In a world where everything is accelerating, where the multiplication of communication channels is scattering our attention and where the complexity of organizations causes an accumulation of sometimes contradictory priorities, time management becomes a major challenge for everyone.
Managing your time means prioritizing and allocating it
Time management means two things: prioritization and allocation.
Prioritisation: first of all, knowing in which order to do things and things, or even deciding not to do some of them. I will start with this second point which often shocks when I talk about it around me.
Yes, sometimes I decide not to do something. Do not reply to an email. Do not try to improve a document. Do not respond a proposal. Not that I’m not interested, not that I don’t want to, not that I don’t see any interest in it, but because at some point and in the time slot in which I should do this thing I have more important+urgent things to do. Maybe I can the nday after or the next week but not there, even if I really want to.
The other day one of my Facebook contacts was surprised to see how few people answered his emails. My answer was very simple:
1°) You ask for attention to try to sell them something and it bothers them. You ask them something when they didn’t ask for anything.
2°) What is urgent / important for you at a given moment is not important for them at that moment. They will process your request when its priority level for them is compatible with their agenda. Tomorrow, next week, in a month… or never.
In short, you can’t start managing your time without accepting two things:
1°) Time is limited. No need to pile up the tasks to be done this afternoon. If you have 5 hours available and 5 one-hour tasks to perform, you don’t have time for a 6th, no matter how short it may be. Just because we make a list of things to do it doesn’t mean we have the time to do them, it would be too beautiful.
2°) You have to learn how to say no. Accept even with regret to say no because it is simply not physically possible. And refuse that your inbox becomes the to-do list of the others, what they delegate to you. You have things to do for yourself, priorities for your work, the rest goes next if you have time.
Once we have said that, the prioritization comes, which is not the most difficult thing as long as we know the difference between important and urgent and prioritize things in this way using the good old Einsenhower matrix.
1°) Important and urgent
2°)Important and non-urgent.
4°) Neither important nor urgent.
Then the way things are handled can also differ from one individual to another and we can have different readings of this quadrant.
At this point you know what you need to do and in what order. And what you shouldn’t do.
And so you’re happy with that and all you have to do is get to work.
Long live the to-do managers
But priorities fluctuate over time, tasks are added and it is difficult to stay on course, have a clear vision and stay on course. Your little list quickly becomes a huge unreadable mess. And so you get lost again in the heap of tasks that awaits you.
Fortunately with computers have come the to-do list managers, the magic method to remember nothing.
And I recognize at least that by these tools: they allow us to keep a clear and readable vision of what we have to do with more or less advanced means of managing priorities.
But I can only observe that the proportion of people who manage to do the right thing on time is far from being proportional to the proportion of people who use this miracle tool. How many people do I see proud to have a beautiful tool that allows them to record all their tasks to do and that I find disappointed the following week because they are behind on everything…..
A fine example of technological solutionism: if it were enough to note a task in a tool for it to be carried out automatically and magically, we would have known it for a long time. There are of course tools that “do” things, that transform an input into a result, into a deliverable, but this is not the case of a to-do manager. All it does is remind you that you have things to do and, sometimes, help you keep your head clear.
Time management is not the end but the means
Knowing you have things to do is good. Knowing how long they’re going to take is even better. Although it is important to make a clear distinction between how long something can take and how much time you can spend on it. We can spend a lot of time improving and enriching a document because we can always do better. The question to ask is: regarding to its purpose, how long does it deserve? Sometimes we will spend a day on a presentation, sometimes we will limit ourselves to 1 hour while it would have been possible to spend much more time there.
But we must not lose the final objective: we do not manage our time to have beautiful lists well prioritized and an estimate of our daily workload but to get things done. And for them to be done, there is only one thing missing: time.
By definition we have time, it remains to be seen what we use it for. But, as I said earlier, time has an unfortunate tendency to fill up under the impulse of external constraints, in other words, people who burst into it and ask you for something.
In the end we start our day with a list of tasks and at the end we did thousands of things but nothing of what was planned.
How to do this? By blocking in your agenda periods on which you will work on a specific subject. from 9:00 to 9:30 a.m. this thing, from 10 to 12 that other thing… It forces you to discipline yourself, to do things in order and prevents others from inviting themselves into your day by imagining that you are free. Indeed too many people are used to putting only their meetings on their agenda and by definition others think that when they are not in a meeting they do nothing so they are available.
Time management is about discipline, not tools
Far too many people think that a good to-do manager is enough to manage their time and that is not true. It helps but does not replace a real discipline. Recording tasks is not the same as performing them, and not allowing time to do so means that they will never be done.