How can I get control over my time?

How can I get control over my time?
"Time is money"—believe it. One approach to getting control of our time is to take this old adage seriously. If you need convincing, make a quick calculation of what it costs your organization to pay you (including benefits, taxes, and bonus), seat you in an office, and equip you with tools, administrative support, and executive management. If you are salaried, a reasonable estimate of your total burdened cost is your gross pay multiplied by a factor of 2 to 3 and divided down to get an hourly rate. These are surprisingly large numbers, and it is real money that we burn every hour. Yet the care we take in our management of time often falls far short of the basic controls, safeguards, and reviews that we use as a matter of course in managing our organizational and personal finances.

So let's really treat time as if it were money and apply the same control and budgeting principles that we would apply to put chaotic finances in order. Here are the steps:

Capture and measure your time "actuals." For one to two weeks, keep a detailed log of every activity you do during the day. Note the time of day every time you change activities. Set your watch, PDA, or computer clock to chime on the hour to remind you to keep up with the log. You can use software tools to help you here, but you do not need an elaborate tool. Our Personal Time Management Assessment Log, an Excel spreadsheet, or a pocket notebook will work fine. Try to fit this logging seamlessly and unobtrusively into your daily routine (so that the logging itself does not take significant time).

Analyze your actuals. Now examine your time logs, and identify both the valuable and the wasteful activities. Apply the "80/20 rule"—look for the 20 percent of your effort that gets 80 percent of the work done. Be brutally honest with your self-assessment of what you do well and not so well. Using a SWOT analysis can help here. Identify the following, and brainstorm with yourself possible solutions:

  • Waste: activities that have little or no value. Minimize or eliminate them.
  • Thrashing: Tasks that are done multiple times—especially common with paperwork. Don't move papers from one place to another without doing some kind of reduction or transformation. Treat each piece of paperwork, and then discard it. The same principle applies to email (and other "electronic paper").
  • Distractions: Identify distractions and try to eliminate root causes. Reorient your office space, filter phone calls, train co-workers to respect "quiet time", etc.
  • Inefficiencies: Identify activities that could be combined or should be broken down, done at a different time of day or week, done with different tools or support, but still done by you.
  • Delegation: Identify activities that are better done by others (who can do them faster, or add more value, or are currently underutilized while you are over-burdened).
  • Procrastination: Identify activities that you avoid starting or that are drawn out because they are unpleasant or boring.
  • Decomposition: Break large, monolithic tasks into smaller ones. Try to do this at natural breakpoints; i.e., at points where you can be interrupted without loss of context. Breaking work down will help you find tasks that are delegation candidates.
  • Cycles: Look for trends and cycles in your energy level and your efficiency. Is there a better time of day for some activities? Do you slump after lunch? Do you get a "second wind?"
  • Think time: Strategic think time is a leadership imperative, yet it is often given short shrift by managers. Schedule it! Plan it into your week.

Create a time "budget." Now create a time plan, using both a top-down process of setting overall goals—both work and personal—and a bottom-up process of incorporating what you learned in analyzing your current time management. If you haven't set long-term goals with your supervisor (or yourself, if you are an independent worker), now is the time to do it. Set personal goals as well with family and friends. Then break these goals down into tasks and a rough daily schedule over a week or two. Examine your time log "actuals" for how you are currently meeting or not meeting those goals. With this "bottom up" viewpoint, apply what you learned in analyzing your actuals: eliminate wasteful activities, thrashing, and distractions; organize the inefficient activities; and look for tasks that would be better delegated to others. The output of this effort is your time budget plan: a daily schedule over a one or two week period. Again, don't worry about fancy tools. Just paper and pencil is a good start —easily accessible and updateable.

Modify your behavior to fit your budget. Now comes the hard part of budgeting (both for time and for finances): sticking with the plan. To do this, you'll need to break some habits, some of them deeply ingrained, and create others. This is where you fight procrastination, learn delegation, and maintain a discipline of sticking to plan as long as possible, and then changing the plan when necessary. Here are some pointers to help:

  • Use a daily, prioritized To Do list to drive the day's activities. Make notes on how well you did on each task, note any unexpected tasks, and SAVE THESE LISTS (these are your on-going "actuals" that you're going to review as part of your "budget cycle").
  • Break large, daunting tasks down and chip away at them. How else would you plan to eat the elephant?
  • Make appointments with yourself. Don't use your handheld or Day-Timer® just to enter meetings with others; schedule meetings with yourself to do critical tasks, and keep your appointments.
  • To fight off procrastination, use a bit of Zen: think about how you'll feel when an unpleasant or boring task is completed, and not about you'll feel during the doing of the task. Learn the art of starting unpleasant activities by not thinking about them too much until you have started them.

Monitor, review, and adjust. Get into the habit of periodically monitoring your new actuals, comparing them with your plan, and tweaking your behavior. At the end of each week, review your annotated "To Do" lists for the past days, adjust your overall time planning if necessary. Your performance self-evaluation may cause you to modify your goals. Again, be honest with yourself and discard or modify any goals that no longer look doable as you realistically monitor your time. Make any tactical changes necessary in your weekly time management plan. Then lay out the plan for the next week. Create the "To Do" lists for the first couple of days in detail. And repeat the process until it becomes a comfortable habit.

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