Always Busy But Still Behind?

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.

How to manage your time effectively.

Do you have enough time to do everything you want to do, need to do, or are expected to do? If you are like most of us, you will probably answer "No," Yet there are people who seem to be highly productive and efficient and yet still have enough time left over to enjoy themselves. How do they do it?

Their success lies in the fact that they have learned how to control and manage their time. Please note, we did not say that they have learned to save time. There is no such thing. Time simply cannot be saved. You cannot save an hour each day, putting it aside to make a few extra hours at the end of the week. Time passes in its own mindless way and there is nothing you can do to alter it. However, you can learn to manage and control it; which is just another way of saying that you can learn to spend it more wisely.

The key to good time management is control. You probably control your money, so why not learn to control your time? To start, you must find out where your time is going now. You would perform this sort of analysis if your finances were dribbling away. The same principle applies to your time budget.

How do you spend your time during a typical workday? The best way to answer this question accurately is to keep a time log. For the next several days, record what you are doing at 15 or30 minute intervals. "But," you say, "I don’t have time to do that. " Wrong, wrong, wrong. You can't afford not to do this. How can you find solutions to the problem if you don't know what the problem is? As painful and, yes, as time-consuming as this is, doing a time log is the only way to start getting control of your time.

One of Murphy's Laws is that if you examine your problem long enough, you will eventually recognize you are part of the problem. This applies to time management too. Having dutifully kept a time log for a few days, you will soon realize that you are your own worst enemy when it comes to time and the ways you are wasting it. Why? Because you are not organized. Getting organized demands planning and this is the secret behind good time control.

Your time log will also identify your time wasters, what you spend most of your time doing, and when you are most productive. You may be surprised to find that specific things waste your time. Perhaps you spend the first half hour of each day sipping coffee, tidying your desk, reading the morning paper, or talking to the same three people who seem to know that you are ready for a chat at that time. These are your timewasters, You may also find you spend too many hours in meetings, on the telephone, getting ready for projects (because you aren't organized), getting to work, or putting out fires and attending to other emergencies.

Analyse your time log and find out just where your time went. What were your time wasters? Were there certain times in the day when you were most productive? Some people work best in the early part of the morning. Others don’t seem to really get going until after lunch. It you can figure out your most productive period, then you can and should plan to do your most important, creative, or demanding jobs at this time. The idea is to eliminate your timewasters, get control of your time, and to plan for the maximum use of your most productive period in the day.

There are a few simple techniques for making the most of your time. One of the most important and most useful is to make an A B C list. At the start of each day, take a sheet of paper and list all of the things you want to do during the day. Now go back over the list and categorize the items. The things you absolutely must get done today are A items. Those you would like to do if you have time are B items. The things you don't need to do today are C items. Next, put the A items in order of priority (number them 1,2,3,etc. ). Now start working on the A1 item immediately.

"It won't work," you say, "My first A item will take two hours and I only have half an hour before my first appointment," But it will work, because by starting now, you will knock half an hour off that two-hour job which you said was the most important of all. If you fall into the trap of taking care of two 15-minute C level jobs while you "wait for the appointment, you will never get to the important jobs, wasting your time on the unimportant ones instead. Besides, an interesting thing happens to the C items; they often disappear from your list and your mind entirely. We plague ourselves with things we think we need to do; while in fact, it doesn't matter if they get done or not, Never let the Cs dominate. If a C job must be done, it will move to the B level and then to the A category on your next daily list. Some executives put all their Cs in a desk drawer, taking them out on Friday to review them. They report that most of the Cs can be forgotten entirely.

Here are some other techniques you may be able to apply:

Handle a piece of paper only once. Don’t set it aside to deal with later. If it needs action, filing, or a response, do it while you have it in hand, otherwise it becomes another undone job nagging you.

Learn to say no and to return problems to their owners. People are very good at dumping their problems on unsuspecting victims. It works like this: Horatio passes you in the hall and says, "Gertrude, I've run into some difficulty with the Acme account, Can you help me?" Instead of taking over and accepting the problem and the time commitment, Gertrude should make sure the problem stays with Horatio. It's really his anyhow. She can do this by saying, "Certainly, Horatio, why don't you figure out the best three alternatives for us and call me after lunch," Now the problem is back with Horatio and he will develop three solutions which Gertrude can advise him about, but she won't have the problem.

If meetings are your major time wasters, never hold one without an agenda and a time limit. Start on time and end on time. If people are continually late, make it known that the first five tasks will be assigned to latecomers, If you must have frequent, impromptu meetings, don't let people sit down and don't serve coffee. People will only stand for about five or 10 minutes; then they want to leave.

Are you having trouble getting people out of your office? Learn how to say, "I'm sorry but I have a job, report, call, etc. that I must do at 11 o'clock. We'll have to continue this later. " Then get up, stand beside the person, and move toward the door. You can actually move him right out of your office without ever touching him.

In order to make the most of your most productive period in the day, let it be known that you will not accept any calls, visitors, or any interruptions between certain hours. People will learn to respect your wishes, and you will be able to get on with your work unless a true emergency develops.

Remember to be good to yourself and to plan some time for pleasure too. Time-management techniques work just as well off the job. Some professionals plan for a quiet time for themselves or a specific time for exercise. You might be amazed at the number of people who work out in the morning and start the day exercised, refreshed, and ready for work. Obviously these are morning people; you may prefer to sit with the paper and your coffee for an hour after supper. Regardless of your lifestyle, do plan for yourself and allow some time for pleasure.

Getting control of your time means using it better, being more productive, and yet acquiring more freedom. All of us have the same amount of time in a day; it's how we perceive it and use it that counts. Perhaps the last word on this should be left to Murphy, who observed that in matters of time, how long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on.

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

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