Time Management Techniques

The successful manager realizes that personal mastery of time management is not an option - it is THE essential pre-condition to success as a manager.

When I'm coaching managers, it's often difficult for them to grasp this concept - that you can be good - or excellent, even superlative - at everything you do as a manager, but if you're not totally on top of your personal time management, eventually your performance will slide, and will eventually collapse.

It's important to grasp this point: It doesn't matter how good you are at making decisions, communicating, taking risks, schmoozing customers, motivating employees, influencing others, or any other management skill - If you cannot master your time, managerially, you're dead.

Some day it will catch up with you. If not today, tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, the day after.

There are numerous schools of thought out there on the best way to enhance your time management skills from David Allen's Getting Things Done to Steven Covey's Urgent Vs Important model. My best advice is to find a system that works for you and then stick with it.

Here are four underlying principles which should be an integral part of any time management system.

1. Define the Next Action
The number one reason we procrastinate on any project is because we have not defined the next step which needs to be taken in order to bring the project closer to completion. When we look at a project in its entirety rather than as a series of small incremental steps our brain defaults to work avoidance mode.

It may seem trivial to say that there is a difference between "conduct performance appraisals with team" (a project) and "check diary for a suitable date to conduct performance appraisals" (a next action) but there is. The latter is a physical activity that can be carried out to move the project toward completion. The former is an ethereal collection of activities and tasks which need to be carried out but which have not been clearly defined. Once we define the next action we know exactly what it is that we need to do next. No arguments!

Here's a short exercise you can do. Take 10 minutes or so to write down all of the projects you are currently working on. Next look over the projects and write down what the next action is that you need to take to move each project closer to completion.

2. Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, Delete it
Once you've got your list of next actions it's time to apply the 4D rule to each item. Go through each item on your list and ask yourself if it would be more beneficial to do it (now), delegate it, defer it or delete it. Here are a couple of pointers for the best way to make this decision.

Do it - Use the two minute rule. If you can do the task in under two minutes it is probably more beneficial to do it now, after all it will likely take you longer than two minutes to delegate, defer or delete it.

Delegate it - A good manager will delegate most of the next actions to his team. The rule of thumb here is that you should concentrate on doing the tasks that only you can do and delegate the rest. This will free you up to focus on those tasks which only you can do. Note: Make sure you have an effective delegation process in place before you begin to delegate too many tasks.

Defer it - If it is a task that only you can do and will likely take longer than two minutes then you should defer it. Block out a period of time in your calendar when you will be able to devote your whole attention to the task.

Delete it - If the task or project is no longer relevant, then delete it!

3. Ubiquitous Capture
The main reason any time management system breaks down is because too often we try to keep all of the information in our brain. Whether it's "I must remember the sales meeting on Wednesday at 11", "I have to e-mail my expenses to accounts" or even "I have to buy milk on the way home", trying to keep all of this "stuff" in our brains is inevitably going to lead to stress and ultimately forgetting things. For as wonderfully complex as the three pound mass in our head that is our brain is, it is notoriously bad at reminding us what we need to do and when we need to do it.

Mastering the art of ubiquitous capture frees you up from the stress of "trying to remember to remember". The key to ubiquitous capture is to always have to hand a tool for data input; this could be a simple notepad and pen, a paper based calendar or your PDA.

Any time a new piece of information is presented to you, a meeting, an activity or an action, write it down, or type it. Doing so means that all of this information is stored externally and you're not trying to store any of it in your brain.

4. The Daily Review
Ubiquitous capture on its own is not enough. You need some way of putting all that captured information into your system. The key to this is to conduct a daily review. At the end of the day, review all of the information you have captured and put it into its appropriate place. If it's a specific event, then schedule it into your calendar. If it's a next action, put it on your list of next actions or if it's a piece of information you may need later, then file it away for later.

This means you can leave the office at the end of the day knowing that when you return in the morning you'll know exactly what you have coming up that day and what next actions you need to take to keep all your projects moving forward. You will be able to go home and enjoy the rest of your day without worrying about what you need to remember for tomorrow.

The topic of time management is an extensive one and we could talk for days about the many ways to tweak and enhance your time management skills. That being said if you manage to integrate these four principles into your time management activities I can guarantee you'll be get more done, it will be better quality and your stress levels will be severely reduced.

Les McKeown is a writer, speaker, consultant and President & CEO of Predictable Success(R), an organizational development consulting firm based in Marblehead, MA. He is the author of Retaining Top Employees, The Complete Guide to Mentoring and Coaching, The Complete Guide to Orientation & Re-Orientation. For more on employee retention, visit Les' Retention Secrets website.