Time management tips

October 2011 » Columns » PROJECT MANAGEMENT INSIGHTS
Time is the stuff of life, and it's natural that we think a lot about ways to use time more efficiently.
Christine Brack, PMP

Most of us spend 40 or more hours of our life every week – 2,400 minutes! – engaged in activities that benefit our organization. That's a pretty big chunk of time. So why does it still feel like we're not getting enough accomplished? Here are some time-management pointers to keep you on task.

Prioritize – What needs to get done because it's important for the business? The problem is that we lump everything into this category when really some of these items can wait or should simply be less of a priority today or this week. In fact, as author Stephen Covey and others have pointed out, "urgent is not the same as important." A relatively trivial task, like paying a bill, can become urgent because it needs to be done today, while something far more important, such as drafting a new marketing plan, gets put off indefinitely. How many things have you tagged as "urgent" that divert your attention from critical goals? There will always be some fires to put out, but if you allow them to rule your business life you'll never complete more important organizational objectives.

Don't procrastinate – Even when we do have time at our disposal, most of us conjure up imaginative ways of avoiding the essential things that need to get done. Why? Isn't this the space in our schedule we've been waiting for? Perhaps we just don't know how or where to get started. Maybe we aren't excited about what we volunteered for or what has been assigned to us. Likely we are afraid it will bomb and we'll look a bit incompetent. Procrastination is a tough foe, but here are some time-tested tips for overcoming it.

   • Define the first step. Procrastination is often due to the feeling of being overwhelmed, of not knowing where to start. So, take the time to define the first step. This is often something small and easy, such as e-mailing a colleague for a phone number or address. With this first step defined, it's easy enough to just go ahead and do it.

   • Divide and conquer. If you're feeling overwhelmed by the size of a task, find just a small chunk to finish. For example, if you have to write a multi-page white paper, start by writing a draft of just the table of contents, and allow yourself to feel good about finishing this small, important part of the work. Similarly, break up long chapters into subheads – or even paragraphs – and write those one at a time.

   • Work in short bursts. If working for hours is daunting, don't do it! Instead, set a timer for a period of less than an hour – the Pomodoro Method suggests just 25 minutes. Then work for that period – anyone can work for just 25 minutes. When you finish, take a break, then do it again.

Manage e-mail – It's easy to feel that we need to drop what we're doing and address every new e-mail. This might be considered "responsive" or "great customer service," but for the average person, each occasion the attention is ripped away, it takes seven minutes to refocus and return to the task at hand. Considering the volume of e-mail we receive, that's serious time down the drain. So, take some easy steps to manage e-mail. For example, if you're being copied needlessly on some e-mails, inform the sender and ask to be removed from the distribution list. This isn't rude – it's a time saver. Also, if "reply all" has been hit more than three times by anyone in a distribution list, it's time for a conference call or a meeting. As a firm, pledge to write less (less text and less frequency). Remember, brevity is the soul of wit, and tomes get deleted.

Delegate more – We often think, "I can do this in less time than it will take me to explain it." This and similar roadblocks keep us from delegating effectively. There is always a learning curve and a bit of investment on the side of the manager who delegates, and that's the point – taking the time to educate employees eventually saves you a lot of time. So, take the time to transfer tasks effectively, be clear about what you expect, and make sure you are available if the employee runs into trouble or has questions. The smartest and most efficient staffer in the office isn't always the best choice to delegate to. Less experienced team members have an opportunity to grow here, and you'll win their commitment by showing you trust them.

No doubt you've looked at your utilization rate and wondered how so many hours were spent at the office and yet the big things didn't get started or finished. There will always be troubles to contend with when we run a business or manage a project, but they shouldn't be running us ragged or dictating how we carry out our day. There isn't a magic wand to make it go away, but you do have the ability to call the shots on how that time is better spent.

Christine Brack, PMP, is a principal with ZweigWhite specializing in business planning and project management best practices. She can be contacted at cbrack@zweigwhite.com.

Read this and other project management columns at www.aectechstrategies.com/project-management.html.


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