Being good time at management involves conscious planning and thoughtful decision-making. It also consists in staying focused and sticking to your prioritised tasks rather than getting derailed by unimportant or less meaningful distractions.
If you want to know if you’re good at time management, start by asking yourself these questions: Do I know how to prioritise my tasks based on importance and urgency effectively? Do I know how much time I spend on each of my various tasks? Do I have to take work home to get it done?
Once you’ve answered these questions and evaluated your current skills in managing your regular tasks (and, in the process, being ruthlessly honest with yourself), make a plan to improve. It’s not particularly easy because, while we may want to change, we often don’t. Successful people, and name any you choose, will say that to change, you must, well, change. Easy if you own the business or are high up the corporate tree, but we can all affect some change to how we work. Or change jobs. We can all utilise various time management skills to boost effectiveness in our personal and professional lives.
It’s easy, as we all know to get off track when you’re trying to manage your time.
To improve, you should try to avoid these common, albeit daily, pitfalls:
- If you don’t know what needs to be done, you can’t effectively prioritise your workload.
- Multitasking is actually less productive than focusing on one task and then moving on to the next. That’s because our brains aren’t equipped to perform two tasks requiring high-level brain functions simultaneously.
- Not knowing how much time a task requires is a problem. If you don’t know how long a job takes, you can’t effectively manage your time or prioritise your activities.
It’s proven that productivity leads to profitability, and good time management skills can go straight to your bottom line one way or another and make you a happier person too.
Learning, continued learning, is important to productivity, time management and happiness. Warren Buffett’s long-time business partner Charlie Munger has famously but probably not uniquely said: ‘Go to bed smarter than when you woke up.’ And you don’t have to go back to college or university to learn. Some of the world’s most successful business leaders dropped out of college or never went into higher education. Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson became billionaires without earning advanced degrees.
Today, technology allows people anywhere in the world to take classes online, listen to podcasts or read columns from their office or home. You don’t need to sit in a classroom to learn a valuable skill. If you have access to the Internet, you pretty much have access to the world’s most prominent school. The important thing is that we all need to keep learning – whether it’s for work or personal and leisure benefit. But, if you don’t schedule a time for learning, it won’t happen. Schedule time in your calendar to learn, just like you would a meeting or doctor’s appointment. Also, don’t say to yourself: ‘I already know that.’ Instead, ask yourself: ‘do I know that’ or ‘what can I learn from this?’ It will open you to new perspectives or information that you may have overlooked. Then, of course, apply what you learn. Information is just information without putting it into practice. Take action!
Learning is one thing. Getting up early is another.
Ask successful people what time they get up in the morning, and you’ll quickly see a theme: they’re up at the crack of dawn to take full advantage of the day.
Apple CEO Tim Cook started his mornings at 3:45 a.m., Ellevest CEO and co-founder Sallie Krawcheck woke up at 4 a.m. Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Pepsi’s CEO Indra Nooyi rise regularly at the crack of dawn. Vogue magazine editor Anna Wintour used to be up at 5:45 a.m. to play tennis before going into the office. Research also shows that early morning hours can be the most productive time of the day. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, was a practitioner of this school of thought. Former US Army General Stanley McChrystal’s morning routine is regimented. He wakes up around 4 a.m., shaves, exercises for an hour and a half, takes a four or five-minute shower and then goes to the office. He won’t eat anything until the evening and gets, he says, vast amounts of work done during the day and never takes work home. L. Rafael Reif, President of MIT, was regularly up at 5 a.m. and never skipped breakfast or exercise. Notice another helpful theme here: exercise is a big part of successful people’s lives, and most would say that exercise helps them consider the use of time.
A daily work plan enables people to determine the course of their day
and then make incremental progress toward their goals. Some complex or ongoing projects fall under the heading of ‘important, yes, but this doesn’t need doing for tomorrow’. It has importance but should be done incrementally rather than needing to be done immediately.
In a 1954 speech to the Second Assembly of the World Council of Churches, former US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who quoted Dr J. Roscoe Miller, then president of Northwestern University, said: ‘I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.’ He recognised that excellent time management means being effective as well as efficient. In other words, we must spend our time on important things and not just the urgent ones.
To do this and to minimise the stress of too many deadlines, we must understand this distinction: important activities have an outcome that leads to achieving our goals, whether professional or personal; urgent actions demand immediate attention but are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones on which we concentrate, and they require attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Successful business people recognise that there are both urgent and essential matters every day. They approach the day balancing the two and save more menial tasks later. Rob Rawson, CEO of TimeManagement.com worked on his highest-priority items first thing in the morning before any chance of becoming derailed by e-mail and other non-vital tasks.
