Time passes, quickly. This article looks at the basics of Personal Time Management and describes how the Manager can assume control of this basic resource.
The three "Eff" words are [concise OED]:
Personal Time Management is about winning the "Eff" words: making them apply to you and your daily routines.
Personal Time Management is about controlling the use of your most valuable (and undervalued) resource. Consider these two questions: what would happen if you spent company money with as few safeguards as you spend company time, when was the last time you scheduled a review of your time allocation?
The absence of Personal Time Management is characterized by last minute rushes to meet dead-lines, meetings which are either double booked or achieve nothing, days which seem somehow to slip unproductively by, crises which loom unexpected from nowhere. This sort of environment leads to inordinate stress and degradation of performance: it must be stopped.
Poor time management is often a symptom of over confidence: techniques which used to work with small projects and workloads are simply reused with large ones. But inefficiencies which were insignificant in the small role are ludicrous in the large. You can not drive a motor bike like a bicycle, nor can you manage a supermarket-chain like a market stall. The demands, the problems and the payoffs for increased efficiency are all larger as your responsibility grows; you must learn to apply proper techniques or be bettered by those who do. Possibly, the reason Time Management is poorly practised is that it so seldom forms a measured part of appraisal and performance review; what many fail to foresee, however, is how intimately it is connected to aspects which do.
Personal Time Management has many facets. Most managers recognize a few, but few recognize them all. There is the simple concept of keeping a well ordered diary and the related idea of planned activity. But beyond these, it is a tool for the systematic ordering of your influence on events, it underpins many other managerial skills such as Effective Delegation and Project Planning.
Personal Time Management is a set of tools which allow you to:
and to do so simply with a little self-discipline.
Since Personal Time Management is a management process just like any other, it must be planned, monitored and regularly reviewed. In the following sections, we will examine the basic methods and functions of Personal Time Management. Since true understanding depends upons experience, you will be asked to take part by looking at aspects of your own work. If you do not have time to this right now - ask yourself: why not?
What this article is advocating is the adoption of certain practices which will give you greater control over the use and allocation of your primary resource: time. Before we start on the future, it is worth considering the present. This involves the simplistic task of keeping a note of how you spend your time for a suitably long period of time (say a week). I say simplistic since all you have to do is create a simple table, photocopy half-a-dozen copies and carry it around with you filling in a row every time you change activity. After one week, allocate time (start as you mean to go on) to reviewing this log.
We are not looking here to create new categories of work to enhance efficiency (that comes later) but simply to eliminate wastage in your current practice. The average IEE Chartered Engineer earns about 27,000 pounds per annum: about 12.50 pounds per hour, say 1 pound every 5 minutes; for how many 5 minute sections of your activity would you have paid a pound? The first step is a critical appraisal of how you spend your time and to question some of your habits. In your time log, identify periods of time which might have been better used.
There are various sources of waste. The most common are social: telephone calls, friends dropping by, conversations around the coffee machine. It would be foolish to eliminate all non-work related activity (we all need a break) but if it's a choice between chatting to Harry in the afternoon and meeting the next pay-related deadline ... Your time log will show you if this is a problem and you might like to do something about it before your boss does.
In your time log, look at each work activity and decide objectively how much time each was worth to you, and compare that with the time you actually spent on it. An afternoon spent polishing an internal memo into a Pulitzer prize winning piece of provocative prose is waste; an hour spent debating the leaving present of a colleague is waste; a minute spent sorting out the paper-clips is waste (unless relaxation). This type of activity will be reduced naturally by managing your own time since you will not allocate time to the trivial. Specifically, if you have a task to do, decide before hand how long it should take and work to that deadline - then move on to the next task.
Another common source of waste stems from delaying work which is unpleasant by finding distractions which are less important or unproductive. Check your log to see if any tasks are being delayed simply because they are dull or difficult.
Time is often wasted in changing between activities. For this reason it is useful to group similar tasks together thus avoiding the start-up delay of each. The time log will show you where these savings can be made. You may want then to initiate a routine which deals with these on a fixed but regular basis.
