.

I now make appointments for everything. Going with a friend to get a pedicure? It’s a one-hour meeting. Sneaking away for a movie? I tell clients: "I've got appointments from 1 to 3 p.m." I don’t have one bit of guilt about this. I equate my personal time to a million-dollar closing, and I would be crazy to miss that!

As my daughters grew up, I rarely missed a sporting event — and one of them competed nationally in gymnastics. I made every parent-teacher conference, and I still have a weekly "meeting" with a girlfriend for cocktails and appetizers. — Shelly Brunette, Real Estate One, Traverse City, Mich.

Cherish the Quiet Hours

I never, ever sleep in. I am always up between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m. For three to five hours, you have total quiet and you can really concentrate on important issues without the interruption of phones or distractions. If I ever feel the need for more sleep or rest, I plan a night to go to bed early. Being an early bird frees up hours during the busy business day to handle situations that arise without warning. My personal belief is that the end of the day is the wrong time to do your intense "focus work." After all, you've already had a hectic day. Make your list of the important things to do first thing in the morning, and then you can wind down for the night. You sleep better too! — Thomas Burns, Kennedy Realty Group, Baton Rouge, La.

Plan in Short Blocks of Time

Tasks have a tendency to fill the time allotted. For example, if you give yourself all morning to do lead follow-up, you will do everything but lead follow-up for the first couple hours. Before the morning ends you’ll realize you haven’t followed up on leads and push it off to the next day. However, if you schedule it for just an hour or half-hour everyday, you’ll see it’s much easier to accomplish. — Julz Brown, ABR®, Group, REALTORS®, Cincinnati

Count on Traffic Jams

If you never want to be late for an appointment, here’s what you should do: Set a timeline, starting from when you need to be at your destination and working back to the time you need to begin preparation. Be sure you don’t cut it too close. If you need to be at an appointment at 10 a.m. and your driving time is 60 minutes, don't think to yourself: "It'll take me about an hour to get there so I'll leave at 9 a.m." That's a recipe for disaster. Work it out from finish to start:

10:00 Meeting starts
9:45 Park your car, walk to building, freshen up, and arrive early
8:45 Start you engine and begin your commute
8:35 Check your brief case for pertinent materials, get the address and driving directions, gather outer gear (overcoat, umbrella, purse, sunglasses), and leave your home or office

You may want to add a little cushion into your driving time to account for road construction and weather or traffic delays. Even with sophisticated GPS navigation units and online traffic information, commute times will always be unpredictable. — John Alesi, Century 21 Superstars, Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.

Jot Daily Notes in a Diary

I use a spiral notebook as a diary. Each day I date the top of the page and create a list of things to do, people to call, and people to see. Once I complete the action, I draw a line through it. I also use the notebook to jot down notes from any calls I get or make during the day. It becomes a business diary. I can’t tell you how many times I have been able to refer back to it to let someone know when they called me and what the conversation was about. I’ve carried this idea over from my days in the corporate world, and it has worked wonders in keeping little scraps of paper off my desk.— Thom Abbott, Morris & Raper InTown, Atlanta

Don’t Overstuff Your Day

My work day is broken down into three zones: One for running errands, one for completing real estate tasks that I am not fond of, and one for active client time.

To make sure my schedule isn’t too ambitious for one day, I put a limit on how many tasks I can complete. For example, I allow six personal and real estate errands per day. Should additional things pop up, I add them to the following day. I place a big "C" over each scheduled task after I complete it. At the end of the day, it is so rewarding to see all those C’s!

I never save my least favorite tasks for the end of the day; I usually schedule those for the middle of the day. I end each day with tasks I’m most looking forward to. It may be calling a good friend or a long-time client whom I haven't spoken to in a while or inviting a client to dinner. I have tried many different schedule techniques and this works best for me. — Dorothy Oliver, Century 21 El Camino, Sunnyvale, Calif.

Waste Time to Gain Time

I have found that actually “wasting time” has greatly improved how productive I am. When my schedule starts to look overwhelming (which happens daily!) I intentionally take a five-minute break from everything. I actually time it on my watch. During this time, I cannot write, type, answer the phone, or even look at the computer. I then review schedule mentally of everything I have to do and ask myself what’s causing me to be so overwhelmed. I focus on the most important things to get done that day. I always come out of that time with a clearer purpose for the day, a more relaxed outlook, and the ability to get more done. — George Philbeck, Keller Williams Advantage II Realty, Orlando, Fla.