All successful people would agree that preparation for how time
should be spent is mission-critical. Alexander Graham Bell (amongst others) wrote, ‘Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.’ Successful people don’t wait until the morning to prepare for a successful day. The night before, they unplug from their devices, read, meditate, spend time with family - whatever - and consider the next day. They wake up relaxed and stress-free because they have already considered (but not heavily planned) the blueprint for a productive day. Importantly, from time to time, but not necessarily each day, try reviewing your calendar for the next few months. This way, you know what to expect and what you know you want or need to change. Also, it ensures that you can address any scheduling conflicts before it’s too late or causes other people issues.
Some career coaches suggest splitting your time into focus and buffer days. The former is for big-picture things like strategy creation, business development and detailed employee management. On the other hand, buffer days are essential but not urgent things.
The other factor that causes problems is when managers or leaders wear too many hats and don’t delegate enough. You may wear many hats, but you can’t be in all places at all times and, if you try, something will fail – probably you. Take time to hire the best employees so you can delegate (and trust in your team). Jack Welch was adamant that it’s ok to lose executives by the truckload if necessary, but one needed a brilliant and close team that worked to deliver an agreed strategy. Steve Jobs may have had an enormous ego as the head of Apple, but he understood the need for good people: ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.’ Your best move is to intentionally not always be the most competent person in the room. And other iconic figures would agree. As Lee Iacocca once said, ‘I hire people brighter than me and get out of their way.’
There’s something called the Pareto Principle, named after economist Vilfredo Pareto,
which referred to the observation that 80% of Italy’s wealth belonged to only 20% of the population. The critical point here is that most things in life (effort, reward, output) are not distributed evenly – some contribute more than others. According to the Pareto Principle (i.e., the 80/20 rule), 20% of actions drive 80% of results. And the other 80% accounts for only 20% of results. Translated, this means that successful people know that the top priorities (or the top 20%) are going to drive the most important results. They delegate the rest or put the rest on a back-burner.
In 2004, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin explicitly cited their own ‘20% time’ policy, saying that this 20% required that employees be ‘free to pursue projects they are passionate about and think will benefit Google.’ This practice led to innovation that became a core part of the company’s identity. With the ‘20% time’ policy and on-site chefs, doctors and entertainers, Google knew early on how to make employees feel special, pampered, stimulated and eager to work hard.
In 2012, Apple introduced their ‘Blue Sky’ perk for select employees to spend work time on their project provided it helped Apple save time even in a small way. In addition, LinkedIn created InCubator for employees to spend 30 to 90 days developing individual time-saving prototypes for testing later.
In 2013 Google repositioned the 20% idea from a right for all employees to something requiring management approval. And since the productivity of their teams judges managers through an internal analytics system that doesn’t take ‘20% time’ into account, they’re discouraged from signing off on the perk. One anonymous Googler put it like this: ‘I work at Google and still have 20% time. It’s called Saturday.’ The point is that whatever scheme we introduce, it must execute well and fairly. Susustainability is key. Otherwise, the business would feel insincere and hollow.
If you plan every day down to the last second, you’ll never have time for unexpected challenges, and, anyway, you won’t be able to sustain that. Try to leave at least one hour or more each day for the unplanned. Also, it’s a good idea to schedule an open-door time for people to pop in and ‘have a word.’
NewBrand Analytics CEO Kristin Muhlner believes that saying no is one of the keys to not overextending yourself, professionally or personally. It goes hand in hand with saying yes to too many meetings or commitments. Successful people recognise which meetings are critical to attend and then say no to others or hold them to a short timeframe. Many, including Richard Branson, recommend ten minutes as a benchmark.
Life coach, business strategist and best-selling author Tony Robbins suggests you treat your time the same way you take care of your money. It’s a finite resource, so eliminate waste. Robbins recommends converting what would otherwise be wasted time into productive time. You can make your time more effective by repurposing time-management dead zones. If you need to read, for example, but find time hard to find, then read during your morning commute or when in a waiting room. If it’s a book, listen to it.
Entrepreneur and US TV host, Marcus Lemonis, make a list of the five things he wants to get done on any day. In other words, those items on the notecards are a promise he must keep to himself. And, because he writes these cards in the morning, he finds that it’s an excellent way to kick off his day well. He only makes lists at the beginning of his day, never at the end for the following day. Meetings get low priority, by the way. At the end of each day, once all tasks are complete, he makes paper aircraft out of the cards and sends them soaring out of windows. Or so he says.
