Build or burn?

Benign neglect – the key to time management

Want a sure-fire system for managing your time?  So do I.  So does anyone attending a time-management training course.  We are destined for disappointment because it doesn’t exist.  The word ‘system’ should be the clue.  If it were down to a system, it would have been invented years ago and would no longer be a thing.

This news was a crushing disappointment to me as a young manager attending a time management course with great hope in my heart. I was expecting to be given the means by which I would feel in control of my day, in control of events, and maybe even discover a way of being on time for meetings.  Instead, what I recall was quite a basic introduction to strategic management.  The message was that the key to time management is prioritisation.  And the key to prioritisation is having a strategy.  I felt deflated.  Not once in the day did anyone mention diaries, inboxes, meetings, or interruptions.  The closest I got was when the chap next to me, an HR Director, leaned over and said, ‘I’m a lists man, how about you’.

Years later I inherited an office with a large, prominent wipe board and developed my own little system where, each week, I religiously listed what I wanted to achieve in the week into three priorities A, B and C, carrying forward uncompleted actions from the previous week.  I abandoned this system when, later on, I moved office.  The wipe board was moved too.  Unpacking my things in the new office I noticed that one of the removal men had drawn an enormous dick next to my list of priorities.  I could see his point.

The message from time management training is to concentrate your time on your highest priority.  This means ignoring other things that need to get done, even if urgent.  If a task is urgent but is not your highest priority, it gets ignored.  This is a good way to get things done, but it makes you a pain to work with.  Calls go unanswered, e-mails are not replied, and deadlines are missed.  Although it puts you in control of your time, it doesn’t make you a good manager.

So the key to time management becomes finding ways of acknowledging all these other tasks without actually doing them.  Benign neglect I call this.  And the skill required is courtesy.

If you really need a time management ‘system’, here’s some handy tips:

Stress.  The most effective way to manage your time is to be under a moderate amount of stress.  Have you heard the phrases, ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it’ and ‘Work expands to fill the time available to do it’?  The ideal amount of work is slightly more than you can cope with!

Displacement activity.  Go on, make the damn cup of tea, or tidy the desk, or arrange that non-urgent appointment.  Don’t feel guilty, it’ll give you a sense of getting things done and regaining control.  Only don’t pretend you’re doing anything other than putting off making a start on what you should be doing.

Know what sort of person you are.  There are some people that spring up when their alarm goes off.  The working day suits them.  For all you night owls that have to abide by the tyranny of the 9:00am to 5:00pm, try to get more sleep.

Switch it off.  Have you ever been at your desk and the network and email has gone down and for a while you wander around your desk with a slightly perplexed, aimless look about you.  This means you are an e-mail slave.  Close your email software down.  The same goes for checking your investments.  And definitely don’t engage with social media.  These are impulses that have to be tamed.

Break the bad news. ‘I’m sorry, I’m not going to get that done after all’. It’s amazing how getting this off your chest and rescheduling to a much longer deadline will relieve that sense of being overwhelmed that comes when deadlines start overlapping.

Don’t work from home.  Apart from the lost productivity, you’ll be lonely.

If you follow these tips and still don’t have enough time, you have no one to blame but your own lack of focus.

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