UK: Best Practice - Beat the time bandits.

UK: Best Practice - Beat the time bandits. - Most people recognise the syndrome of tackling the urgent before the important. It's only one time-waster among many.

by Anita van de Vliet.
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Most people recognise the syndrome of tackling the urgent before the important. It's only one time-waster among many.

Work smarter not harder, say the time management experts. Just change your habits a little, and you could shave off up to 20% of your working hours. That's one day a week, remember, which you can spend as you please.

How is such efficiency achieved?

It is, of course, unlikely that you spend your working hours idling and filing your nails, but time sifts away in other ways - in scrabbling through the mounds of paper on your desk in search of the relevant phone number or document, for example, or in checking your e-mail five times a day.

Then there are less obvious time-wasters, such as doing unimportant things to perfection, or poring over all the information sent your way with equal attention. The problem may be other people, constantly interrupting you when you want to concentrate. Or the telephone which never stops ringing. Or incessant meetings which you feel obliged to attend but from which you derive little.

In fact, says Diana Winstanley, lecturer in human resources and organisational behaviour at Imperial College Management School, who runs courses on personal organisation and effectiveness management for the academics at Imperial College, most of us already know what our own particular time bandits are. The challenge is to move on to changing our habits. So, sit down and write out the top three things that don't work effectively for you, she says. Then tackle the first - or a manageable portion of it - in the first week.

If, however, you are genuinely perplexed over where time flies to, keep a diary for a working week and find out. Record each day, 'minute by minute', recommends Martin Brown, associate trainer at London-based JSB Group.

Then analyse the activities, and comment on what you have achieved. Be honest, warns Ted Johns in his book, Perfect Time Management: after all, only you are going to read this document of self-revelation. You would certainly be in good company if your use of time is revealed as less than 100% productive, for numerous studies have shown how vastly much more time we spend on talking than on thinking; on activities which have no real bearing on organisational performance; on our own careers rather than on creative, value-adding activities; on reacting rather than on being proactive.

The aim is to use more of our time rewardingly, doing the things which actually lead to results: time management enthusiasts are fond of quoting the Pareto Principle to the effect that 20% of our activities are responsible for 80% of results, the implication being that only a small increase in proactive, creative work can make a big difference. Put simply, people need to learn to 'do things only to the standard required,' avoiding superfluous perfectionism, says Edward Sheldrick, programme director at time management company TMI.

And, he emphasises, we must learn to distinguish between the important and the urgent, a distinction which should inform much of what we do.

In other words, working smarter means establishing priorities, and planning accordingly. So start by writing a single, sensible To Do masterlist. Each day, perhaps when you're commuting to work, says Winstanley, check your list, and prioritise what needs to be done first. And as good ideas occur to you, jot them down at the back of your diary for scrutiny later.

How you schedule your time should also depend to some degree on your biological clock: re-engineer your day so that you use your peak energy hours (probably, mid-morning) for your creative thinking, not for routine tasks. The hour immediately after lunch, on the other hand, when most of us feel slightly dozy, could benefit from phone calls or meetings, to liven us up, suggests Johns. And where an odd half-hour is free, says Winstanley, it can pay off to tackle a smaller, manageable part of that huge job that is weighing on your mind, rather than assuming you should use the time for routine tasks. 'I have never come across a major job that can't be broken into smaller bits,' she says.

Resist the temptation to do things in order of pleasantness (or unpleasantness), advises Paul Hudson-Oldnall, training and consultancy division manager at Time/system UK. And, he counsels, make sure any schedule for appointments and commitments also include contingency time for the unexpected: surveys of clients suggest that only 60% of the day be planned ahead. Be realistic, too, in estimating the time needed for tasks, he says, and batch similar tasks together, so that you get into your stride making phone calls, for example, or into epistolary swing writing letters.

Of course time management companies like Time/system and TMI sell business systems - ring binders with batches of pages coloured differently for recording your goals, a databank of the information you need most often, your longer-term activity plans, and your daily schedule.

These suit some personalities, and 'can be very powerful,' believes Brown, 'but they are a benefit only if you use them properly'. Adam Novak, director and general manager of Royal Mail National, prefers to use two diaries - one for the year, with a month to each page, and one with two pages to a day, which he carries around a month at a time. These serve a similar purpose of providing an overview and the necessary detail. 'So, when I've got an idle moment on a train, for example, I check to see how things are looking,' he says.

Then too there are electronic organisers, also supplied by the time management companies. Take-up of these has been relatively slow, however, it being obviously easier to jot things down on paper rather than stoking up the computer when you are out of the office. Winstanley also warns that one cannot use an electronic organiser half-heartedly: 'You must load all your information into it, and really use it.' But software systems can be a boon for project management, where multiple tasks and delegation are involved, claims Philip Rushforth, managing director of Time/system in the UK. They can cut down on the need for meetings and enable the manager to keep track of progress in terms of both time and money.

