"In order to manage others, we must first manage ourselves."
Now that the obligatory Zen aphorism is out of the way... in this update we drink coffee, make fun of my diary, and upset the tax office. Somewhere along the way I present a five step guide to time management.
Another week in the MBA universe, and it has been week of tough workloads and commitments. We all had our first mid-term exam this week (yes, only three weeks into the semester and we’ve got exams). For most of us it brought back all the memories of undergraduate studies, late night cramming sessions, and the furious race against the clock in the exam hall.
In any case, finding the time to study for an exam, while simultaneously preparing for classes, writing assignments and networking for internships and jobs has been a challenge that all of us have had to face. It’s caused me to think a lot about how I manage my own time effectively, getting the work done while finding time to pursue my non-MBA passions (and finding some time to sleep in between).
So with that in mind, I thought I’d put together some of my own observations on time management. A lot of it is actually a rewrite of a talk I gave for Golden Key at a conference in Christchurch back in 2008. I’ve tried to update it with the subsequent years of experience I’ve accrued (read: lessons learned from stupid mistakes).
Obviously, most of you reading this got to where you are by being organised to at least some degree. As a result you’ve probably figured out some good time management techniques, and this article isn’t here to contradict those techniques or provide some silver bullet solution (though I do try to give you something practical). Feel free to use the advice here to augment your own approaches, and if you have any great techniques that you find useful, feel free to let me know (or post in the comments). So here goes…
Gerard's Guide to Time Management (Part 1 - Managing Yourself):
Firstly, we have to be clear on what we mean by time management. It’s more than just keeping a diary and being on time to appointments. Time management is about effectively managing your time and the time of those around you. In a world where our demands are ever increasing, and where we are connected virtually constantly, being able to look after ourselves and our colleagues while preserving sanity is a key skill not just in the workplace but in day-to-day life.
Being effective at time management also has knock-on benefits. By staying on top of our commitments and we can reduce our stress levels, optimize our efficiency and identify new opportunities for growth.
Today we’ll focus on managing our own time. Next week we’ll expand that outward to how we can use time management when working in teams.
No, not “The Diary”. That ubiquitous black diary that I tote about everywhere is not my time management system, it is merely the physical manifestation of it. Being good at time management is independent of the system that you use to keep track of time (or if you are particularly blessed, keeping everything in your memory). I use the diary to write things down, prioritise my efforts, wipe things out, move things about, and occasionally scribble down ideas.
It is what I use to go through the process of managing my time. My approach to time management can be broken into five key steps.
Step 1 – Analyze:
To begin effectively managing your time, you need to work out what you need to manage. Taking stock of your responsibilities and commitments gives you the raw data that you need to start organizing things.
As a practical recommendation, sit down with a coffee. That’s just a general recommendation. Coffee is good.
But while you are sitting down with that tasty coffee, write down or type up your immediate and near future responsibilities in a general sense. For my fellow MBA students, this really begins at the level of MBA course, MBA-related non-course stuff, then social and community responsibilities, and self-responsibilities (i.e. downtime by the pool, sleep).
From there, we can break each category down into subsets. For example, the MBA course category breaks down into the individual courses for each module. Non course stuff might include networking events, interviews and job research. So on and so forth.
From there, we break each subset down again as best we can. For a single MBA course, this may include lectures, assignments and exams. If you know roughly when these things will happen, all the better. It’s okay if you simply don’t know what’s in a subset (i.e. you don’t know what your responsibilities will be). That in itself is good information, as we will discover below.
That’s about as far as you want to go breaking it down for now. You’ll have reached a level where it’s not normally possible to predict things with much more certainty, and you’ll be getting bored anyway. Go and order another coffee, because you’ve completed Step 1. Nice work.
Step 2 - Prioritize:
The next step is to go through each of these subsets and rank the tasks in order of immediacy and significance. Things that need doing in the near future are going to be more immediate, and tasks that have greater consequences (like exams) are probably going to rank higher. It won’t be exact, but that’s okay. The idea is to get it down in some form.
Eventually, you’ll be applying this step on a daily basis, going over your immediate responsibilities, ranking them and assigning your time accordingly. Some tasks will come up quite regularly at the low end of the priority scale, and that’s okay. They’ll be shifted to the next free opportunity, or cut out.