Turn on Your Kitchen Timer

To start my day with as little hassle as possible, I fix my daughter breakfast then set my kitchen timer for 20 minutes. During that time, I get ready for my day without having to constantly check on the time. When the ringer goes off, I reset it for another 20 minutes to allow my daughter time to dress and get ready for school. When it rings for the second time, we’re both out the door on time for school and work. — Karen Craigo, ABR®, GRI, Century 21 Boling & Associates, Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Tackle Spicy Tasks First

I’ve created what I call the salsa list. I put my tasks into one of three columns, which are labeled “Hot,” “Medium,” and “Mild.” I focus on the Hot items first thing in the morning and get as many as I can checked off the list. Then I move on to the Medium and Mild columns. — Debra Griffin, Realty Executives Bay Coast, Rehoboth Beach, Dele.

Take Your Laptop to Open Houses

I always take my laptop with me to open houses because that’s one of the best times to get a new buyer client or listing. I run a slide show presentation of other listings similar to the one I'm showing and insert a link to the MLS Web site for additional information on each property. I hand out an MLS sheet with my card attached for every property showcased in the presentation, then follow up with prospects on Mondays.

If it's a slow open house, I use the time to write thank you notes, update my presentations, review my itinerary for the next week, or just read the Sunday paper. Open houses are never a waste of time for me. — Debra Paul, Preferred Realty & Development, Metamora, Ill.

Use the 4-Folders Strategy

Have 4 folders on your desk marked:

  1. Do Now!
  2. File
  3. Reference
  4. Tomorrow

"Reference" is for letters, articles, and other information you want to hang on to. "Tomorrow" is for things that need to be addressed, but not right away. By dividing up the papers that accumulate on your desk into these four files, you'll have a neater work area and eliminate lost papers. — Mike Ide, Prudential Advantage, REALTORS®, St. Louis

Do a Greeting-Card Shopping Spree

In January of each year, I buy all of the greeting cards I’ll need for birthdays, anniversaries, and other events. I write out, sign, and address all the cards the first week of January. I write the date I want to mail them in the corner where the stamp goes. Then I take the cards to my office and put them in a mail rack in order of date of mailings. This way, I save time throughout the year, and I never forget to send a card.— Alexis Bolin, ABR®, CRS®, ERA Old South Properties Inc., Pensacola, Fla.

Hire an Assistant (or Two)

What I’ve learned over the years is you that can't do it all on your own. The best move you can make is to hire an assistant or multiple assistants if necessary. Yes, you have to take the leap and spend money to make money, but it works — I guarantee it. Find the things you enjoy about the business and concentrate on those tasks. Delegate the rest. Hiring people to do the things I’m not good at and the tasks I don't enjoy allowed me to do more of what I enjoy, including spending time with my two kids. — Wade Hanson,, Minneapolis

Have a Well-Stocked Home Office

My first tip is to create a well-stocked and fully functional office in your home, complete with copy machine, fax machine, and scanner. This will eliminate unnecessary trips to the office. Second, produce your materials in bulk. Although it’s nice to hand clients a presentation with their name appearing throughout, it’s far more efficient to keep fully prepared presentations stocked at every location you may do business so that you’re always prepared. — Sonja Tkach, Century 21 Morrison Realty, Bismarck, N.D.

Send E-Mail from the Dentist’s Office

Portable technology lets me knock things off my to-do list while waiting for a client who’s running late, waiting for open house visitors to show up, and even while waiting to have a cavity filled. At a recent visit to the dentist, I was able to respond to e-mail to put out “a fire” while sitting in the chair.

I have a Treo smartphone and an Acer Tablet PC, which I’ve which I’ve loaded with all of the real estate forms I need. Rather then go back to the office to fax an offer, I e-mail it from the road. Listing presentations and comparative market analyses are done in a fraction of the time using Microsoft Word and the Find/Replace feature, which helps me quickly personalize the pages. I convert the document to a PDF and then e-mail it to sellers before my return visit to secure the listing.

This gives them the chance to review the presentation and CMA materials ahead of time. As a result, I can spend more time at the appointment personally connecting with the sellers, rather then spending most of the time reviewing materials. — Kris MacDonald, Insight Realty Group, Roslindale, Mass.

Manage Your Marketing

At the beginning of each month, I prepare a marketing calendar to schedule ads running in newspapers and magazines, brochures to be delivered to other salespeople, dates to send mail to past clients (including birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and homebuying anniversaries). The calendar also is marked with dates for sending MLS e-mail messages to announce new listings, open houses, and price changes. All direct mail pieces, ad content, and marketing brochures are prepared in advance. With the calendar, my assistant can handle all of the marketing activities and I can focus on other things. — Sarah Bennett, RE/MAX Advanced Inc., Fort Collins, Colo.

Editor’s note: All of the above time management tips were submitted by readers via e-mail in September. Some have been edited for clarity and length.

Kelly Quigley

Kelly Quigley is the former managing editor of REALTOR® Magazine.