Time is limited: it doesn’t last for ever. We need to make the best use of
it we can
Whether we’re thinking about the amount of time we have left on Earth, how we’re going to spend the weekend, or how we use our time at work.
The need to control or reduce costs is a fact of corporate life, and staff salaries are often the biggest single cost. Cost-cutting, perhaps involving an increased use of technology and a flatter management structure, can mean fewer people doing more work. Salary costs have to be balanced against each person’s contribution to the organisation.
Effective time management can be boiled down to three essentials: a clear focus on the results you’re seeking to achieve; resistance to distractions that get in the way and don’t help you to achieve your objectives; and control of each day’s agenda so that you make the best possible use of the time available.
It’s very easy to waste time. There are so many potential distractions. Reading stuff you don’t need to read. Constantly checking your email inbox. Spending time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media. Surfing the net to check up on the football results or the winning lottery numbers. Going to meetings you don’t need to go to. Phoning or texting friends. Chatting to colleagues about things you don’t really need to discuss. And spending time on routine, inconsequential stuff because that is much easier than tackling the difficult task you should be getting to grips with.
One useful technique is the 80:20 rule, named after the Italian economist Pareto. For any manager, focussing on just 20% of the work is likely to produce 80% of the results. So the trick is to identify, and spend most of your effort on, that critical 20%. If you devote most of your time, your energy and your creative thinking to dealing with that vital 20%, it is likely to account for 80% of your outcomes. That should mean focussing on those work objectives and targets that are most important to your organisation, to your boss and (last but not least) to your own career prospects. It means doing the big things well.
If you’re faced with a new task, ask yourself two simple questions: is it urgent; is it important. If it’s both urgent and important, do it as soon as you can. If it’s urgent but not important, get one of your team to do it. If it’s important but not urgent, you can do it later. If it’s neither urgent nor important, don’t do it!
It’s a good idea to begin each day by jotting down a list of things you’ll aim to get through – a “to do” list – and the order in which you’ll tackle them. For some you might even want to go a stage further and write down not just the task (e.g. chair staff meeting), but also the outcome you hope to achieve (e.g. persuade them that the CEO is not such a bad guy). Inevitably, your plan will sometimes be thrown out of kilter by an unforeseen emergency or by a boss who believes that his/her deadlines are more important than yours; but that’s life.
Get into the habit of setting deadlines – both for yourself and for others. A deadline concentrates the mind. If you have several tasks to do, write down the date by which you’ll aim to complete each one. It needs to be realistic but reasonably challenging.
Don’t be too reactive to the demands of others. Remember that your boss will judge you on the work you produce and the results you achieve. So concentrate, first and foremost, on meeting your own objectives and targets.
For some managers, meetings are a way of life. Remember that you don’t need to go to every meeting to which you are invited. Ask yourself whether or not it will help you to achieve your own work objectives. If it won’t – and unless there is some other objective reason that justifies your attendance – don’t go.
If you’re faced with a particularly tricky task, mark off a time slot in your diary when you won’t be available to others. Find somewhere quiet away from colleagues where you won’t be disturbed, such as a meeting room that’s not being used. Or you may be able to work at home, or in a quiet corner of your favourite café or bar. And give yourself an incentive. Resolve that you won’t leave (or have lunch or go to bed) until you have completed the task.
It’s easy to waste time by having to reread a paper that you read a few days ago without deciding what to do with it. Try to handle each piece of paper only once. There are really only four ways of dealing with it: Delegate it, Act on it yourself, File it away for future reference, or Throw it away. Handle each piece of paper only once: be DAFT.
Despite IT and wishful thinking about the paperless office, the chances are that your organisation and those it deals with produce lots of paper. Don’t feel obliged to read every piece of paper that lands on your desk. A glance at the heading will often be enough to tell you that it can go straight into the wastepaper basket. And even if you need to look at it, you can probably skim through without reading every word. Look out for key headings: Summary, Conclusions, Recommendations, Action points. Only read what will help you to do your job or develop your career.
These days, papers landing on your desk are probably outnumbered by emails arriving in your inbox. Apply the same principles. Often the subject (or the name of the sender!) will enable you to press delete without reading the message. If you do need to read it, you can probably skim through, looking for those key headings, without reading every word.
Make a habit of being on time. If you’re chairing a meeting, begin on time and don’t wait for anyone who is late. If you do, you’re wasting not only your own time but also that of everyone who has made the effort to be punctual.
Time management is one of the most important of all management skills. You can improve your effectiveness as a manager by putting the tips in this article into practice.
A new edition of Tony Rossiter’s Management Basics in easy steps was published earlier this year.