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Time Management skills
What is time—have you thought about it?
NOTE: The vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it. Read more about procrastination and what that means to productivity.
Time is a resource but it has unique constraints. The main problem with time is there is no way to store it. It flows only into the future, and once it has passed, there is no way to get it back.
Some say that time is the thing that stops everything happening all at once. See my page on light speed for more detail.
Everyone has the same amount of time, and that is one rotation of the Earth marking a day, 365.242199 times around the sun, gradually lengthening the year by a second every few years. See leap second for more details.
The world's politicians, the world's poorest, the richest, most successful, and least busy people all have the same amount of time. So why do some people seem to get so much more done than others?
- The result of poor decisions.
- Bad planning.
- Ill health.
- Poor sleep patterns.
- Saying 'yes' too much.
- Poor education.
All of the above, and much more contribute to wasted time in a given person's life. Most people in the developed world watch TV for an average of four hours a day! That's 12.5 years in a typical lifetime. None of that time is particularly productive. You could read a book in the time spent on-hold when on the phone. You can write a book in the time spent on planes, trains, busses and coffee-breaks.
But you need leasure time too.
What kinds of time are there?
Since we mentioned leisure time, there must also be other kinds of time. Here are some definitions:
- Sleeping time
- Leisure time
- Working time
- Chilling-out time
- Meditation time
- Bodily maintenance time.
Then there are periods of the day which affect people in different ways. Some are most productive in the morning, and some are night-owls. For a night owl, the darkness and quiet of late evening is PRIME TIME. For this person, this is the time when mentally challenging tasks should be undertaken. It is a mistake for a night owl to waste it watching TV.
The morning person should arrange difficult tasks for early in the day.
Leisure time is essential for family and to relax. Those who proudly claim to be workaholics are often much less productive than those who use their time wisely.
WORKING time is sub-prime but useful for getting day to day essential tasks out of the way.
DOWN time is when you need to chill out and sometimes do nothing. This is when you can let the subconscious plan and solve problems.
MAINTENANCE is necessary to take care of health. Showering, buffing-up and dogin exercise.
Try to identfy your own kinds of time and use them in the planning phase.
The planning phase
Multi-tasking, and reactionary behavior is not time efficient. Each time you stop doing one job and turn your mind to another, your brain and work environment - and people who interact with you suffer a context-switch. It takes roughly 10 minutes to make a context switch. Clearly then minimizing the number of times you switch focus saves a lot of time.
This means you should group like-tasks together. To do that, you need to make a plan.
How to plan.
To plan, list your tasks, then categorize them as in this example:
Ask, "Urgent,Important, or NICE to do?" (U,I,N)
- Wash the dishes: (Important)
- Let the dog out for a pee. (Urgent)
- Send your Mum a birthday card (It's tomorrow). (Urgent AND Important).
- Mow the grass. (Important).
- Eat some cake. (Merely nice to do).
- Research which car to buy next. (Nice, not urgent, perhaps Important).
Note that some things are your own fault - like forgetting to send your Mum a birthday card. But letting the dog out for a pee is urgent because the dog generally will not pee to your planning guide. But planning could train the dog into a pattern, and planning would prevent you from having to send a card urgently. Sending the card is always important, but it need never be urgent.
Some people will try and force you do do something NOW because it's urgent. In those cases, ask yourself and them WHY it is urgent. It may mearly be important but not urgent.
Phone calls, idle chat, distractions in the environment, and ill health are all typical and common interruptions. Once you group your tasks, like 'pay bills', 'send cards', 'purge all old books ready for a book-sale', then it's a good idea to minimize the change of interruptions. People who call you on the phone very rarely do so because it is urgent. Turn the phone off - or make use of the answering service, or simply ask someone else to answer it. Just because it rings does NOT mean that you must attend to it. Add the return-call to your list, grouped with other outgoing phone calls, and do them all in one go. It's much easier to say, "Great. It's been nice catching up with you but I have to do some telephone banking.", than it is to make up some half-true excuse. If you answer a call while writing cards, then it's harder to explain why you need to hang up and go back to writing cards. You also suffer 20 min of context switch.
Environmental distractions could include being too hot, too cold, sitting on a hard chair, or watching the scenery. Prepare your environment for the task at hand so there are few external disturbing factors.
