BY TOM COX
In today’s business world, the old time management techniques are no longer enough. With the increasing pace of change, the pressures of downsizing and the growing expectation of instant communication and fast responsiveness, the tools and practices you used to manage your time are outdated. Here are seven rules for extreme time management that will put you back in control of your time and your life.
I. Know Why You’re Changing
What’s the first step in seizing control of our time? According to Brenda Buratti of Right Now Communications, who helps CEOs achieve “Extreme time management for a 26/7 world,” you first have to know why you’re trying to make the change.
Our time management habits are habits — and habits change only with difficulty. You’ll be much more effective when you have a powerful “why” — say, wanting to see your own kids as they’re growing up — to keep you going.
II. Keep a Time Log – and Analyze It
Once you know why you’re changing, you have to get off of auto-pilot and become “mindful.” Habits are “automatic behaviors” and cost almost nothing in terms of willpower or attention. (That’s why good habits are such allies, and why bad habits are so insidious.) Most of us allocate our time without really noticing it, and we are terrible at accounting for where our time really went. So, “write down everything,” says Brenda. “Every minute counts. Sometimes increasing your efficiency comes from finding five, five-minute segments that you can re-purpose.” You must keep the time log in real-time, as you go through your day. Don’t try to fill it in once every couple of hours based on your memory of what you did — really track where every minute goes.
Once you’ve kept the log for at least a few days, Brenda suggests you look for “unique time wasters” — the most common and wasteful are:
Bad Email Discipline (see separate article here)
Executives hate many of their meetings, and no wonder. Too many are poorly run, go too long and result in neither decisions nor actions. (Learn how to make your meetings more effective.)
If your meetings are like this; get out of them or change them.
Interruptions are remarkably destructive of effective work. If you get a five minute interruption, log it. When your log reveals you’re having ten of those a day, you’re starting to see what’s stealing your time.
III. Ask the “Four Vital Questions”
Brenda recommends asking yourself these “Four Vital Questions”:
What are your top priorities? (Often our tasks and time-use habits still support last year’s priorities.)
What’s the best use of your time to support those priorities? (De-prioritize the tasks that support low-priority goals.)
What are your truly vital tasks — the ones that only you can do? (Newly promoted executives are notorious for holding on to old tasks they should no longer be doing.)
What’s changing in your world that affects how you spend your time? (The world is changing faster and faster — and your business has to respond, so you have to respond also. If you ever hear the words “because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” treat it as a red flag.)
Each of your answers reveals previously hidden opportunities to reclaim time.
IV. Eliminate Tasks
One interim CIO of my acquaintance, upon taking a new role, would turn off all reports coming out of the IT department. Then he would selectively turn back on only those reports that someone complained about not getting. Find a way to do something similar with your work.
As Marc Lesser puts it in his book, Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, you really can eliminate a surprisingly large number of tasks, but you’ll never do it until you challenge yourself and challenge your process. People working on auto-pilot literally cannot do this.
Brenda had a client who was bitterly unhappy with her workload. Her time log revealed lots of trivial, almost clerical tasks. She literally didn’t realize until she saw it in her time log, how much non-management work she had taken on or retained. These were largely five to 15 minute tasks.
Next, the client delegated or just stopped doing these small tasks.
With Brenda’s coaching on this single area, this executive freed up nearly 10 hours a week.
V. Destroy Interruptions
The study of human effectiveness has found that any interruption will break your concentration, lowering your productivity for anywhere from five to 15 minutes. (The conceit of younger workers that they are good at “multi-tasking” is provably false — they’re no better at resisting the productivity-destroying effects of interruptions than their parents or grandparents.)
Brenda suggests: Turn off the email notification chime — that change alone can save you an hour a day.
Identify with the time log the interruptions — and the interruptors, the people — that are most frequently breaking into your concentration. For the people who need a lot of your face time, schedule that face time so they don’t need to interrupt you to get their needs met.
Some people have email chime, telephone calls, a chat window open and people dropping by. This combination of interruptions will chop up your attention and prevent you from gathering focus and being effective.
VI. Schedule Visioning and Strategy Time
Block out at least a half day each week to slow down and think about where you’re going. This is the most powerful time we may spend all week, yet it’s the first time we give up to do low-value high-urgency tasks.
VII. Honor Your Time
Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. Honor it. Spend it on purpose. Nobody else will respect your time more than you do.
[Listen to my interview with Brenda Buratti here.]
Business consultant and author Tom Cox is a contributing columnist for Oregon Business.