Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century English poet, once claimed, ‘time and tide wait for no man’. If he were writing in these more gender-inclusive times I’m sure he would add, ‘or woman also’. Of course Chaucer is right, no one can control time. In reality, time management is simply self management. So, what would it be like if you could achieve and experience all the things you want to in both your personal and professional life within the optimum time frame and with a minimum of stress? That would look pretty much like success to me.
The reality is, while our life spans may be shorter or longer, we all have exactly the same amount of time each day – 24 hours, 1440 minutes or 86,400 seconds. To effectively manage our time we must stop doing some things and start doing – others.
Here are some common practices I encourage people to stop doing:
- Daily To Do Lists – i.e. starting each day by listing, in the order you think of them, all the things that have to be done today. Such lists are invariably limited by today’s timeframe, and tend to lack priority or importance – they are a poor guide for making the most out of each day.
- Tyranny of the Urgent – Simply because something is urgent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s important. Focusing only on the urgent inevitably leaves us in catch up mode; stressed, exhausted and frustrated – rarely achieving what we had hoped to by day’s end.
- Procrastination – Putting off those activities or responsibilities that we find unpleasant or less satisfying is human nature. But it only results in rush and panic at the last minute; or as one pastor who was discouraging his audience from preparing sermons on Saturday evening called it, ‘the inspiration of desperation!’ At such times we are rarely at our best.
- Checking Emails First Thing – A colleague I once worked with couldn’t start his working day until he had opened his computer and checked his emails. While this seems at first sight a reasonable thing to do, the problem is checking our emails first thing tempts us to make responding to them our top priority before considering anything else. I recommend not opening emails until after you’ve considered your planned daily schedule.
As well as stopping to do some things effective time management depends on starting to practice doing some possibly new things. Here are a few suggestions:
- Focus on Priorities – For people in leadership roles our priorities should be what I call our ‘capacity builders’. Those activities that develop, build and sustain the capacity and motivation of our team, especially leaders who report to us, and ourselves. Usually, they fall into the category of those activities that are important but are not necessarily urgent. Two thirds to 70% of a leader’s time and energy should be devoted to addressing such priorities. Be sure to schedule your priorities into your annual, monthly and weekly calendars to ensure you have sufficient time to work on them. And wherever possible give energy to them, when you are at your freshest and most creative allocating sufficient chunks of time to each.
- Buffer Scheduling – When scheduling your calendars be sure to allow space for the unexpected. Some activities may take longer than we expect, there may be unavoidable interruptions or an emergency may mean you need to defer. Be sure to allow buffer space (sometimes called ‘white space’) for such possibilities.
- Practice the Pareto Principle – Discovered by the 19th century Italian economist Wilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule states that 20% of inputs deliver 80% of outputs. This means that of ten possible activities approximately two (it’s not meant to be mathematically exact) will deliver 80% of the benefit to achieving your goals. Discern what those 20%ers are and devote sufficient time to them.
- Do an Occasional Time Audit – Many time management specialists advocate the practice of periodically carrying out a personal audit of how you have used your time over a typical month. Such audits should cover every 15 minute period of your day (although blocks of time such as attending a 1 hour meeting could be lumped together), including time wasters and interruptions. Log the audit at least daily or more frequently if needed. Review weekly to give a feel for how you have spent your time plus do a more formal review at the end of the month. Key questions to ask are: What % of my time have I been spending on my priorities? and What do I need to change?
- Delegate – Sometimes leaders confuse delegation with abdication. Delegation is not handing over accountability to others for activities you don’t want to do. When you delegate be sure to give the person the relevant level of authority to complete the assigned task, clarifying the level of authority they have (eg. make a final decision or bring you a recommendation). And be sure to check whether the person needs to be relieved of any regular tasks in order to complete the assignment appropriately. Helpful times to delegate may be when you’re wanting to develop a direct report, to create space for yourself when you’ve been given an additional assignment from your manager and when there’s a crisis or emergency and others need to stand aside from their regular duties for a time to focus on the pressing need. Remember, delegating a task to a subordinate does not absolve you of ultimate responsibility for it.
- Learn to Say No – One of the main things that can take up our time is saying yes to everything. Some people are inclined to be people pleasers – they find it hard to say no. This is one of the advantages of scheduling ahead activities into your daily, weekly and monthly calendars. It’s much easier then to say, ‘I’m sorry, I have an appointment at that time’ (even if the appointment is with yourself). Of course, if for various reasons you discern it would be important to say yes, if you have buffer scheduling, you could accept the interruption and reschedule what you had previously planned to do to another time. Alternatively offer the person another time you’d be available.
Two hundred years after Chaucer another English literature giant, William Shakespeare, wrote the play Julius Caesar. There’s a point in the drama where Brutus, urging his comrades to seize a fleeting opportunity in a battle, cries: “There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Effective time management enables us to be prepared to seize those opportunities when they arise and successfully achieve our goals.