A matter of time

If you want your business to grow, one of the skills most essential to that goal will be using your time effectively to accomplish the important things.
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A matter of time

Oct 1, 1998 12:00 PM, Ted Tate

If you want your business to grow, one of the skills most essential to thatgoal will be using your time effectively to accomplish the importantthings. Time is an enigma, puzzling and mysterious. It treats us equally;we all receive 24 hours every day. Despite the apparent equality timegrants us, there is, however, a relative nature to it as well. For somepeople, there never seems to be sufficient time to accomplish a day's giventasks. On the other hand, some people will find that time may have atendency to drag on far too slowly.

I have found one great truth about time. In my long career, I have had theprivilege of meeting and working with successful businesspeople, some ofwhom are the top executives and entrepreneurs in the United States. Theycame from many walks of life with a wide array of business and socialbackgrounds. There is, however, one common behavior-an awareness of timeand its importance. Each valued the notion of using time as efficiently aspossible.

A good time-management course has the potential to fill a book, so in thisbrief article, I will focus on five key time-management tactics for peoplewho work in small business and are committed to their business' success. Ihave followed these principles myself, and I have also seen othersuccessful people whom I admire do likewise. They involve written goals(with priorities), handling "urgent" interruptions, saying "no,"controlling the working environment and avoiding repetitive and/or trivialwork.

We all know people who are perpetually busy, running from one task to thenext, frazzled. They suffer constant phone interruptions. People barge inand ask them for favors or assistance. As soon as they focus on one task,the next issue pops up. Worst of all, everything feels like an emergency.These are also the people who claim that time management is not theproblem. They maintain that they are organized, and they just have too muchto do. Upon request, they produce their lists of things to do, pages uponpages of all kinds of things. Of course, they never catch up. By the end ofthe day, they usually go home worn out, frustrated, sometimes angry becausethey are usually further behind than they were in the morning.

Why is this? These are people who treat everything with equal importance.From their perspective, reading the mail is as important as making salescalls. They fall into the trap of dealing with everything that comes theirway, no matter how trivial. To compound matters, some people equate successwith keeping busy. Unfortunately, keeping busy means nothing unless ittakes you closer to your goals. Running around frantically and helpingother people with their jobs or handling trivial matters all day gets younowhere.

Good time management starts with focusing on your goals, what you reallywant to accomplish. You should write these out (goals kept in your head aremerely daydreams). For more complex goals, include a list of steps by whichyou plan to accomplish the accompanying goal. Without focused, writtengoals, time management becomes difficult, but with them, it becomes muchsimpler.

Prioritize your list. Remember, treating everything with equal importanceis a sure recipe for disaster. Over time, there will simply be too much todo. Without set priorities, you can be at best unfocused. You shouldseparate what has to be done (A) from what should be done (B) or from whatwould be nice to do (C). Not everything is equally important. For instance,buying gasoline for the car is a B priority unless your gauge is on empty;then it becomes an A. Paying your car payment on time to avoid a penalty isdefinitely an A. Paying a month in advance, however, can be a B or a C,depending on your personal situation. Clarify priorities by asking yourselfwhy you are doing it, how it relates to your goals and objectives, if it isreally important, if you can delegate it, and if it is so urgent that itmust be done right away.

Focus on doing the A-list first; never mind the others. Some people avoiddoing the A-list because it frequently contains the most complex andsometimes unpleasant tasks. Only after completing the A-list, however,should you start on the B-list.

Fight the urge to switch to C tasks, which are always the easiest and mostappealing. This may be difficult, and it will require willpower. After youestablish written goals that are truly important to you, you will besurprised at how quickly willpower develops. That is why time managementand goal setting go hand in hand.

Finish one task completely before working on the next. When you putsomething aside incomplete, it remains in your mind as additional clutter,which, in turn, contributes to a sense of confusion. When you eventuallyreturn to the partially completed project, you will have to rethink it anddecide upon the necessary steps all over again. Doing little bits of awhole series of tasks wastes time. If you complete a task, you can forgetabout it and focus on the next.

