Among other changes, the Project Management Institute in their latest Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Edition 6) has sensibly renamed the “Time Management” knowledge area “Schedule Management” to distinquish it from personal Time Management. However, personal Time Management skills remain essential for our success in any project or workplace.
While we cannot actually manage time, which zooms on relentlessly, we can make better use of this scarce resource by working smarter to improve our personal productivity while combating the rising tide of workplace stress.
People who manage to get a lot of value-added work accomplished each day aren’t superhuman; they’ve simply mastered a few simple tools and techniques that we’ll discuss here.
Time management is about more than just managing our time. It is about setting priorities and taking charge. It often means changing habits or activities that cause us to waste time. It means being willing to experiment with different methods and ideas to enable us to find the best way to make best use of our time.
At the end of this paper, you’ll be asked to identify at least five personal time management practices you intend to implement and trial for at least a week, without postponing or procrastinating.
All organisations have limited resources, and as individuals there is a limit to our available time. Therefore we need to establish priorities. Some criteria that may help us establish work priorities are shown in the following table:
The Urgent/Important Matrix
Great time management means being both effective (doing the right things) as well as efficient (doing things right). Managing time effectively, and achieving the things that we want to achieve, means spending our time on things that are important and not merely urgent. To do this, we need to distinguish clearly between what things are urgent and what things are important:
- – Important. These are productive activities that lead to me achieving my job goals. These jobs add real value, where: Value = Benefits – Costs.
- – Urgent. These jobs demand immediate attention, but we need to overcome the natural tendency to focus on urgent jobs, so that we have time to focus on what’s truly important.
- Urgent and Important. Activities in this area relate to dealing with critical issues as they arise and meeting significant commitments. We perform these duties now. Time spent in this quadrant can mean stress and burnout.
- Important but Not Urgent. This is the proactive quadrant. These success-oriented tasks are critical to achieving our goals. They are particularly relevant for team leaders and managers. We plan to do these tasks. We schedule them for completion in our diary – a realistic block of time and not merely a bullet-point entry. If we don’t spend our time in this quadrant, we’re doomed to spend a lot more time in the Urgent and Important or crisis quadrant.
- Urgent but Not Important. These tasks do not move us forward toward our work goals. We postpone or delegate these chores.
- Not Urgent and Not Important. These trivial interruptions are just a distraction, and should be avoided wherever possible. However, be careful not to mislabel things like time with family as not important. We avoid these distractions.
The following exercise is designed to practise us in the application of this matrix given a number of workplace events. We will tackle this exercise in two phases:
- In the “Yours” column record what personal priority (1,2,3,4) you would apply to each event using the Urgent/Important matrix.
- In the “Team” column record what priority your team or group decide is appropriate.
This exercise is designed such that about half of your responses will be category “2” – Not Urgent but Important.
It is usually better to schedule our more demanding jobs for that time of day when our energy levels are highest, assuming we have such personal scheduling flexibility.
Are these barriers to productivity relevant for you? And who is to blame for these situations – the culprit – you or other people?
The following graph shows that in an eight-hour workday we typically do about five hours of truly productive work. Also, our productivity often diminishes as the day proceeds. Thus, if we work part-time on projects, it is better to schedule project work for the morning and BAU work for the afternoon wherever possible.
The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, states that 80% of our results come from only 20% of our actions. Across the board, we will find that the 80/20 rule is pretty much right for most things in our life. For most people, it really comes down to analysing what we are spending our time on. Are we focusing on the 20% of activities that produce 80% of our results? We need to focus on our “important few” tasks rather than use up our precious time working on the “trivial many”.
One useful application of this rule is for team meetings, when we might better devote 80% of our time to the 20% important agenda items and structure our agenda accordingly, dealing with the most important items first to thus ensure most of our time is devoted to their discussion. In practice, valuable meeting time is often used to discuss relative trivia, leaving little or no time to discuss the really important items. Crazy eh! We could use the paired comparisons to tool to prioritise our meeting agenda items.
The “TO DO” List
We all have those days when there are a million things to do, and we don’t know how we’re going to get it all done. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the vast quantity of tasks that we must do from day to day. Sometimes we have so many balls in the air that we may even lose track of some loose ends or forget to do important things. When we get too busy, we end up feeling like we are barely able to keep our heads above water.