Having considered what is complete waste, we now turn to what is merely inappropriate. Often it is simpler to do the job yourself. Using the stamp machine to frank your own letters ensures they leave by the next post; writing the missing summary in the latest progress report from your junior is more pleasant than sending it back (and it lets you choose the emphasis). Rubbish!
Large gains can be made by assigning secretarial duties to secretaries: they regularly catch the next post, they type a lot faster than you. Your subordinate should be told about the missing section and told how (and why) to slant it. If you have a task which could be done by a subordinate, use the next occasion to start training him/her to do it instead of doing it yourself - you will need to spend some time monitoring the task thereafter, but far less that in doing it yourself.
A major impact upon your work can be the tendency to help others with their's. Now, in the spirit of an open and harmonious work environment it is obviously desirable that you should be willing to help out - but check your work log and decide how much time you spend on your own work and how much you spend on others'. For instance, if you spend a morning checking the grammar and spelling in the training material related to you last project, then that is waste. Publications should do the proof-reading, that is their job, they are better at it than you; you should deal at the technical level.
The remaining problem is your manager. Consider what periods in your work log were used to perform tasks that your manager either repeated or simply negated by ignoring it or redefining the task, too late. Making your manager efficient is a very difficult task, but where it impinges upon your work and performance you must take the bull by the horns (or whatever) and confront the issue.
Managing your manager may seem a long way from Time Management but no one impacts upon your use of time more than your immediate superior. If a task is ill defined - seek clarification (is that a one page summary or a ten page report?). If seemingly random alterations are asked in your deliverables, ask for the reasons and next time clarify these and similar points at the beginning. If the manager is difficult, try writing a small specification for each task before beginning it and have it agreed. While you can not tactfully hold your manager to this contract if he/she has a change of mind, it will at least cause him/her to consider the issues early on, before you waste your time on false assumptions.
The next stage of Personal Time Management is to start taking control of your time. The first problem is appointments. Start with a simple appointments diary. In this book you will have (or at least should have) a complete list of all your known appointments for the forseeable future. If you have omitted your regular ones (since you remember them anyway) add them now.
Your appointments constitute your interaction with other people; they are the agreed interface between your activities and those of others; they are determined by external obligation. They often fill the diary. Now, be ruthless and eliminate the unnecessary. There may be committees where you can not productively contribute or where a subordinate might be (better) able to participate. There may be long lunches which could be better run as short conference calls. There may be interviews which last three times as long as necessary because they are scheduled for a whole hour. Eliminate the wastage starting today.
The next stage is to add to your diary lists of other, personal activity which will enhance your use of the available time. Consider: what is the most important type of activity to add to your diary? No:- stop reading for a moment and really, consider.
The single most important type of activity is those which will save you time: allocate time to save time, a stitch in time saves days. And most importantly of all, always allocate time to time management: at least five minutes each and every day.
For each appointment left in the diary, consider what actions you might take to ensure that no time is wasted: plan to avoid work by being prepared. Thus, if you are going to a meeting where you will be asked to comment on some report, allocate time to read it so avoiding delays in the meeting and increasing your chances of making the right decision the first time. Consider what actions need to be done before AND what actions must be done to follow-up. Even if the latter is unclear before the event, you must still allocate time to review the outcome and to plan the resulting action. Simply mark in your diary the block of time necessary to do this and, when the time comes, do it.
The most daunting external appointments are deadlines: often, the handover of deliverables. Do you leave the work too late? Is there commonly a final panic towards the end? Are the last few hectic hours often marred by errors? If so, use Personal Time Management.
The basic idea is that your management of personal deadlines should be achieved with exactly the same techniques you would use in a large project:
Like most management ideas, this is common sense. Some people, however, refute it because in practise they find that it merely shows the lack of time for a project which must be done anyway. This is simply daft! If simple project planning and time management show that the task can not be done, then it will not be done - but by knowing at the start, you have a chance to do something about it.
An impossible deadline affects not only your success but also that of others. Suppose a product is scheduled for release too soon because you agree to deliver too early. Marketing and Sales will prepare customers to expect the product showing why they really need it - but it will not arrive. The customers will be dissatisfied or even lost, the competition will have advanced warning, and all because you agreed to do the impossible.