In addition to writing out your daily list of things to do, break up yourlarger, more complicated tasks into a series of smaller steps. Peopleprocrastinate with bigger tasks because they seem overwhelming. Doing a bigjob in a series of smaller stages makes it easier to get started.

In any office, a seemingly endless stream of little things has thepotential to consume much of our time. It is tempting for us to respond tothese apparently urgent tasks first and put off the truly important ones.Urgent tasks are often marked rush or important. Sometimes a person stickshis head into your office and asks if you have a minute. Other times, theurgent task comes by telephone, fax or mail. Almost always, these areC-priority items.

The worst part is that these urgent tasks are fairly obvious and canusually be handled with little effort, but it is easy to allow thelow-priority tasks to absorb too much of your time. They grow in numberuntil you spend an entire morning dealing with one little task afteranother until it becomes lunch time, and your A tasks-the ones you promisedyourself would do first thing in the morning-remain untouched. AlthoughC-priority tasks can be appealing, A and B tasks are critical to successfulperformance. By definition, B tasks can wait if necessary, but it makes nosense to postpone them in favor of something less beneficial.

An A or B task is often complex, time consuming or perhaps even a littleunpleasant. Falling into the trap of spacing them out with simpler, lessdifficult C tasks is understandable. It can be an easy way to get a feelingof accomplishment, even if you left the more difficult tasks hanging. Hereare some ideas for getting your priorities accomplished:

* Write out a list of tasks for the day along with each task's priority,thereby reducing the clutter in your head.

* For more complicated tasks, list the steps you need to take, in order, toaccomplish it. Not only is it easier to get a big task done in smallersteps, but you will also be able to fill in any periods of extra time doingthese tasks rather than C priorities.

* Make a commitment to yourself by scheduling goals and tasks on yourcalendar.

* Use deadlines for important tasks.

* Control interruptions.

Saying "no"Many people cannot say no to requests for their time and therefore involvethemselves in too many issues that have little to do with their jobsuccess. Below are the three most common reasons and some suggestions fordealing with them:

1. Poor self-esteem or a lack of confidence and assertiveness. (When youwant to say no but you cannot think of a valid reason, and you eventuallysay yes, later feeling anger and resentment for getting involved in thefirst place.) Practice saying no in situations with low risk. Go to yourlibrary or bookstore and find self-help books (or audio tapes, which areideal for commuters) on assertiveness and self-esteem.

2. The desire to avoid confrontation or unpleasantness, which stems fromwanting to avoid hurting someone's feelings. If you feel you should deny arequest, say it right away before the person asking gets his hopes up. Ifpeople apply pressure, stand your ground. Expect to say no many times aday. You have every right to decline, especially if you are being asked tovolunteer your time. Guilt is not a terminal disease, and as time goes by,you will become more comfortable. Incidentally, you are under no obligationto provide detailed explanations or excuses as to why you are declining arequest. In fact, the more you explain, the more unbelievable it sounds. Italso gives people an opening to find flaws in your excuse and try to getyou to change your mind. Instead, simply say no. When pressed for reasons,be vague to avoid badgering or hounding. Say something such as, "I know myschedule, and it's just not possible. Unfortunately, the answer has to beno." Be prepared for the pushy types to come back with questions andalternatives. In that case, say, "No, I cannot, but I wish you the best infinding someone else."

3. Yearning to feel useful or important. You are not helping people whenyou do their work (or most of it) for them. You are simply showing them howto remain helpless. Instead, tell them you cannot deal with the situationbecause you are also busy. Offer suggestions or alternative ways of solvingthe problems. Help them help themselves. If you are sincere and really wantto help people, then encourage self-reliance. There is a quote in the Biblethat says, "If you feed a man a fish, you feed him for one day. If youteach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime."