One of the most simple yet effective personal time management and memory tools is the daily to do list, which is best prepared last thing the day before to help ensure we get underway productively the next morning. For many people, morning is a high-energy time and having our to-do list already completed means we don’t waste any time figuring out what to do next. Without a to do list we are much more vulnerable to distractions and interruptions. Some further ideas:
- – Don’t be too ambitious about what tasks we can accomplish. We might realistically estimate the time needed for each task.
- – Prioritise the task list. Remember to differentiate between urgent and important.
- – Have a to do list on paper visible on our desk or wall when we arrive in the morning, rather than an electronic version that needs to be repeatedly accessed.
- – Seeing a clear outline of our completed and uncompleted tasks will help us feel organised and stay mentally focused. Cross off the items as they are completed.
- – Uncompleted tasks are not necessarily top priorotiy for the next day.
At times, requests from others may be important and need immediate attention. Often, however, these requests take time away from working toward our own goals. Even if it is something we would like to do but simply don’t have the time for, it can be very difficult to say no. One approach in dealing with these types of interruptions is to use a Positive No, which comes in several forms:
- – Say no, followed by an honest explanation, such as, “I am uncomfortable doing that because…”
- – Say no and then briefly clarify our reasoning without making excuses. This helps the listener to better understand our position. For example: “I can’t right now because I have another project that is now due.”
- – Say no, and then give an alternative. For example: “I don’t have time today, but I could schedule it for tomorrow morning.”
- – Repeat the request in our own words, and then say no. For example: “I understand that you need to have this paperwork filed immediately, but I will not be able to do this for you.”
- – Say yes, give our reasoning for not doing it, and provide an alternative solution. For example: “Yes, I would love to help you by filing this paperwork, but I will not have time until tomorrow.”
- – Provide an assertive refusal and repeat it no matter what the person says. This approach may be most appropriate with aggressive or manipulative people and can be an effective strategy to control our emotions. For example: “I understand how you feel, but I will not [or cannot]…” Also, remember to stay focused and not become sidetracked into responding to other issues.
Chunk, Block and Tackle
Large projects can sometimes be so overwhelming it is difficult to even plan to start them. The solution is to simply break down the project into manageable chunks and block off time to work on each chunk:
- Chunk. Break large projects into specific tasks that can be completed in less than say 15 to 30 minutes.
- Block. Rather than scheduling the entire project to be done all at once, block out set times to complete specific chunks as early as practicable. This should allow us to ignore most interruptions and focus on just this specific task.
- Tackle. Now tackle the specific task, focusing only on this task rather than the project as a whole. Once completed, we will feel a sense of accomplishment from making progress on the project.
However, some projects are of much more daunting size. These bigger projects are also best broken down into smaller chunks of work to enable their more accurate time duration and work effort estimates, which then allows us to determine their appropriate scheduling in our diary for timely completion.
The deliverable associated with this chunking process is called a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) that looks like a family tree of work chunks consisting of smaller and smaller chunks or tasks broken down to a convenient level or size for doing ourselves delegating or outsourcing.
Usually the best way to identify project work chunks is by brainstorming. We can then edit our list and publish it in family tree or indented task list format:
Our WSB might also be shown in a list format. The code numbers are for easy reference purposes. Whatever codification system is used it should be readily expandable to cater for any work we later add.
We are inclined to under-estimate the time needed to complete tasks. This seemingly positive attitude needs to be tempered with realism or we will establish overly optimistic completion dates and put ourselves under unnecessary pressure to achieve on-time completion. Often we’re seen to be as good as our estimates.
Estimating requires we predict the future. Then, based on how well we did this, we either look smart or stupid. In general, when estimating, we are concerned with answering the following questions:
- – How long will it take?
- – How much work is involved?
- – How much will it cost?
Remember, an hour-long meeting involving our team of four people takes one hour, but a work-effort of four person-hours. The lack of clear distinction between elapsed time, duration and work effort can be a source of much unhappiness and personal stress.
Estimating tools and techniques:
- – Ask the experts and know their tendencies
- – Don’t confuse duration with work effort
- – Check with those who have done it before
- – Use normal work package team sizes for estimates
- – Review relevant reports/historical data
- – Conduct trials or dummy runs or build prototypes
- – Consult published productivity data
- – Check we’ve identified all the work to be done
- – Focus on longer duration and more expensive tasks – Pareto Principle
- – Allow for the unexpected – Murphy!