Meetings are the bane of corporate life. They are often avoided by many in business. Many regard them as ineffective and feel that they simply provide stages where individuals can posture, vent, waste time, discuss off-schedule items, or show off to try and score points. Others believe that they are sometimes essential but must be kept short. Some companies, like British Airways, hold some meetings in rooms where there are no chairs. There are standing desks. Meetings are therefore unsurprisingly short.
American entrepreneur and investor Marc Cuban said, ‘The only way you’re going to get me for a meeting is if you’re writing me a check.’ In a company-wide Tesla e-mail, Elon Musk asked employees to forgo excessive meetings because they’re a blight on large companies. Likewise, Oprah Winfrey avoids them unless necessary and only if no other communication works. Why are people like Cuban, Musk and Oprah so anti-meeting?
Well, meetings are serious productivity and time killers that prevent us from completing work.
They also can leave us deflated, tired, no better off in any way and often confused as to what we’ve just experienced. Similarly, we invariably attend most meetings for someone else’s benefit, which is acceptable to a degree - but then we have to ask if the appointment was necessary in the first place. Research backs this up. Cuban and Winfrey prefer detailed but precise e-mails, short calls or short face-to-face one-to-one chats. If you must schedule a meeting, keep the headcount low, have a strict schedule and keep attendees focussed, the meeting is superbly chaired and take-aways crystal clear.
If meetings are tough going, an e-mail culture is like treading through treacle.
Many executives face a dilemma; in fact, we all do. On the one hand, we want to feel involved, wanted and up-to-date with what’s going on and therefore we want e-mails. On the other hand, we don’t wish for the plethora of e-mails that we get because they eat up time, and many will be spurious, irrelevant or unnecessary. E-mails can suck up most of the day.
Some executives insist that they will never read anything bcc’d to them and take disciplinary action towards anyone who does. Others take the same view of cc’d material. Either approach is not particularly wrong. Whatever you decide, write (and insist on receiving) short messages. Don’t try to tackle your inbox in one go. Instead, only respond to a core list of news before the day unless something is urgent. Bill Gates declares that he uses e-mail and desktop folders as well as his online calendar: ‘So when I walk up to my desk, I can focus on the e-mails I’ve flagged and check the folders that are monitoring particular projects.’ Not rocket science, and it works for him. But the more discipline that you instil in yourself and your team/s in the use of e-mails, the more the results will save time. Also – and this happens too rarely – make sure that everyone in your company or team knows how to write an explicit e-mail. The majority of people at most levels don’t.
Many people try to book every minute of their calendars so that each hour and part of each hour is booked; it makes them feel wanted and provides a ready excuse for not delivering on tasks. It’s a dangerous strategy, not least because they are always late for the next activity or just don’t start it because of over-runs. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have said that the secret to their time management is filling their calendars with plenty of blank spaces. It lends flexibility to manage any unforeseen circumstances that may arise. More importantly, it gives a person the time to focus on essential matters and control their time. As Buffett has said, ‘I mean - I can buy anything I want, basically, but I can’t buy time.’
As the day goes on, the quality of our decisions deteriorates.
That’s why successful people are known for reducing the number of decisions they make in a day. As a result, they shave off a couple of minutes from unproductive tasks. What’s more, they have more mental space throughout the day. Former President Barack Obama achieved this by limiting his outfits. ‘You’ll see I wear only grey or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make. Nick Taranto, the co-founder of Plated, used to wear only shoes without laces.
Jack Groetzinger, the co-founder and CEO of SeatGeek estimates the number of minutes for every task and has written software to record start and stop times. Each day, he challenges himself to hit an efficiency goal: the number of actual minutes divided by expected minutes. That’s not a pre-requisite to managing time - because that kind of system is hard to sustain for most people. Limit tasks to set times and see if you can keep to the times you set. If you can’t, establish precisely why. Then change how you set times and how you achieve task completion.
If you’re commuting to work, you already know how much this eats into your time. One solution is to work from home occasionally. That requires discipline because many senior executives don’t want to be away from the action because they believe absence will mean perceived weakness. However, openly working from home from time to time does allow for measured reflection and the opportunity to focus on something without any office interruption. It’s also becoming something that many companies readily embrace, and those businesses with any sense would recognise that delayed transport or problematic journeys these days don’t make for a time rich day.
Speaking engagements and interviews are excellent ways to spread brand awareness and showcase your expertise. But, even when they’re benefiting your company by helping you reach goals, they’re time-consuming distractions. Take, for example, Lee Iacocca. He took Chrysler from near-bankruptcy to outperforming the market nearly three to one. However, then he became distracted. He spent most of his time appearing on late-night talk shows and making car commercials. He even considered running for president. Chrysler quickly fell behind its competitors – big time.