These are good time management strategies, but they will not work unlessyou commit yourself. Again, that means writing out your goals and decidinghow to achieve them. Without focusing on real goals, the best strategieslive a short life, and you will wind up with the same poor habits.

People cannot interrupt you unless you let them. If you have an office witha door, close it for periods of time with the request you be left alone.When people come in your office or work area unannounced, stand upimmediately and remain standing, which discourages them from sitting downand staying too long. Ask unannounced visitors to return late in the day,and reserve some late-day time for this and returning phone calls. You willfind that returning calls and meeting with people late in the day causespeople to get to the point quickly because they want to leave on time. WhenI was a manager, people came in all day long with all sorts of problems. Iwould tell them I was too busy, but if they would come back at 4:30 p.m.(we closed at 5 p.m.), I would be able to talk with them. I would say,"Just to save time, I'd like to ask you to write out the problem as you seeit in your own words. Then I'd like you to consider what our options mightbe and put those in writing also. Finally, pick your choice of all thesolutions and be able to tell me why you picked it. That way, we can getright to it." Rarely did many come back once they had thoroughly consideredthe problem and its solutions. If they did, we were able to resolve itquickly. This exercise not only saved me time, but it also helped mysubordinates think for themselves.

With phone interruptions, on the other hand, there are a few tricks you canquickly put into practice. Do not answer your phone for periods of timeduring the day or even all day. Use voice mail, a secretary or an assistantto take messages. Some people think something bad will happen if they donot handle every call immediately; that is nonsense.

Set aside time to return the day's calls. Usually late afternoon is bestbecause by then your energy level is lowest, and you have saved yourhigh-energy period for your A and B tasks. Cut phone calls to a minimum byavoiding small talk. Have any required information in front of you beforemaking the call. Be friendly, but get to the point.

When callers are long winded, find the excuse to hang up. Some diplomaticways might be saying that someone just entered your office, you are runninglate for an appointment, or you have received another phone call that youcannot let slip by.

Train family and friends not to call you at work. If that is not practical,set times and lengths of calls in advance with them and mean it.

Do not worry about offending people. Most people are not offended as easilyas we think. You do not have to be rude, but you must have the courage totake charge and be firm.

As I stated earlier, for many people, keeping busy spells success. They runaround all day, hopping from one trivial task to another only to complainin the evening they are further behind than when they started. Being busymeans nothing unless the tasks bring you closer to your goals. When peopleemphasize results instead of activities, they then start to move forward.Think carefully about your goals and objectives. How do those trivial tasksadd to your effectiveness, to your success? Remember, it is not how muchyou do that counts, but how much you get done.

Take a long look at the tasks you do daily and ask, "What if they weren'tdone at all?" If the answer is nothing, stop doing them. The ones you mustdo, try to delegate. Ask yourself if you can do the task less frequently.For instance, make bank deposits once or twice a week, not every day. Ifyou work alone, can you hire someone to do them? If not, can you send thework out, such as have proposals typed by a typing service or copying doneby a copy shop? Remember, spending time organizing prospect lists, filing,making copies, keeping detailed records, rearranging your desk and all theother trivial tasks keep you from having time to be successful. Learn howto focus on the activities that will give you the greatest return.

* Time waits for no one.

* We are all equal; each person receives 24 hours per day.

* Lost time is never found again.

* Wasting time is robbing oneself.

* You cannot change the past nor live in the future. You can only takeaction this very minute.

* Not enough time scheduled for A and B priorities.

* Interruptions, drop-in visitors, distractions, telephone calls.

* Personal business during business hours.

* Doing it yourself, involved in too many detailed, routine tasks, avoidingdelegating.

* No focused goals. A lack of objectives, deadlines and priorities, whichcauses confusion about what to do and when.

* Lots of paperwork, reports, reading material.

* Leaving tasks partly done, jumping from one task to another task,constantly switching priorities.

* Procrastination, indecision, daydreaming.

* Lack of self discipline.

* Socializing, idle conversation.