- – Learn with experience – update our estimating database
- – Identify all factors that might affect time (eg weather, weekends, work hours, holidays, skill levels, machine variations, industrial action, sickness, fatigue, staff turnover, etc)
- – Find out current labour and material costs, insurance rates, interest rates, exchange rates, etc for more accurate costing purposes
- – Develop a spreadsheet
- – Document estimate assumptions
- – Don’t reduce estimates without commensurate work reduction
- – Seek feedback on variance
- – Apply the Delphi technique
- – Use PERT time formula where BET = (P + 4L + O)/6
- – Apply the wide-band Delhi technique
Most of us know what we have to do – it’s just that we cannot or will not do it. However, procrastination, which is a fancy word for laziness or lack of self-discipline, does not make the task go away – it often just means more stress, anxiety and guilt as we worry about the things we leave undone.
Procrastination is the theft of time and means delaying a task (or several tasks) that should be a priority. The ability to overcome procrastination and tackle the important actions that have the biggest positive impact on our work is a hallmark of our most successful people. There are many reasons why we tend to procrastinate, including:
- – No clear deadline assigned
- – Inadequate resources available (time, tools, people, information, etc)
- – Don’t know where to begin
- – Task feels overwhelming
- – No passion or motivation to do the work
- – Fear of failure.
Our ability to select our most important task at any given moment, and then to start on that task and get it done both quickly and well, will probably have greatest impact on our success than any other quality or skill we can develop!
If we nurture the habit of setting clear priorities and getting important tasks quickly and properly finished, the majority of our time management issues will simply fade away. Here are the basic ways to get moving on those tough tasks:
- – Delete it. What are the consequences of not doing the task at all? Maybe it doesn’t need to be done at all.
- – Delegate. If the task needs to be done, ask our self if it’s really something that you are responsible for doing in the first place and can the task legitimately be delegated to someone else?
- – Do it now. Postponing an important task that needs to be done only creates feelings of anxiety and stress. Do it as early in the day as we can. It will be satisfying to get it out of the way. Just give it five minutes and then we’re underway.
- – Ask for advice. Asking for help from a trusted colleague can give us some great insight on where to start and the steps for completing a project.
- – Chop it up. Break large projects into actionable steps.
- – Obey the 15 minute rule. To reduce the temptation to procrastinate, each actionable step should take no more than say 15 minutes to complete.
- – Have clear deadlines. Assign a deadline for projects and write it down in our calendar. Also make those deadlines known to other people who will hold us accountable.
- – Give our self a reward. Celebrate the completion of each chunk of work and reward our self for getting work done on time. This will provide positive reinforcement and motivate us toward our goals.
- – Remove distractions. We need to establish a positive working environment that is conducive to getting work done. Remove or hide distractions.
Remember, to take the S.T.I.N.G. out of feeling overwhelmed about a task, follow these steps:
- Select one task to do at a time.
- Time our self using a clock for no more than one hour.
- Ignore everything else during that time.
- No breaks or interruptions should be permitted.
- Give our self a reward when the time is up.
With better planning, improved efficiency and increased productivity, the number of crises we encounter should decline. However, we can’t plan for everything, so think about what to do when a crisis does occur.
The key to successfully handling a crisis is to move quickly and decisively, but carefully. The first thing to do when a crisis hits is to identify the problem and if appropriate make others aware of the situation. Then, we will want to gather and analyse the data:
- – What happened?
- – What were the direct causes?
- – What were the indirect causes?
- – What will happen next?
- – What could happen next?
- – What events will this impact?
- – Who else needs to know about this?
Above all, take the time to do research. We don’t want to jump into action based on erroneous information and make the crisis worse. We will also want to identify the threshold time – the time that we have before the situation becomes exponentially worse. We may also find that the crisis will resolve itself after a certain point of time.
Once we have gathered the data, it’s time to create a plan. The best approach is to identify the problem, decide on a solution, break it down into parts, and create an implementation timeline.
As we execute the plan, make sure that we continue evaluating if the plan is working.
After the crisis is over, take a moment to look at why it happened and how to prevent it in the future.
We can of course be prepared for disasters such as illness, fire or earthquakes. In the case of personal illness, for example, we could prepare a contingency plan indicating who will be responsible for in our absence. Make sure we share these plans with the appropriate people so that they can also be prepared.
In order to effectively manage our time and to be productive each day, we must create an appropriate environment. By eliminating clutter, setting up an effective filing system, gathering essential tools, and managing workflow, we will be well on our way to creating this productive workspace.
Clutter. Removing clutter is itself a time-consuming task, but a cluttered workspace significantly impairs our ability to find things, and we will get the time back that we invest – and more!
