Saturday, January 10, 2009

July 2006: Time Management

Lately, I have become very busy. The reasons for this business and the outcomes thereof will be the subject of another letter in the coming months. The additional tasks I have heaped on myself have resulted in a certain amount of frustration about getting everything I want done, when I want to get them done. I have found myself complaining about not having enough time both to myself and anyone within earshot.

Back in the 1980’s, the complexity of everyday life both at work and home got to the point where a market developed for Time Management products. Executives always had desk calendars in which they would manage their schedules. These new products all kind of did the same thing by providing a daily calendar with room to note events of various types, a to-do list with a system for prioritizing the to-do list, and a long term goal setting and management system. These systems became very popular under brand names like Day Timers and Franklin, now FranklinCovey. The best of these practices are now commonplace in most PC based calendar systems from Microsoft, Lotus Notes, PDAs of every sort, and even FranklinCovey.

It was 1986 or so when the Director of Quality at Rockwell Automotive budgeted and provided the entire Department with the Day Timer System. We all thought we were pretty cool with our vest pocket leather folios in which we would insert a new calendar booklet each month. It had all the bells and whistles explained in the above paragraph. We used them and were quite organized, jotting down this appointment, that to-do, and phone numbers and other little notations.

The Day Timer system came with a booklet introducing the system, how to use it, and other motivational material. I read something in this book that struck me as very profound and has stuck with me until today. “You have all the time there is.” No one has any more or less time. Sure, people live longer or shorter lives and have more or less time from that point of view. But, think about a day, any day. No one with all their faculties and health has any more or less time in that day. We all have all the time there is. So, when I complain about not having enough time it is really quite silly. I have all the time there is. I must not be using that time well or my ambitions may beyond what I can possibly accomplish in that amount of time i.e. a day.

Most self-help or self-improvement books focus on some aspect of time management. They often provide a framework in which the reader has to evaluate what is and is not really important to them. The next step of the exercise is to assess the feasibility of all the various items. Often, one realizes that everything cannot be done in the time frame one wants. One has to both prioritize activities and then focus on this list of strategic priorities. Anything not on the list ought to be ignored.

It sounds real easy. Making lists, at least for me, is the easiest thing in the world. There is no problem whipping up a to-do list. The problem is in the doing. The books do not help so much in this area. Sure the driven personalities out beyond three sigma can do it, they are either real smart or real manic or both.

Many people who still cannot knock items off their to-do list, may, in fact, not really have a problem with time management. They probably prefer a routine that is a mix of leisure and work. The self-help books, when honest, will force people to accept they are truly using their time as they prefer. While they may profess that they want to accomplish this or that on some psychological aspirational level, they truly would rather play golf or bicycle whenever they can. They may truly want to sit on the couch, watching “Survivor Timbuktu” and devouring unhealthy snacks. People tend to do what they are interested in. They do what is the priority for them.

Many remark about this monthly e-letter and say it must take a lot of time. It does take time about a half hour to an hour a day, culminating in the publication of the letter usually at the end of the month. Yet, it is a priority and something I truly value doing, so it is not really a burden. I gladly make time for it and as the Nike commercials say, “Just Do It!”

Why are some people’s landscaping and lawns meticulous works of art while the rest of us have a more “natural” presentation? Simply, they value such a look and prioritize resources to it. Whether they are out there clipping and trimming themselves or if they pay someone else, it is something they prioritize and value.

There is also the concept of random shock. This comes for the quasi-science of statistical forecasting where one uses prior history to predict the future. This can work pretty well in the short term especially if what you are trying to predict is well behaved. Yet, one must understand there are random shocks, acts of man or God, that are not predictable and when they happen may disrupt the best of forecasts, and in the case of time management our daily plans. Imagine if you were an American airline and you began September 2001 with a sound forecast of air travel for the remainder of that year. The random, and in this case devastating, shock of September 11 completely negated the validity of that forecast.

The same happens in time management. You may have the best of plans and be an ace at time management. Random shocks can and will disrupt your plans, your priorities, and your to-do lists. Think of how your plans changed with 9-11, the death of a loved one, storm damage to your home or business. No matter how determined one is, random shocks of all sizes force us to be “flexible”.

