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A guide to really effective time management

However skilled or knowledgeable we are in our chosen profession, the one thing that can go a long way towards de-railing our efforts is poor time management. Yet I use the term 'time management' only as a convenience, because I don't really believe that it's possible to manage time. Time just is, and we all get 24 hours a day. The real problem lies, instead, in how we manage our work flow. Time management is really about managing a queue.

This is an important statement because it makes us immediately realise that what is true about the physical queues that we experience during everyday life is also true about our work.

The chaotic work queue

Further, we can also see that the methods that go into properly managed queues might also work for us in managing our work flow. Saturday night at the bar in a busy pub is chaotic because there is no proper queue, just people trying to catch the attention of the bar staff. Conversely when, as in many main Post Offices today, there is a single queue and an adequate number of cashier positions, the queue moves much faster. Unfortunately, the chaotic queuing system operating on Saturday night at the bar is the one most resembling the way many people run their work days. Instead of imposing order on the flow of work, they are open to every random interruption - they tend to give priority to whatever is 'making the biggest noise' at the time.

Yet this is probably the least effective method of prioritising ever devised. Depending on the amount of noise that it is making, any incoming piece of work will either be dealt with immediately (thereby taking us away from what we were already working on) or will be put off until later. The problem is that 'later' is undefined. It could be any time from now to the end of the world. So not only do pieces of work arrive at random, whether and when they get dealt with is also random. What we can easily end up with is a situation in which our work is out of our control. We might just as well throw dice to decide what gets done.

The problem is compounded because, since our work comes in at random and gets processed at random, there is no obvious way to check whether the workload is in fact appropriate for the amount of time we have available. How can we tell if the queue is too long if we don't have a queue? Without the discipline that knowing the length of the queue brings to our workload, we have a strong tendency to take on further commitments (again more or less at random) in the vain hope that somehow we will find time to fit them in. We ignore the basic truth that, if we are already filling 24 hours a day, something has to give every time we take on an extra commitment.

The problem that poor time managers face

In summary, the problem poor time managers face boils down to this:

  • they are not managing their work queue properly; and
  • this leads them to take on more work than they can handle.

If this is the problem, then the solution must be to learn to manage the queue properly and to cut back the workload to what is within the individual's capacity.

Seeing our workload as a queue makes us realise that the two most common ways of managing it - by priority and by urgency - are not going to work very well if the queue is too long for everyone to be served before the 'shop' shuts.

If 'important' people keep pushing to the front of a queue, when are lesser mortals going to get served? And if people keep being given preference because their business is 'urgent', when do those of us who aren't granted 'urgent' status get served? In both cases the answer is 'never' if the queue is too long.

This sort of prioritisation only makes sense if the queue is short enough for everyone to get served. But if everyone is going to get served anyway, surely most of the important and urgent cases could be left to wait their turn?

When the queue system fails

The aim of a good queuing system is for everyone to get served within reasonable time. A queue will fail if:

  1. the queue is too long. In work terms, if we have too much work no system of time management is going to get us out of the problem. We have to tackle the root cause and cut back on our commitments. It may involve much negotiation and horse trading, but the necessity will not go away on its own;
  2. the cashiers are not working efficiently. If the cashiers are not properly trained, or they are working slower than they should be, the queue will not progress properly. In work terms, if we allow ourselves to engage in inefficient working practices, we will not get through anything like as much work as we should; or
  3. the opening hours are too short. In terms of our work, if we overschedule ourselves with meetings then we should not be surprised if we find ourselves unable to complete everything we should be doing.
Below are a couple of examples of how we can impose order on our work, starting with email.

Email

Poor time manager - the way poor time managers deal with email is usually like this:

  • every time their computer announces that there is email, they break off from what they are doing and look at what has arrived;
  • if three emails have arrived since they last looked, they will send off a reply to one and leave the other two 'for later'; and
  • if there's an interesting-sounding link in one of the emails they will click on it and surf for an indeterminate time (telling themselves that they are engaged in 'research').
  • Now this system of dealing with emails has the following results - their work is constantly interrupted, and they build up a backlog of unprocessed emails.

Good time manager - a good time manager checks email at pre-arranged times, maybe one, two or three times a day and then deals with all the email that has arrived as a batch. This means that the good time manager does not interrupt his/her other work and does not build up a backlog of unprocessed emails.

The good time manager will also pay attention to weeding out sources of email that are not productive so that the volume is kept to a reasonable amount, and will be disciplined about not getting distracted by individual emails. Both of these are easier to do when dealing with email as a batch because one is much more conscious of exactly how much email remains to be processed.

Using the email principle elsewhere

Now the principle used here by the good time manager is applicable to many things other than email, eg paperwork, phone calls, minor tasks, etc. The principle is to:

  • group similar actions together;
  • deal with them on a regular basis (at least daily); and
  • work through to completion with each batch.

Let's now look at another cause of poor work practices - meetings.

Meetings

Poor time manager - whenever poor time managers are asked to attend a meeting, they:

  • agree, provided their diary shows an open slot;
  • find the meeting usually lasts longer than expected; 
  • find a lot of time is spent working out what should be discussed;
  • often wonder what purpose their presence is serving there; and
  • usually manage to come away with even more work to add to their already overwhelming workload.
  • And the last thing to be agreed at every meeting is when the next meeting is going to be.

Good time manager - by contrast, good time managers:

  • never attend meetings unless the benefit of attending outweighs the time it will take;
  • remember that their empty diary spaces are already full of unscheduled work;
  • insist on a proper agenda and a finish time for the meeting;
  • leave at the finish time whether the meeting has finished or not;
  • only take on meeting-generated tasks if they are essential to their existing commitments;
  • do not agree to a follow-up meeting unless it, and their presence, is essential; and
  • when they do attend a meeting, will leave time in their schedule for the work it will generate.

In this case too, the principles used by the good time manager are applicable to other situations. The good time manager is conscious of the length of the queue. He or she makes sure that the only things allowed into that queue are those that are relevant to their core commitments. They are also conscious of the 'opening hours' of the queue. They know that they must leave enough time in their schedule to process work they take on. And above all they do not take on distractions.

Conclusion

Realising that 'time management' is actually about managing a queue enables us to take far more realistic action to manage our work flow. By paying attention to the three areas in which a queue can go wrong, we can successfully get through our work. By imposing a queue in the first place, we can avoid the fractured and random nature of many working days.

Further information:

'Do it tomorrow, and other secrets of time management' is published by Hodder (£7.99) ISBN 0 340 90912 9

Author: Mark Forster is an author and life coach specialising in personal

Email: mf@markforster.net

This article was published by the Finance and Management Faculty (Issue 141, February 2007).