Filing. To retrieve materials quickly, we need an effective filing system that might include three basic kinds of files:
- – Working files: Materials used frequently and needed close at hand.
- – Reference files: Information needed only occasionally.
- – Archival files: Materials seldom retrieved but that must be kept.
For ease of retrieval, organise files in the simplest way possible. Once clutter has been eliminated and other materials have been filed, the effective workspace includes only what is essential: perhaps a set of three trays to control the workflow on our desk, standard office supplies, a computer and a phone. Everything else, except for what we are working on at the moment, can and should be filed where it can be retrieved as needed. How frequently we use an item will help determine how close we need to keep it.
Workflow. How do we process the mountain of material that collects in our paper and electronic in-baskets? The answer is one piece of paper and one electronic message at a time. Many time management experts agree that the most effective people act on an item the first time it is touched.
Electronic communication can be managed just as easily and as quickly as paper with the D’s mentioned previously. However, here are some other key ideas that help us maximise our e-mail time:
- Like other routine tasks (such as returning phone calls, handling paper mail, and checking voice mail), e-mail is best handled in batches at regularly scheduled times of the day.
- Ask our e-mail contacts to use specific subject lines, and make sure to use them ourselves. This will help us to determine whether our incoming mail is business or personal, urgent or trivial.
- Once we know the subject of the message, open and read urgent e-mails, and respond accordingly. Non-urgent e-mails, like jokes, can be read later. Delete advertising-related e-mail that we have no interest in, or which we consider spam.
- Use our e-mail system to its fullest potential. Create folders for different topics or projects or by senders. Most e-mail systems also allow us to create folders and add keywords or categories to messages, which makes information retrieval much easier. Many e-mail programs allow us to create rules that automatically move messages to the appropriate folder.
- Finally, don’t forget to delete e-mails from our trash folder and junk folder on a regular basis.
To manage all of the things that we have to do, it’s important to organise our reminders into a small number of calendars and lists that can be reviewed regularly. A calendar (paper or electronic) is the obvious place to record meetings, appointments, and due dates.
People with multiple responsibilities, an annual calendar organised by areas of responsibility (e.g., budget, personnel, schedule, planning, and miscellaneous) may be especially valuable. For each of these areas, one can list the major responsibilities month by month and thereby see at a glance what tasks must be completed in a given month of the year.
If we work on our own, there’s only so much we can get done, no matter how hard we work, and there is no shame in asking for assistance. One of the most common ways of overcoming this limitation is to learn how to delegate our work to other people. If we do this well, we can quickly build a strong and successful team of people.
At first sight, delegation can feel like more hassle than it’s worth. However, by delegating effectively, we can hugely expand the amount of work that can be delivered.
Remember, to delegate effectively, choose the right tasks to delegate, identify the right people to delegate to, and delegate in the right way. There’s a lot to this, but we’ll achieve so much more once we’re delegating effectively!
Make sure we match the amount of responsibility with the amount of authority. Understand that we can delegate some responsibility, but we can’t delegate away ultimate accountability. The buck stops with us!
We will want to make sure that our team member knows that if any problems occur, and that we are available for any questions or guidance needed as the work progresses.
We all know that as managers, we shouldn’t micro-manage. However, this doesn’t mean we must abdicate control altogether. In delegating effectively, we have to find the difficult balance between giving enough space for people to use their abilities, while still monitoring and supporting closely enough to ensure that the job is done correctly and effectively. One way to encourage growth is to ask for recommended solutions when delegates come to us with a problem, and then help them explore those solutions and reach a decision.
Only accept good quality, fully complete work. If we accept work that we are not satisfied with, our team member does not learn to do the job properly and our customers will be unhappy.
Of course, when good work is done, make sure we recognise the effort. As a leader, we should get in the practice of complimenting members of our team every time we are impressed by what they have done. This effort on our part will go a long way toward building team members’ self-confidence and efficiency now and in the future.
Meetings can be productive, engaging and extremely useful. They can also be boring, demotivating and steal valuable time. We hold meetings to plan, solve problems and make decisions. There are more cost-effective ways, such as using the noticeboard, email and texting, to share information when face-to-face interaction is not needed, although do resist consistently sending cc messages to keep everyone “in the loop.” Anyway, here are eight commonsense reminders to help us run useful meetings:
- Set ground rules. Our team should establish a code of conduct and confirm at the start of each meeting. Starting and finishing on time would be one rule, although we should finish earlier where possible.
