Everyday interruptions can leave your daily list of priorities in tatters, but Winston Fletcher has a few tips on how to deflect the time bandits.
Some years ago Ivy Lee, often called the father of management consultancy, gave this advice to Charles Schwab, then president of Bethlehem Steel Corporation in America: 'Number the items you have to do tomorrow in the order of their real importance. First thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it is completed. Next take number two and don't go any further until it too is completed. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can't complete everything on the day's schedule, don't worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things without getting distracted by items of lesser importance.'
Lee asked Schwab to test the system and pay him whatever it was worth.
Within a few weeks Schwab posted a cheque for $25,000 - worth more than ten times as much today.
Lee's advice to prioritise tasks, then deal with them one by one, is the basis of modern time management. To most managers, however, it sounds like a utopian dream. In the everyday hubbub of working life, an endless welter of interruptions gatecrash each day's schedule, shattering the calm of contemplative toil.
Room for improvement
Yet the fact that perfection is unattainable is no excuse for throwing in the towel. For most of us, our days are disorderly and disorganised, which means there is vast room for improvement. Even quite small reforms can yield worthwhile dividends.
How can you manage your time more efficiently? The first and most crucial step is to keep a time log for a few weeks. Nobody enjoys this; just keeping the time log itself at first seems to absorb an inordinate amount of time. Yet within a couple of days, it will seem to take no time at all. You may even feel a compulsion to record the timekeeping itself.
It can become addictive but it is rarely worthwhile keeping a log permanently.
The insights into the way you spend your working day can be gleaned quite quickly.
A time log is just a diary in which the time you have spent is divided up, usually under these headings: meetings (in groups); meetings (one-to-one); writing letters; writing documents; talking on the telephone; handling interruptions; dealing with crises; and thinking/planning. Depending on your job, you might add: travel, dealing with customers, and any other important facet of your work.
It is vital to complete each day's log that evening or, at the latest, next morning. Memories are too fallible to let things slide. And don't cheat. If you've spent time gossiping or reading an old copy of Management Today, log it. Only when you know the truth can you decide whether or not to change your habits.
After a few weeks, the ways in which you have been spending your time will become, often depressingly, apparent. From then on, you will be able to start ensuring that (like Charles Schwab) you devote more time to tasks of great importance and less to those that hardly matter, which is likely the opposite of how you spend your time now!
Almost certainly, you will find that interruptions are the most pernicious time-wasters, and dealing with them is a vital part of time management. In my view, open-plan offices and hot-desking exacerbate the problem.
Some unplanned visitations are necessary, some unnecessary, and some simply run too long. Here are some ways to deal with the last two.
Set time limits. As soon as the visitor arrives, simply say, 'Do you mind if we wrap this up in eight or nine minutes, as I've an awful lot on'. Using a specific, slightly quirky time availability helps get the message across and it should then be possible to wrap the thing up in ten.
Transfer the call. When you learn the reason for the visit, say politely but firmly, 'X could deal with this better than I; why don't you see him?' It is astonishing, as you will see in your time log, how much time we spend discussing issues that are not our business and we are not empowered to resolve.
Fill in the gaps
Get it in writing. As soon as the visitor has started, interrupt and say, 'I'm sorry. I hadn't realised how important this is. Could you send me a memo or e-mail?'
Visit the visitor. If they are wafflers, don't let them get started but offer to go to them later. It is much easier to leave than to lever someone out.
Above all, the best way to deal with visitors is to block out a period every couple of days (your time log will indicate how long you need) and ask drop-ins whose business is not urgent to come back then. It is easier to curtail discussions politely when it is obvious someone is waiting.
Blocking out time for outgoing phone calls is also a time-saver.
Perhaps the best single time utiliser for me has been my 'putty list' of brief jobs I use to fill in gaps in the day. Drafting a meeting agenda, checking diary dates, preparing presentation charts, and the like. I used to keep the list in my diary; now it's on my laptop (under 'putty') and I refer to it whenever I get a few minutes. It works a treat.