Time Management

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Did you plan the time to be reading this short article right now? Or are you supposed to be doing something else? Read on, and get a handle on time management.

OVERVIEW [top]

Time — it's a precious commodity. While no one ever seems to have enough of it, some people manage to accomplish far more than others in the same 24 hours. When it comes to time management, entrepreneurs have special concerns.

Providing both vision and leadership, entrepreneurs know that the success or failure of their businesses depends on them. As a result, many find themselves working a staggering number of hours. They say they will slow down after making it over the next hurdle. But another hurdle always appears. Running at such a fast clip may bring short-term results, but those gains can be lost quickly to ill health or divorce. Learning to use your time more efficiently not only helps you achieve a healthier balance between your business and personal lives but it can also save your business from missed deadlines, overtime wages, lost customers and more.

Putting in more hours isn't the key to success. Managing your time more effectively is. You'll be more productive in fewer hours and live a happier, healthier life as a result.

In this Quick-Read, you will find:

  • A proven strategy for better time management.
  • Time-saving tips and advice.

SOLUTION [top]

Working toward larger life goals

The first step in effective time management is to determine where exactly you want to go. Without a clear picture of your destination, you'll wind up someplace else. Think long-term: What do you want to achieve by the end of your life? Or even at the end of this decade? Write it down, being as specific as possible. Then determine what steps you must take to meet your goals. Write these down, too.

Next, keep a time log of everything you do for at least a week, preferably a month. Note the number of hours or minutes you spend on each work project, meeting, phone call or other activity. Log activities as they occur; just doing it a few times a day results in missing important details.

Figure out where you are spending your time

Compare your time log to your life goals. The majority of your time should be spent on activities contributing to the actualization of your goals. Make a note of any activities not directed toward this end, and try to eliminate them. It might be better, for example, to discharge a difficult client whose projects stray from your company's core business, and instead put more effort into marketing and finding new clients. Consider ways to streamline the tasks you are obliged to do: for instance, you can sometimes accomplish just as much with a teleconference as a luncheon meeting. Say no to any new endeavors unless they somehow support your goals.

  • Delegate. Don't hesitate, as many entrepreneurs do, to delegate some of your tasks. One print shop owner, who was putting in 90 hours a week, was so discouraged he was ready to close down his business. He couldn't give additional responsibility to his employees, he said, because they were "idiots." Then a health crisis kept him out of the shop for several weeks. In his absence, those same employees performed extremely well.

  • Use an organizational system. Organize the information you use most frequently, such as appointment dates, telephone numbers, action lists, mileage and so on. There are many fine organizational systems available, whether you prefer thick, customizable notebooks with pockets and dividers or the electronic versions. Don't get hung up on finding the "right" system. To get started, all you need is a calendar, tablet and pencil. Don't carry information in your head. Keep your organizer with you so you can make appointments or phone calls on the spot.

    If you are a procrastinator, make a concerted effort to cure yourself. Consider whether your tendency to procrastinate is caused by a lack of enthusiasm for your projects. If this is the case, it may be that they do not support your life goals. If you're a slow starter or consistently underestimate how long a project will take, schedule frequent project reviews to hold yourself accountable or set false deadlines so you are not frantic when the actual deadline arrives. See more tips on overcoming the procrastination habit in the Quick-Read Solution Stop Procrastinating.

  • Commit to better time management. Each week, set aside time for personal planning. Review your goals as well as your schedule for the coming week to make sure they are mutually supportive. Remember, the most important thing is to make a strong commitment to managing your time. If you don't, time will control you.

REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]

One day a management consultant, Ivy Lee, called on Charles Schwab of the Bethlehem Steel Company. Lee outlined briefly his firm's services, ending with the statement: "With our service, you'll know how to manage better."

The indignant Schwab said, "I'm not managing as well now as I know how. What we need around here is not more "knowing" but more doing, not knowledge but action; if you can give us something to pep us up to do the things we already know we ought to do, I'll gladly listen to you and pay you anything you ask."

"Fine," said Lee. "I can give you something in 20 minutes that will step up your action and doing at least 50%."

"Okay," said Schwab. "I have just that much time before I must leave to catch a train. What's your idea?"