- Prepare an agenda and distribute it beforehand. A well-prepared agenda is a reminder to the participants what the meeting is intended to cover and what is expected of them. It gives everyone time to gather the information they need. Our agenda items might best be arranged in priority order with more time allocated to the more important and complicated items.
- Repeat the purpose. The agenda should also be a reminder of the purpose of the meeting and we should state this again at the beginning of the meeting and during the meeting if discussion is veering off topic. Perhaps write the purpose of the meeting on a flipchart page and pin it to the wall for all to see throughout.
- Stay focused. Don’t deal with any unrelated issues – defer them instead to another meeting. Stick to the agenda. Use a “parking lot.” Appoint a time-keeper. Invite different participants to chair the meeting or lead a topic.
- Allow everyone a chance to speak. Nobody wants to sit in a meeting listening to one person dominate the conversation, so limit the time any one person is allowed to speak. We might have a ball that gets passed from speaker to speaker. This makes people conscious that they are asking for something valuable – the attention of the group. Discourage fence sitting and manage conflict but avoid premature agreement. We might practise “exception reporting” whereby only those matters that are abnormal are raised. And don’t necessarily stop meetings to bring latecomers up to date or this may encourage annoying lateness.
- Avoid boredom. Little will be achieved if people are not fully engaged in the meeting. Where possible schedule the meeting for the morning when individual alertness is likely to be highest and avoid the afternoon slump. An interesting practice, intended to encourage succinct meetings, is to run them standing up or hold “walk and talk” meetings , but perhaps shorter people or slower walkers could be disadvantaged!
- Assign actions. Assign follow-up actions with realistic finish dates to specific individuals. Appoint a scribe to create an action plan (perhaps using an electronic whiteboard or have someone photograph the whiteboard and mail it to participants) that is distributed promptly and preferably at the conclusion of the meeting, a useful format for which is:
- Finishing. Summarise what has been discussed, what actions have been assigned, distribute the action plan, and perhaps confirm a date for the next meeting. Finally take a few minutes for the group to evaluate what has occurred. This is not a time to rehash discussion, but to share ideas about how efficient and effective the meeting was and how future meetings could be improved.
In summary, prepare in advance, have an agenda, book a venue, ruthlessly stay on time and stick to the topic, maximise participation, produce an action plan (who is to do what by when), evaluate the meeting, and follow-up on assigned actions.
Use MS Outlook
Outlook enables us to share our calendars so that others can view them. Shared calendars can greatly improve co-operation and co-ordination needed for efficient project teamwork.
Outlook allows us to book time for our work. Recall that Stephen Covey’s quadrant 2 tasks (important but not urgent) will not be completed unless we schedule sufficient time for this in our diary. This does not mean a bullet-point to do list, but rather a block of time, and not less time than we need.
Outlook also enables us to assign and schedule project tasks to the people responsible for task completion when their diary shows that they have time available.
If we know what is on our project team members’ diaries, we can assign them project tasks for completion during periods when they are free of other commitments, or if say we wish to set up a project team meeting, we know when team members are all available.
This shared feature only works if we have Outlook with MS Exchange Server. We cannot share our calendar unless we are keeping our calendar on the server. A calendar stored on our own computer cannot be shared. And when we use a shared calendar, Outlook can display it side by side with our own calendar.
Multi-tasking versus Mono-tasking
Reading and listening to music? Driving and talking on the phone (hands free, of course), or texting while sitting in a meeting? Saves time? Think again.
Much recent neuroscience research tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks properly simultaneously, as we thought (hoped) it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.
That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small micro seconds), it’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time it can be energy sapping.
The following somewhat non-scientific exercise requires we write out the same sentence “multitasking is unproductive” and also write down figures from 1 to 26, but in two different ways, while our colleagues keep time on each occasion.
First. Continue to write out the letters and figures alternatively to represent multitasking:
Second. Continue to write out the letters first, and then the figures second to represent unitasking.
Third. Now compare the two timings. Was it faster to unitask or multitask? Did we make our most mistakes when we unitasked or multitasked?
Getting Personal with Productivity Quiz
This quiz has a two-fold purpose:
- To enable us to assess the extent to which we employ proven productive practices.
- To remind us of practices that typically improve our workplace productivity.
Check the extent to which employ the following productivity practices by circling the appropriate figures, and then discuss your results with your colleague(s) – areas of agreement and disagreement and why.