It’s the battle cry of professionals everywhere: “Time management, time management time management.” We all want to end our days feeling like heroes of our accomplishments rather than feeling exhausted by another ten-hour day with too little to show for it.
So we took this well-played topic to our Project Management Coach, Susanne Madsen and asked her some questions. Below, she brings clarity, reason and some great tips on how to approach the way we manage our time (and focus), and how to fill the hours of your days with meaningful actions and strong results.
LP: What do we really mean when we talk about “time management”?
Susanne: In conversations I normally try to avoid the term “time management.” The way I’d much rather describe it is “leaning to focus,” “working smarter,” or “concentrating on the most important activities that allow you to add value and achieve what you want.” That’s what time management enables you to do – accomplish what you want, quicker and then reaping the rewards.
LP: What is the biggest myth about time management?
Susanne: That doing more and simply checking tasks off a to-do list is an indication of productivity. To be productive we have to look at what we accomplish – and accept that sometimes that means doing fewer things.
How do time management challenges differ for company employees and small-biz entrepreneurs?
When you work from an office as an employee there are likely to be many tasks which you have to complete because your boss has given you a deadline. The challenge however, is to keep focused on the most important and proactive activities and resist the temptation to firefight issues that aren’t strategic or important. At times it may be essential to say no to certain assignments, meetings or conference calls if they don’t add to your productivity and your results.
For the entrepreneur there are fewer risks of firefighting or wasting time on unimportant conference calls or meetings. But as the external pressure may be lower, so the pace will likely be slower as well. If you’re a solopreneur who works from home, it can be tempting to get up later in the day and spend more time with friends and family which limit the time you spend on essential business activities.
The bottom line for both groups: focus on the highest yielding activities. These are the activities that add the most value to their clients and projects.
What tips do you have for clients and project managers who want to increase their focus and control over what they get done in a specific amount of time?
The best tip is to start the day with a clear intention on what you must absolutely complete and then get it done as early as you can. Resist the temptation to get sidetracked by checking email and putting out small fires. Set two hours aside first thing and just get the most difficult and important tasks done – just the top one, two or three items on your list. I love how Brian Tracy talks about this in his book Eat That Frog which is definitely worth a read.
But our focus can also improve dramatically if we take a step back and look at the bigger picture. For example, identify the 20% of your activities that contribute 80% of your total results. Next, examine the bigger reasons for why you do what you do, asking questions like: “What motivates me and what would it take for me to be outstanding at my job?”
I also encourage people to set up a daily prompt in a calendar tool with the following reoccurring questions – a tip that I originally picked up in Timothy Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek.
- Am I inventing things to do to avoid the important
- Am I being productive or just active?
Do you have an example of someone who shifted focus to get more out of their working day?
A typical example would be of someone we’ll call “Jo.” Jo used to work 10-12 hour days managing projects. She was very active and got through a lot of tasks, but at the end of the day she was exhausted and never had time to do proper planning, risk mitigation and client interfacing. As a result her projects were often late and she didn’t feel in control.
During our coaching sessions we looked at how she should be spending her time in order to gain control of the project and identified the 20% of her activities that contributed to 80% of her results. We then looked at how she could free up time to be more strategic and proactive. The answer for Jo was to start training her team leaders and gradually delegate more aspects of the project to them. This freed her up to focus on the important work, such as project definition, client workshops, risks mitigation, quality assurance, team leading and building strong client relationships. As a result her projects were better defined from the outset, the team grew and took on more responsibility and fewer urgent issues came up. And, Jo started working a regular 8-hour day.
Do you have any other practical tips on how to manage time effectively?
I encourage everyone to look at how they spend a typical day. Analyze which activities – or people – tend to waste your time and why you get sidetracked. Then explore how you can minimize interruptions, multitasking and time-wasting activities by doing things like switching off your email for a couple of hours, finding a quiet place away from your desk to complete a difficult and important activity, or saying No to conference calls that don’t add much value.
I also recommend looking at what you do well when you’re in flow and getting a lot of good work done. This is likely to be the 20% of activities that add to 80% of your results. Delegate or eliminate as much of the 80% that has a minimal effect on your overall productivity.
If you consistently have difficulties keeping your focus you would need to dig a bit deeper and look at the root cause. Maybe you’re in the wrong job doing something you’re not passionate about, or maybe your job needs to be tweaked slightly to suit you better. After all, we can only be in our flow and work effectively if we’re motivated and if we feel that our unique talents and skills are being used in a meaningful way.
So you see, time management is much more than checking items off a to-do list.
Tell us about a time management habit you practice with great success.