Lee pulled a blank 3x5 card out of his pocket, handed it to Schwab and said, "Write on this sheet the six most important tasks you have to do tomorrow." That took about three minutes. "Now," said Lee, "number them in the order of their importance." Five more minutes passed. "Now," said Lee, "put this sheet in your pocket; and the first thing tomorrow morning look at item one, and start working on it. Pull the sheet out of your pocket every 15 minutes, and look at item one until it is finished. Then tackle item two in the same way. Then item three. Do this until quitting time. Don't be concerned if you only finished two or three or even if you only finished one item. You'll be working on the important ones. The others can wait. If you can't finish them all by this method, you couldn't with any other method either, and without some system you'd probably not even decide which are most important.

"Spend the last five minutes of every working day making out a "must" list for the next day's tasks. After you've convinced yourself of the worth of this system, have your men try it. Try it out for as long as you wish, and then send a check for what you think it's worth."

The whole interview lasted about 20 minutes. In two weeks Schwab sent Lee a check for $25,000 — more than $1,000 a minute. He added a note saying the lesson was the most profitable, from a money standpoint, he had ever learned. Did it work? In five years it turned the unknown Bethlehem Steel Company into the biggest independent steel producer in the world; and made Schwab a $100 million fortune and the best-known steel man alive at that time.

(Source: Earl Nightingale's Lead the Field)

DO IT [top]

  1. Clean off your desk. Use folders to contain all documents relating to the same project and keep all work-in-progress folders in one place. Toss aging industry journals or create a corporate library. Don't leave a cluttered desk at night.

  2. Group similar tasks. Time is often wasted changing from one task to another. Do all of your writing, e-mailing and telephoning at one time. Take this step further: group similar types of e-mail. All good e-mail programs have filtering functions, so that all e-mail with the words "Project: Destroy Them" will be grouped, and all e-mail from a particular address would be colored in blue, and so on. In other words, let technology make less work for you.

  3. Break large tasks into smaller steps. Estimate the amount of time needed to complete each step rather than the entire project. Monitor your progress along the way.

  4. Create a written agenda and set a time limit for each meeting. Insist that discussion items be placed on the agenda before the meeting.

  5. Review your life goals annually to make sure they are still valid. Instead of retiring at age 50, maybe you have another business startup in mind that will bring you greater pleasure than a cabin in the woods. Things change.

  6. Forget about perfection. It doesn't exist in this world, and you'll only frustrate yourself — and waste time doing things over and over. Strive for excellence instead.

Other Tips:

  • Make it your policy to only touch a piece of paper once. Either act on it, file it, or throw it away.

  • Stop attending meetings that you don't profit from. If you need information from a meeting, arrange for someone to go in your place and report back to you.

  • Ask yourself, if I didn't do this task would it matter to anyone? If not, don't do it.

  • Don't do anything that you can delegate to someone else. Only do those tasks for which you are uniquely suited.

  • Set limits on new projects. Say no! (It's very liberating.) Or be realistic about how much you can really get done. Don't promise it tomorrow when you already have six projects that need to be done by tomorrow.

RESOURCES [top]

Books

Creative Time Management for the New Millennium: Become More Productive and Still Have Time for Fun, 2nd edition, by Jan Yager (Hannacroix Creek, 1999).

The Time Trap, 3rd edition, by Alec Mackenzie (AMACOM, 1997).

Internet Sites

"Bringing Balance to Entrepreneurial Life on the Road" by Jim McCann (Kauffman Center, 2001). The president of 1-800-FLOWERS offers time management tips for travelers.

"How to Get the Most Out of Your Time" (MindTools).

"Tips & Tools" (David Allen).

"You Can Do Anything — But Not Everything" by Keith H. Hammonds, Fast Company, May 2000

"Time Management: All You Need to Plan Your Work is an Ordinary Notebook," by Jane Wesman. Inc. 18:12 (September 1996), 109+.


Article Contributors

Writers: Pamela Dittmer McKuen and Kathleen Conroy

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Building and Inspiring an Organization

Articles in our Entrepreneur’s Resource Center appeared in print and online newsletters published previously by the foundation. More than 1,000 articles can be found in the categories below, addressing timeless challenges faced by entrepreneurs of all types.