As an example, my need to do my taxes has been at the bottom of the priority list every week for the past two months. It gets shifted to the next week, and the next. And that’s perfectly alright. Once the deadline gets closer it’ll become more of a priority. But if some time becomes available between now and then, it’ll get done.
However, doing taxes is a certainty of life. For other things, you can consider whether it’s worth doing it at all.
Step 3 - Sacrifice:
Yes, I am about to recommend not doing stuff and shirking responsibilities. Yes, this might upset some people. We’ll get to managing that eventuality next week.
Unfortunately, it’s a fact of life that sometimes you will have to make sacrifices in order to do what’s most important. You may find after writing down your priorities that you simply have too much on your plate and you have to cut down on things. Start with the things that are lowest priority, and evaluate whether you can get rid of them (or get away with not doing them).
The sooner the better too, as you will probably need to have some tough conversations with people who care about these tasks more than you do. But the sooner you do it, the more chance that you may be able to reassign responsibilities to someone else, or make arrangements to reduce your workload.
At this point I need to point something out.
SLEEP IS NOT A LOW PRIORITY. DO NOT CUT IT OUT. EVER.
There are some people who claim to get by on less than three hours of sleep a night. You are not one of them. You do not want to be one of them. Sleep is good. Sleep is necessary. Otherwise you’ll get nothing done at all. 6-8 hours a night should do it. Schedule it in if you need to. I’m not kidding about that last part.
Step 4 - Organize:
Now that you have your responsibilities, priorities and have cut out a few things, you can start organizing your time. Yes, we are finally at the part where most people start with managing their time.
For each of your responsibilities, try to work out how much time the key tasks are going to take, and organize times to focus on those tasks. This is the point where we start putting stuff down in a calendar or task list (or both). It’s not important which scheme you use, be it a diary, iCal, Google Calendar, Outlook, Evernote or a plain old whiteboard on your wall. The key thing is to use it, and use it regularly. Most of these systems have reminder alarms (not the diary obviously), so take advantage of them.
It also helps to break tasks down into parts to make them more manageable. It can be better to have four hours of study over two or three sessions with breaks than one big block.
But what if you are not sure of either what the tasks will be, or how long a task might take? Good question. In the first case, it’s still worth keeping on the list. The aim is to ensure that you update your information regularly as the situation becomes clearer. You’ll be going through these various steps on a regular basis, so when you do, take into account any new information you might have and schedule accordingly.
In the latter case, overestimate. It’s a safety margin. It’s much easier to overestimate and have free time for relaxation, than to underestimate and try to shift around other priorities.
So, by now you should have most of your tasks and responsibilities organized. Well done. You’re already well ahead of the curve. Now for the (hardest) step.
Step 5 - Evolve:
Now that you have a calendar and a wonderful task management system, you need to be told the truth. The above method of time management is a completely false representation of reality.
Sadly, life can’t be readily organised into neat little chunks. Situations change, priorities shift, the proverbial happens. You need to expect the unexpected.
Thankfully, good time management accounts for this. All of the steps described above establish the basis of our time management system. It gives us an up to date picture of what is going on. As you go forward, this picture is going to evolve as new tasks come in, crises happen, and opportunities emerge.
By having that picture you are far better placed to adapt to any changes. You will know what can and can’t be shifted about, you can reevaluate your priorities, and you can respond and adapt far faster (which in itself frees up more time). My own diary is a rolling record of shifting tasks and rearrangements. You will never see me write in my diary with a pen, always a pencil. I know I will have to make changes. Good time management is about being prepared for those changes.
Good personal time management isn’t conceptually difficult. It requires a little bit of upfront investment of time, but it pays off many times over. It isn’t defined by what method you use to record tasks, but how you treat your tasks in the first place. My method takes five steps:
Analyze – Prioritize – Sacrifice – Organize - Evolve
The first four might take a couple of hours (and a few coffees), the last step lasts a lifetime.
As a last point, find the time to relax. I’ve already said sleep is a high priority. So is relaxation. Make time for downtime. It doesn’t matter whether it’s through exercise, meditation, video games, socializing, or anything else that makes you feel reinvigorated. You deserve it, but you need to ensure that you make it part of your time management process.
So hopefully this post has been a helpful starting point. As always, reach out and contact me if you have suggestions, want clarification, or just want to do coffee.
I’m sure I can make time for it...
Observations on music, coffee, and the occasional controversial thought.
Copyright © Gerard Atkinson 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the owner is strictly prohibited.