Accomplishing more might be easier than you think
Time management is a hot topic; it’s definitely a tricky topic, that finds its way into quantum physics, psychology, economy, prices, and other sciences. The one truth that nobody can refute is that time is limited: each human being is born with a pre-determined amount of time available which is, to make things more complicated, unknown. This limitation doesn’t apply just to a biological context: projects have a limited amount of time allocated to them, as do individual tasks that make up projects. The time that your staff will dedicate to your company is also limited by their working hours, sick days, holidays, and so on.
So: time is limited. How do you manage it?
First of all, what is time, and what is time management?
Time in absolute terms is a way to measure an increment in a timeline. So, one minute is one minute, one hour is 60 minutes, and one day is 24 hours. In relative terms, time is something much more elusive: it can pass much faster and much slower depending on what you are doing. 3 hours of a dreadful, boring meeting will feel much longer and painful than 3 hours of relaxed time reading a good book or enjoy a friend’s company.
When you put the word “time” next to the word “management”, you end up with something very different: time management not about how much time has passed, but how much you have accomplished. In one sentence, time management is the art of organizing, scheduling, arranging and budgeting for your time so that you use that your are as effective and productive as possible.
This seems easy at first: the main suggestion that springs to mind is “Just don’t waste time!”. However, it’s not that simple. Imagine having a jug called “work”, a huge container of water (your time), and a cup: while ideal time is just like water, where you can pour it from the cup to the jug knowing that you got most of it to the other side, time is more like naphtha: when you try to pour it, or when you try to keep it locked, it just spills everywhere anyway.
The wasted time
First of all, it’s hard to say that time can be “wasted”: time is time, full stop. It’s only wasted in relation to a task that needed to be accomplished, and in terms of effectiveness of the time spent on it in relation with the achieving of your goal. In other words, it’s only really “wasted” if it wasn’t used for what it was originally intended for.
So, where does time actually “go” once it’s wasted? There are several areas:
Context switching A lot of people out there plan their working time to the 20 minutes: 20 minutes to write the report, 15 minutes to get the email out, 20 minutes for a quick meeting with John about his product. What they fail to understand is that context switching, that is going from one task to another, is risky: the report might take 3 extra minutes, the email out might not happen at all, and then the meeting with John will become impossible or useless. There are also people who don’t plan their jumps, but simply go with the flow: they work on their report, but then spend a few minutes here and there trying to complete their email, and at the same time they might be on the phone with John trying to figure out why his product is not selling. Both these situation have two things in common: 1) phenomenal amounts of time are wasted — that is, are not spend enhancing the tasks at hand 2) They tend to create a very stressful work environment. To go back to the water example, while you are pouring water into the work jug, the big container is left open and water will evaporate.
Organising things take time. Deciding what you need to do is a task in its own right and, what’s worse, it’s a task that takes a lot of time and energy, and that cannot really be put against anybody’s invoice. In the morning, you need to figure out how you are going to spend that morning: you might need to look at your email, your TODO list, and decide what’s more important, more urgent, or more pleasant to do. That takes time: if you work as a contractor, it will be hard to charge your customer on the basis of “I was trying to figure out what I was going to do that day”. If you are an employee, it will be hard to explain to your boss why your first timesheet starts at 9:30 instead of 9:00 on the dot. Going back to the water example, while you are there trying to decide which work jug you will pour water into, water will continue to evaporate.
Productivity. Time can also be wasted while you are theoretically working hard on one task, with no context switching and nothing to decide. The main problem is very often lack of concentration, due to personal problems or to the fact that you actually hate that specific task with a passion. Low productivity is indeed a very insidious problem: it’s as if the while you are moving water from the container to the work jug, the (paper) cup absorbed a lot of water in the process, and the jug will receive a lot less water than originally intended.
Distractions. Again, if you have small distractions, they might only take a few minutes here and there. However, they will still hinder your productivity (you will be less concentrated) and will create a time leak in terms of context switching (you need to constantly change the task you are working on: a little bit of work, a little bit of distraction, then work again, etc.). Instant Messaging and phones are the main culprits here. Imagine having not just one work jug, but also several other jugs one for each distraction you might have: you will end up spilling a lot of water, and at the end of the day your work jug will be surprisingly empty! (Even more surprisingly, the distraction jugs will be empty as well).
So, how do you manage your time?
The answer should already be in this article. See your time as a goa pindul precious reservoir, and work as an even more precious jug. Make sure you only fill one jug at any given time, and do it with care. In more practical terms:
Avoid context switching at all costs. Focus on doing one thing, and do it well.
Avoid spending time “organising” time: have a set routine so that you know what you will do beforehand
Stay productive. This is easier said than done, but it’s surprising how many people don’t actually spend energy trying to look for ways to be more productive
Avoid distractions. If you are working you are working. Each distraction will take a lot of context switching, and might ruin your routine.