Workplace productivity specialists agree that now, more than ever, time is of the essence. Practically everything we do is deadline-driven. More often than we realise, our workload forces us to be reactive, rather than proactive. The Parkinson Principle, which says work expands to fill the available hours in a day, suggests that if you think you will get ahead by working a little harder, you will be disappointed.
“Indeed, modern technology can add to pressure at work, rather than alleviate it,” says Richard Mulvey, author of Time Management and CEO of Durban management training company, Perception Business Skills. “Consider, for example, the time it takes each morning to go through your email. In fact, to save time in this regard, companies have introduced positions dedicated to managing incoming email.”
Mulvey believes, however, that the greatest challenge in business is not dwindling hours, distended workloads or amplified opportunity for interruption. He says the challenge is to recognise that time is our most important resource and learn to manage it.
“To make this point in my training courses, I suggest that delegates imagine that they are given R86 400 for a 24 hour period,” he explains. “At the end of this time, they have to return the money. I ask what would they do with it for 24 hours? How would they profit? Most have great ideas on how to benefit from the transaction. Then, I remind them that there are 86 400 seconds in a day. Once the day is over, those seconds are gone, handed back for good. Now, the challenge is to make those seconds as profitable as they would if they were rands. Understanding the value of time is fundamental to managing it.”
Most specialists on the subject agree that the key to good use of time is planning. They recommend broad scheduling for each month and week, and a fifteen minute planning session, either first thing every morning or last thing the evening before. This involves creating a “to do list” that categorises activities according to value and then blocking off time during the day to address each task.
The challenge then, is to stick as closely to the plan as possible. Of course, most of us are interrupted frequently during our working day and management authorities say that schedules should never be so tight that there is no time for the incidental and unexpected.
Careful planning is also beneficial in that it helps identify tasks that can be delegated. Executives are encouraged to decide what tasks are core to their job and focus on those areas only. Delegation also allows colleagues to grow by receiving new and challenging tasks.
“In addition to this, taking the time to assess the value of a task also encourages one to dispose of those activities that are inconsequential,” says Mulvey. “We should remember too, that some jobs are worth doing well, while others are just worth doing. Tasks do not all deserve equal time. One should save one’s time and energy for the tasks that pay the greatest dividends.”
Another effective time management technique is to schedule a call back period and be concise in your communication. The average unplanned business call apparently lasts 11 minutes. Most of this time is spent in pointless over-socialising. If you field just six such calls per day, you’ll spend over an hour on the telephone. It is recommended that executives set aside one or two periods a day to make and return calls, so that the flow of their work is not interrupted. They are also advised to keep these calls to the point.
Interruptions are notorious time-wasters. They are inevitable, but the ability to handle them can be learned. Productivity managers advocate a “managed open door” policy. They suggest that if you allow drop-in visitors to steal your time without assuming some control, you are not respecting your own schedule. Determine if the visit is legitimate and urgent. If it is, you might ask: “How much time do you need? I can give you 30 seconds now or 30 minutes after lunch.”
Today’s approach to business encourages us to “go the extra mile” and “think outside the box”. Saying no is often considered a character flaw. Yet, in terms of managing time, it can be necessary when your schedule cannot accommodate another project. After all, we are also advised not to “over promise and under deliver”
Productivity experts suggest we develop a mindset of continuous improvement. They recommend that we get one per cent better at managing time each day. They warn though, against getting fixated on organising your day down to the last second and, as a result, losing sight of what you are actually employed to do.
Top time management mistakes
• Poor planning.
• Lack of priorities.
• Trying to do too much at once.
• Inability to say “no” or delegate.
• Failure to manage interruption.
• Perfectionism and procrastination.
First published in Business Day.