It's Time to Make the Most of Your Day

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 08:56

There will only ever be 24 hours in a day, so it’s wise to use them to their full potential. ByLeon Gettler

Talk to any manager these days and they’ll tell you they’re busy. Time is the big talking point. It is the most precious commodity around.

Whether it’s making the most effective use of your time or watching others fritter away theirs, everyone is focused on time management. Poor management of time prevents managers from reaching their full potential. As a manager, many conflicting demands might be made on you. Workdays can be long, tiring and frustrating due to poor planning and people controlling your time and work. Time can be wasted doing things that should be done in a few moments or not at all. Here’s the bottom line: all of us have exactly the same amount of time. The best managers know how to use this resource effectively.

Experts recommend starting with a diary to identify where all those precious minutes in a day go. That not only includes work time spent in front of screens from computer to smartphone to tablet. It’s also for the personal stuff such as shopping, catching up with family and friends or being at the gym.

An alternative and popular method is to have a default diary. For most, a normal diary simply lists the events during the week. For example, it might have an appointment on Wednesday, a session on Thursday and a meeting on Friday afternoon. A default diary turns that around. Let’s say, for example, you have to spend two hours every Monday afternoon working on the finances and every Tuesday, it’s an hour-and-a-half on the marketing plan. With a default diary, you put those down in advance, along with all the other set appointments. That can also include personal items, such as sessions at the gym. It’s not hard to organise, it’s just a visit to Outlook.

It is also a good idea for a manager to peg a time limit to each task, use a calendar, preferably linked to their mobile phone, know their deadlines, target to finish every task earlier than scheduled, prioritise, batch similar tasks together, eliminate time-wasters and not batch everything too close together, so they can finish off tasks well beforehand.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, consultant Peter Bregman says to-do lists are all well and good but the challenge is execution. How can you stick to a plan when so many things threaten to derail it? How can you focus on a few important things when so many things require your attention?

To do that, he recommends taking three steps every day, one that takes less than 18 minutes over an eight-hour work day. The first, he says, is to set your plan for the day. Do that before you even turn on the computer. Check everything into time slots and make sure the hardest tasks are done first. The second step comes later, he says, where you refocus for one minute every hour, asking yourself whether that time was spent effectively and efficiently. And finally, he recommends reviewing everything at the end of the day. What worked? Where did you focus? What got you distracted? What did you learn from it that will make tomorrow more productive?

One of the world’s leading management thinkers, Jim Collins, is like a machine when it comes to time. Interviewed by Bronwyn Fryer in the Harvard Business Review, he explains how he uses a stopwatch and divides his life into blocks – 50 per cent creative time, 30 per cent teaching time, and 20 per cent for “other stuff” (those things that randomly happen). He is also a runner and mountain climber and manages to fit it all in.

We are told: “Jim took out a piece of paper and drew a picture of four blocks stacked atop each other. Pointing at the top block, he said, ‘I block out the morning from 8am to noon to think, read and write’. He unplugs everything electronic, including his internet connection. Although he has a reputation for reclusiveness, when asked about this, he replies: ‘I’m not reclusive. But I need to be in the cave to work’. After lunch, he spends his afternoon in the office with his researchers, or with clients.” For Collins, high-quality work requires long stretches of high-quality thinking. “White space”, as he calls it, is the prerequisite for fresh, creative thought. It’s the time he spends with nothing scheduled so he can empty his mind, like the proverbial teacup, and refill it with new thought.

One could argue Collins lives a different life than the rest of us because, as a best-selling author and highly sought-after consultant, he can afford to do that. But he argues companies should seek out that white space instead of moving at a frenetic pace and getting nothing done.

From my own experience, I would recommend starting every day with a to-do list and doing the most important stuff first. And don’t forget, procrastination has to be one of the biggest time killers. As are distractions. That includes stuff such as surfing the net, making personal calls, planning personal business and socialising with co-workers. For managers, that comes down to priorities.

This article appeared in the August 2014 edition of Management Today, AIM’s national monthly magazine.