Successful executives streamline their work and will not become distracted.
Take, for example, Carlos Ghosn, ex-CEO of Renault and Nissan. He allocated a maximum of one hour and thirty minutes for any individual activity or task. Like others of his ilk, most of his meetings were also short. Eric Schmidt, once Google’s executive chairman, was also a believer in keeping focused on a few overriding priorities; the principal priority for him was whether the business was doing to change the world. He meant it too. Marketing guru Seth Godin essentially removed all meetings and TV from his daily routine. TV, even for news information on a wristwatch, as he declared, was over-absorbing and just wasted time.
Time management doesn’t require a complicated spreadsheet. Marissa Mayer, as CEO of Yahoo, opted for the old-fashioned ‘to do’ list. And when asked how she handled the anxiety that often comes with the realisation that one is never going to cross off everything on the ever-expanding list, she accepted and even embraced that. She felt that something on the list that ended up being less critical would go to the bottom. The checklist helped her prioritise, she said.
Linkedin’s Jeff Weiner once said that carving out time to think, and think alone, is 100% invaluable. He said it puts you in the driver’s seat, where you can see the big picture and proactively set your course rather than react to every minor crisis or headache. It helped Weiner decide where to invest his energies and engage in sound, clearheaded decision-making, not least about what’s urgent, meaningful, and neither.
Richard Branson writes, ‘Actually removing myself from the office has helped me look for the next big venture. I exercise for short bursts every day. I speak to people. I receive lots of e-mails every day and try to answer as many as possible, but I also believe that you need to speak to people. It can save you and them a lot of time. And I write things down – I carry notebooks wherever I go to jot down thoughts and notes. You can’t beat pen and paper.’ Branson’s philosophy is essential that you need to manage everything: your projects (delegation), your health (exercise), your communication (phone calls, e-mails and speaking to people) and your memory (notes).
Apple Founder and CEO Steve Jobs believed that ‘innovation is saying no to a thousand things.’
Jobs was known for simplifying things. Aside from his interpersonal skills, which allegedly were less than great, simplification, in his view, saved time. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he took 300 products and reduced them to 10. It saved Apple from bankruptcy. Much of the reduction he averted was to save time in design, manufacture and marketing. In his personal life, Jobs decided to wear the same outfit daily so he wouldn’t have to spend time thinking about his wardrobe. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, does the same as many people who run businesses, including, as mentioned, Obama.
Some senior executives believe that efficiency is time-saving and leads to better accuracy. An obvious statement, but now many of us are hand on heart, are efficient in managing time, tasks and businesses? Take Google, for example. There they call time-management mindful productivity. They base it on numerous initiatives now mirrored in many companies worldwide.
The first is that we should all reconsider our definition of what we mean by a productive day.
For most people, a productive day is one in which a to-do list works to a point or doesn’t work at all because other things interfere with what you want to do. It also depends on what we each consider a productive day. If you spend a day watching Netflix, that’s a fruitful day if you intend to watch Netflix. Productivity for Google is about knowing what you want to do, planning to do it and doing what you want to do. When Google executives say that spending time with their children is a priority, the company line is that if that’s one of someone’s goals, then it should be in that person’s calendar.
When we fill up all the gaps in our day by checking our messages or browsing social media sites, for example, when you’re standing in a queue or commuting, we lose opportunities to get lost in thought, the moments when the best ideas happen. Make it a habit, says Google, not to use your phone. Most people in business look at their phones every forty seconds on average. That’s a lot. Psychologists, who’ve tested this theory, believe that when our mental guard is down, especially during breaks, it’s easier for one’s thoughts to break away from existing, dead-end patterns or patterns set for us by social media, for example, a video game, text messaging and so on. Just doing nothing might allow us to land on a solution to a problem without consciously thinking about it. Some people call these shower moments, but they can happen anywhere if you make some space for them. You’re giving your brain the space it needs to make connections. It occurs when we doodle, for instance.
Another thing that Google champions are to make meetings work around our schedules, not the other way around. Our ability to analyse facts or think creatively fluctuates throughout the day, although we differ in whether we work better in the morning, afternoon or evening. But the principle holds – we all have some power hours. At Google, people are encouraged not to check e-mails or do anything at all that gets in the way of the work you want or need to do in your power hours.
Google doesn’t always get time management right. Nobody and no company does. We can only work better - and hopefully, that will lead to us doing things well and as happily as possible. We all want, one way or another, to do things on time, to have enough of our allocated time (because it’s limited and prescribed) to do things right. We want to say that we have time enough to deliver.
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