Whatever form your planning takes, it is of course only preparatory to actual performance. Deal smartly with the papers that arrive on your desk, emptying your in-tray at regular intervals. With each document, says Brown, when you read it for the first time, 'decide very positively what to do', whether that means action now, action in the future, or throwing it in the bin.

Sheldrick suggests six categories: 'do today'; 'do within seven days' (updated daily); 'file' (when you've got a spare moment); 'read' (which means reading the first paragraph and summary, to see whether reading the whole is necessary); 'passon with explanation'; and 'awaiting information'.

But to carry out those constructive, creative activities, you will need a daily measure of uninterrupted time. To achieve this, you need to establish that you are available at specific times - say, from 10am to 3pm. Then, for your interruption-free time, you need to find a safe place - the library, or home, or a telephone-free conference room, or your own office, if you have one, with the door shut. Some managers have an official start at 9.30am, and keep the hour before that to themselves.

If you work in an open-plan office, you could adopt the Asda trick of donning a red baseball cap to signal that you are incommunicado. If caps don't suit you, try a red flag. With or without gimmicks, says Brown, 'a lot depends on whether you're assertive or wavering, and can get tempted away'. Judith Gower, of the campaigning organisation Parents at Work, and product specialist at ICL, agrees: 'You've got to be disciplined.' There's an advantage to being a working mother, she claims, as it means you are used to concentrating against the odds.

Vicky Pryce, a partner at KPMG and head of the firm's 35-strong department of economics and strategy, is also the mother of five children. Her work involves serious travel - delivering a talk on the European gas industry in Amsterdam, for example, and then zooming straight on to Birmingham to discuss EMU. So she clearly knows something about managing her time.

Her handling of paperwork is brisk: read, file, pass on with instructions, keep on desk for action. For uninterrupted time, she will stay on for a couple of hours at the end of the day, so as to leave everything in the out-tray. 'It's amazing the amount you can do in half an hour.'

When it comes to dealing with unforeseen interruptions, tactics vary. At Asda, explains head of human resources David Smith, people are encouraged to view these positively, as requests from internal customers: 'We try to answer all telephone calls within two rings, for example.' For others, Johns provides a handy list of ways to deflect interruptions or keeping them short (keeping an egg-timer on your desk, glancing at your watch, or grunting mono-syllabically, and so on).

When evaluating demands on your time, refer to your distinction between the urgent and the important. 'You always do the important,' advises Novak.

'You don't always do the urgent.' Gower is more forthright: 'Be ruthless.

I say, if it's a waste of my time, I'm not going to do it.' Sheldrick advises that only something which is both urgent and important (customer service recovery, for example) should displace the important (the activities which lead to results). If something is 'urgent but of low value,' he says, 'buy time: if somebody says it's urgent, don't assume they want it now. Ask why they want it; how it will benefit the customer; whether it must be done now; the latest date it is wanted; and the appropriate standard.'

'Don't think you've got to do it,' adds Gower. 'If there's somebody else, let them do it. Balance the work evenly among people,' she advises. 'People will never learn if you keep everything to yourself.' Pryce believes in delegating, 'but I also accept delegation upwards (looking at proposals, for example)'. Perhaps being a woman makes her more accustomed to sharing work, she suggests.

Meetings require a robust approach. 'I won't go unless there's an agenda - a timed agenda,' says Gower. 'I ask whether my presence is really necessary ...

I need to see papers in advance.' Any meeting over two hours should certainly be split, she adds. At Asda, the approach is reinforced by visual and physical tactics - a stand-up meeting room, for example, and the 'two-foot rule' which allows people to leave the meeting when it is no longer relevant to them (the two feet were originally bits of cardboard 12 inches long, waved aloft to signify an intended exit).

Finally, effective managers agree that presenteeism is old hat. It is important for people to get the balance between work and home right, emphasises Novak. 'I discourage my staff from staying too late, partly by leaving at a reasonable time myself.' So remember the watchword from Parents at Work: 'No-one ever said on their death bed, "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".'

Timely Tips

Learn to say 'no' or 'yes, but not now'

Set realistic targets of what you want to achieve this year, this month, this week

Prioritise your work, distinguishing between the important and the urgent

Re-engineer your day, keeping your peak performance time for your most important tasks

Schedule in interruption-free time, for taking stock or for concentrating on the essential

Don't be intimidated by the extrovert or bossy into taking on more than you can do: if necessary, choose between being 'nice' and being exploited

Learn to say 'yes, but not now'

Learn to say 'no'

Learn the art of creative delegation: explain that you will retain complete responsibility, so that people can gain new experience without risk

Curb excessive perfectionism

Break down the apparently unmanageable task into smaller, digestible portions: this applies whether you are tidying your desk or facing something more intellectually daunting

Don't allow routine work to build up

Use the wastepaper bin as your main filing system

Insist that timed agendas are distributed before meetings

Learn the skills of presentation to keep meetings interesting - and short

Don't take work home and then feel guilty about not doing it.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events


Get your essential reading delivered. Subscribe to Management Today