If you are working in a office, close the door, or go to a coffee shop or book a meeting room. Find some way to signal to other people that you are not immediately available.
If ill health troubles you, then try and get it fixed! There is no point in plodding on with a fixable health issue. It is much better to invest some time and effort to put things right.
80:20 rule and the scourge that is perfectionism.
Mow the lawn in a short time-slot only 20% of what you normally spend, and you will complete 80% of the job. The remaining 20% of the job takes up all the rest of the time you normally use. The grass keeps growing haphazardly despite you doing a perfect job. In many cases, there is little point in doing a perfect job because it takes so long compared to the effort involved. Some people are so strangled by the need to perfect a job, that they never start it. That surely is a very strange way to achieve anything.
Which is better: "A book on the shelf with a couple of grammatical errors" or "A book that is almost perfect, but never published."?
Things take that long because...
... well, you expect them to, and they do. If you are forced to do something in half the time, then it's very likely that you can do it. If not all of it, then enough to be better than satisfactory. This is called Parkinson's law. "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
The 80:20 law is known as The Pareto principle.
So if you set yourself an artifical deadline, then it is very likley that you can save a lot of time. When you do this, reward yourself by expanding your leisure time.
Types of work.
Some things take great concentration. These need PRIME time. Do them without distraction when you are at your best. Do NOT do easy things during this time.
You might have the habit of purging email as the first task of the day, but if you are a morning person, this is unlikely to be the best strategy. Save that for when you are on-hold, or your brain feels 'full up'. Just after lunch, some people - actually many people feel like sleeping. The 20 min power-nap has proven to be a great productivity tool as it shifts the later afternoon time back into PRIME time for a lot of people.
Some work is portable. Group those tasks, and put associated papers and tools into a carry bag. Take the carry bag to a meeting or waiting room or train. It might be a book, some background reading or self-improvement tasks. Being portable means that you now have a way to fill in time in that dead-wasteland that precedes every meeting. People never seems to start these things on time.
Work that you can do on a train, plane or in a waiting room is very useful. Generally, nobody bothers you on the train - at least not in the way that a collegue in the office can.
When you try a new task it takes a long time compared to those that are experienced. The second time you do it, it is quicker, and so on with a gradual asymptotic speeding up to some limit. At that time, you might be able to examine the process and improve it. This is achieved by training. An example could be to learn keyboard short-cuts in a word processor, spreadsheet, or a better way to unscrew bolts. Whatever the task, if you can train yourself to do it more efficiently, then repetitive tasks have to potential to save you a lot of time.
Reward yourself with more leisure time when you find out how to do something more efficiently.
When you are fit and healthy, then doing things is easier. When things are easier, they are more enjoyable and you do them more efficiently. Increased efficiency means less stress, and less stress means a better outcome. It really is an investment in time to get fit, keep fit, and avoid injury and disease.
Even if you have a disability, and perhaps more so, this principle is important. Someone without legs for example but very strong upper-body will benefit compared to someone similar who does not keep fit. In many cases a certain disablity gives reason to enhance other abilities far beyond normal.
Learn to say NO!
Some people are time-suckers. They have little control over their own time, and little respect for others. When these people are also in power over you as in a boss-worker relationship, it is important to learn how to say "No". All you need to do is get organised, present your categorised, grouped schedule of tasks as planned at the start of the day and week, then ask that person, "Of these Important and URGENT tasks that I already have planned, which can I forget about to do this extra task?"
When you can, delegate. This does NOT mean dumping work on someone else and putting your feet up. It means that you empower and motivate someone else to do a task. Give them guidance and training until they are self-proficient, then let them get on with it without micro-managing. Now you have time to do IMPORTANT but not necessarily URGENT tasks, and even some more self improvement.
Work out what your time is worth.
If you employ two people who each have a team of 20, then add up 42 salaries, plus yours, and that's what an hour of your time is costing the company. If someone below you is empowered, motivated and confident, then you are doing your job properly but if you do their job because no-one can do as good a job, then you are wasting their time, your time, and all the combined salaries. It is amazing what the CEO of a company would find if they performed this simple task. Especially for a large company, it is very important for the CEO to manage his or her time efficiently.
This has but scratched the surface of time management. I'd be interested in your comments. It is not a science, but it is a skill. If you take time to examine how you use time, then you are very likely to have more fun, less stress, and get more done.
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