You can avoid this type of problem. By practising time management, you will always have a clear understanding of how you spend your time and what time is unallocated. If a new task is thrust upon you, you can estimate whether it is practical. The project planning tells you how much time is needed and the time management tells you how much time is available.
There are four ways to deal with impossible deadlines:
If this simple approach seems unrealistic, consider the alternative. If you have an imposed, but unobtainable, deadline and you accept it; then the outcome is your assured failure. Of course, there is a fifth option: move to a company with realistic schedules.
One defence tactic is to present your superior with a current list of your obligations indicating what impact the new task will have on these, and ask him/her to assign the priorities: "I can't do them all, which should I slip?". Another tactic is to keep a data base of your time estimates and the actual time taken by each task. This will quickly develop into a source of valuable data and increase the accuracy of your planning predictions.
There is no reason why you should respond only to externally imposed deadlines. The slightly shoddy product which you hand-over after the last minute rush (and normally have returned for correction the following week) could easily have been polished if only an extra day had been available - so move your personal deadline forward and allow yourself the luxury of leisured review before the product is shipped.
Taking this a step further, the same sort of review might be applied to the product at each stage of its development so that errors and rework time are reduced. Thus by allocating time to quality review, you save time in rework; and this is all part of project planning supported and monitored by your time management.
Finally, for each activity you should estimate how much time it is worth and allocate only that amount. This critical appraisal may even suggest a different approach or method so that the time matches the task's importance. Beware of perfection, it takes too long - allocate time for "fitness for purpose", then stop.
Your Personal Time Management also effects other people, particularly your subordinates. Planning projects means not only allocating your time but also the distribution of tasks; and this should be done in the same planned, monitored and reviewed manner as your own scheduling.
Any delegated task should be specified with an (agreed) end date. As a Manager, you are responsible for ensuring that the tasks allocated to your subordinates are completed successfully. Thus you should ensure that each task is concluded with a deliverable (for instance, a memo to confirm completion) - you make an entry in your diary to check that this has arrived. Thus, if you agree the task for Tuesday, Wednesday should have an entry in your diary to check the deliverable. This simple device allows you to monitor progress and to initiate action as necessary.
There are many long term objectives which the good Manager must achieve, particularly with regard to the development, support and motivation of his/her work-team. Long term objectives have the problem of being important but not urgent; they do not have deadlines, they are distant and remote. For this reason, it is all too easy to ignore them in favour of the urgent and immediate. Clearly a balance must be struck.
The beauty of Time Management is that the balance can be decided objectively (without influence from immediate deadlines) and self-imposed through the use of the diary. Simply, a manager might decide that one hour a week should be devoted to personnel issues and would then allocate a regular block of time to that activity. Of course if the factory is on fire, or World War III is declared, the manager may have to re-allocate this time in a particular week - but barring such crises, this time should then become sacrosanct and always applied to the same, designated purpose.
Similarly, time may be allocated to staff development and training. So if one afternoon a month is deemed to be a suitable allocation, then simply designate the second Thursday (say) of each month and delegate the choice of speakers. The actual time spent in managing this sort of long term objective is small, but without that deliberate planning it will not be achieved.
Once you have implemented Personal Time Management, it is worth using some of that control to augment your own career. Some quiet weekend, you should sketch out your own long term objectives and plan a route to them. As you would any long term objective, allocate time to the necessary sub-tasks and monitor your progress. If you do not plan where you want to go, you are unlikely to get there.
Personal Time Management is a systematic application of common sense strategies. It requires little effort, yet it promotes efficient work practices by highlighting wastage and it leads to effective use of time by focusing it on your chosen activities. Personal Time Management does not solve your problems; it reveals them, and provides a structure to implement and monitor solutions. It enables you to take control of your own time - how you use it is then up to you.
Gerard M Blair is a Senior Lecturer in VLSI Design at the Department of Electrical Engineering, The University of Edinburgh. His book Starting to Manage: the essential skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA). He welcomes feedback either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or by any other method found here