There is something else that most people are not as good at: metering out large, time consuming, or complex tasks into little doable daily bits. Again, take this letter as an example. If I had to write two thousand words in a day, I probably would not be able to do it. But, by writing a page a day and picking a theme early enough in a month, I have plenty of material from which to edit into a letter. A paragraph here, a full page there, and voila the letter is ready to go. If I could only become a better editor…

Earlier this year, I was thinking about a large complex project I am working on. I need to basically develop a very large series of Power Point presentations. You could think of it as course. Everyday that I thought about it instead of doing it, I was staring up a very large mountain. Everyday I procrastinated or did other things (not ever watching “Survivor: Timbuktu” thank you very much), the mountain seemed larger. One morning when I was writing, I came up with the idea to just produce two slides a day. How hard could that be? Not very hard at all. If I had heeded my own advice from back then, let’s say April Fools Day, I would have two hundred and twenty-two slides instead of the pathetic sixty-two I currently have.

As mentioned earlier, it is very easy to make a list. I do it every day. The list is divided into two columns: business and personal. As I accomplish something, I cross it out. I went back in my notebook to see, percentage wise, how well I have been doing. The average accomplishment was a pathetic 60%. Why didn’t the list get done? Upon reflection, there are three reasons:

1. Random Shocks of a lesser sort. The phone would ring, my boss would e-mail or stop by, and I would have another to-do or ten.

2. There were many things I could have been doing a little bit of every day. If I had done so, they would have been done. This would definitely be better then only working on them when their priority became scalding hot due to an imminent

3. The list was just too damned long. My ambition was bigger than my ability to process and accomplish.
So, having many goals is OK. I must just be more realistic about what can be done in a day and I must learn to do little bits of several things each day.

There are two types of people that come to mind when I think of those that use time most effectively. The first is visible and energetic. These people are dynamos. They are in constant motion with a most steady and incredible sense of urgency in everything they do. They answer e-mails within seconds. They appear not to be able to stand having any pending to-dos. They rarely leave today’s work for tomorrow. They never seem to plan, but rather do everything immediately with dogged determination. Sparks are flying from both their brains and feet. Do not get in these folks way. They will mow you down or go right around you.

Everyone reading this has probably known or worked for someone like this. They can be legendary. They color the workplace and pepper corporate lore with their, at times outrageous or manic behavior. This is kind of like General George Patton, at least as portrayed in the movie Patton. People may love or hate this kind of leader and time manager. There is little in between. They will, however, never ever forget them.

The second type of excellent time manager is more nonchalant and appears to expend very little energy and gets as much or more done than the former. This class of achievers is much more enigmatic to me. They look calm and never seem manic about anything. Yet, they get as much or even more done then the visibly energetic type. How do they plan? How do they work? Clearly these folks are smart, excellent managers, and terrific motivators. This quiet competence, this cool approach is very attractive to me.

This kind of leader may not even carry a pen or pad of paper. In this computer era, you may go by their office and find them on the internet or playing solitaire (I kid you not, I know someone like this). Yet, they are incredibly prolific. Nothing fazes them, neither the extreme positives or negatives and certainly not the mundane. This enigmatic combination reminds me of a passage in Tao Te Ching, the basic scripture of Taoism.

“Leading and not trying to control: this is the supreme virtue” Verse 11

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised. If you don't trust the people, you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn't talk, he acts. When his work is done, the
people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!’”Verse 17

This is the shortest letter I have written in awhile, not counting the quotes. Why? I simply ran out of time.

——— • ———

Some Quotes on Time Management

Benjamin Franklin: Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff life is made of.

Peter Drucker: There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

Goethe: We always have time enough, if we will but use it right.

Art Buchwald: It may be the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.

Anthony Robbins: Once you have mastered time, you will understand how true it is that most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year – and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade!

John F. Kennedy: We must use time as a tool, not as a couch.

Bonnie Pruden: You can’t turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.

From the website: And remember that time waits for no one. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called the present.

1 comment:

  1. Comment on random shocks and to do lists done
    Random shocks is a very drastic however relistic name for interruptions nobody can plan. The secret to get your todolost done seems to be another point of view:
    Who is requesting, that all tasks have to be done today?
    I every day recieve various "random shocks", so my todolist will grow during my working day, priorities change, what in the morning showed up as important or urgent possibly may wait until tomorrow.

    Is there any contest to win, demanding that all tasks should be done today?
    Time management is a highly dynamic process, that cannot submitted to rigid 24 hours time frames. Time flows and so may your todolist. I use an endless list (spiral book)and try to accomplish as much as I can, but don´t worry if some points are left undone and I have to look back some pages of my "to do book". A full description is published on my website.

    The incredibly prolific guys are not the rule, I too know such people, however have a very close look at their real productivity.

    So the alternative point of view is: never try to focus on the goal: getting all your morning-written things done till the end of the day, but focus to accomplish those tasks today, that support your long term goals. If you are involved in "heavy business", you will never get done all tasks today. You will never come to an end. Since acknowledging this attitude my working days are not as stresful as before.
    Ronald Hell