The Ugly Truth About the Art of Time Management

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If I had to pick a phrase that my clients most frequently use, it would probably be: “I’ve got so many things to do!” This is generally followed by an exasperated gesture that indicates that their time is not their own anymore alongside a desperate plea for some time-management tips. The advice I give them? You don’t need time management! And that’s when I get the blank looks.

Let me explain. In our futile attempt to manage time, most of us use one or a combination of the following tools: to-do lists, calendars and appointments, goals and priorities, and the 24-hour rule. While to-do lists are easy to put together and edit, they have a major disadvantage: they keep on getting longer and longer. Most likely, at the end of the day, you will not only be painfully aware of all the tasks that you failed to complete today, but you will also jot down all the new projects that need to be started tomorrow.

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If you feel overwhelmed by to-do lists, you may be using calendars and appointments to define your day. Unfortunately, there are two major drawbacks of this approach. Firstly, people feel that they’re not being productive unless they have a fully booked calendar, which leads many of us to fill our days with trivial activities that give us a false sense of achievement. Secondly, if you are in the corporate world, then you know all too well that you can be spend a full day attending meetings and still not have achieved much.

The goals-and-priorities approach to time management reflects the current trend of setting daily and weekly goals, and then prioritizing our activities based on which ones bring us closer to the goals we want to achieve. And lastly, there’s the 24-hour rule. No matter how organized and goal oriented you are, there is always one major fact that you need to keep in mind: there are only 24 hours in a day.

This is a fact that you cannot change. As long as you focus on managing time, you are constantly swimming against the tide, because you are knowingly ignoring the fact that you cannot have more than 24 hours in a day. As a result, you are ignoring the real issue: it’s not time you need to manage – it’s yourself. Here’s how.

Photo: Courtesy of Daniel Wellington

Quantity vs. Quality

What is the stereotypical image of a successful executive in the media? A person running around with a cell phone glued to his/her ear and a stack of papers in tow. Sadly, we are constantly being conditioned to feel that being busy is synonymous with being productive – and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Filling every part of your day with things to do doesn’t necessarily mean you get things done.

Do: Decide on the three tasks every morning that you need to do the following day, which will bring you closer to what you want to achieve. Do not go to bed without completing these tasks.

Don’t: Commit to more than three tasks as you are likely to overstretch yourself. Your focus should be on the quality, not quantity, of tasks.

Urgent vs. Important

Let’s go back to the aforementioned example of the busy executive. If she is so busy, then she must be important, right? Wrong! Urgent and important are not synonyms by any stretch of the imagination. The former is an event that requires immediate attention; a crying baby or a house on fire are matters that need to be attended to immediately. The latter contributes to your goals and is more long-term in nature.

Do: Attend immediately when there is a crisis at work or home, and then switch out of firefighting mode once it has been averted. The majority of your time should be allocated to important, but not urgent, tasks. Relationships fall in this category as they are important but not urgent (they take time to develop).

Don’t: Allow other people’s priorities to intrude on your life – what is urgent for a colleague or relative isn’t necessarily urgent for you.

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Effective vs. Efficient

Being effective means that you are doing something that brings you closer to your goals. In contrast, being efficient means that you are performing a task well. That task might be completely unimportant so, regardless of how well you do, it will not in any way leave you better off. For example, you may have a very elaborate way of classifying, color-coding, and categorizing your e-mails, which is great, but how effective is your organization system if you don’t get around to answering any of them?

Do: Ask yourself: “Am I being productive or just active?”

Don’t: Equate the length of time required to complete the task with importance. Expect 80 percent of your results to be achieved with 20 percent of your effort, so ask yourself which 20 percent of your activities causes 80 percent of your frustration. The answer should help you identify your inefficiencies and eliminate them.

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