Feb 22, 2009

5 Steps to Better Time Management

Take a look around you at your desk, your incoming mail and other paper items, your email inbox, your voicemail inbox, and at your cell phone. Do you see a lot of clutter or large piles of "work" waiting for you to get to it? Maybe you're one who says "But it's all OK, because I know where everything is". That's just a convenient way of ignoring the fact that you have not done anything about the piles of backlog. You don't really even know whether all of the items in these stacks are work-in-progress, waiting to be done. How would you know? What if half of the items in all those stacks could simply be tossed into the trash?

You may be spending a lot of time on unimportant things, feeling like you're spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. As each new item arrives you either react to it or more than likely, you stick it on yet another pile. Do you have a pile marked "urgent"? Think about that for a moment. You might think you don't have a system or process for managing work. In fact, you do. The system you are using is designed to sort potential work into various piles only to be deferred indefinitely. Ironically, the time you take to sort the potential work is not actually work at all and simply causes you to waste more time. As Henry Ford said, "It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that others waste."

The good news is that the gap between getting ahead and wasting time can be closed with a five step process. This process replaces procrastination with a far more productive time and work management system. I chose 5 steps with simple words to make it easy to remember and yet each conveys a lot of meaning. The steps are:

1. Prioritize
2. Categorize
3. Synthesize
4. Exercise
5. Regularize

Step 1: Prioritize means recognizing that some items are most aligned with accomplishing your mission or long range goals. These would be important, and if the item has a short term timing constraint, then it will become urgent as well. If time is not a current constraint then the item will be important but not urgent. Some items come in that appear to be very urgent. Often they are urgent and even potentially important to someone else, but not necessarily important to you. We can easily be distracted by these items. Lastly, there is a category of items that are neither urgent, nor important. They should definitely be the last thing we look at in any given day when other items still need attention.

So the 4 levels of priority are:

1. Important and urgent
2. Important but not urgent
3. Urgent but not important
4. Not urgent or important

"If you want to make good use of your time, you've got to know what's most important and then give it all you've got," seems very apt advice from Lee Iacocca at this point.

Step 2. Categorize is the process of examining every item in each queue and stack and determining what type of information or work is involved. This literally means sorting the stacks and piles into organized groups. This still does not yet clarify what work is to be done next, but it creates the foundation for that step. The list of categories can be long but to make the new process work effectively and remain manageable select no more than 8 or 10 categories. These categories may include:

• Customer requests
• Sales
• Customer service
• Internal Process
• Administration
• Reading material
• Research

Step 3. Synthesize means taking the newly sorted stacks from step 2 and assigning a priority to them, according to the priorities listed in step 1. Yes, you're sorting the stacks again, but this time the process will have a direct impact on how you spend your time in the future. It may become clearer now that some items are logically more important than others. Customer and sales activity is clearly more important and often more urgent than any internal administration or reading to stay up on industry trends. Some examples of synthesizing decisions may include:

• Customer request for price quote: Priority Level 1
• Sales meeting to finalize agreement with new prospect: Priority Level 1
• Customer Service to fix a technical problem: Priority Level 1
• Internal Process to implement new IT system: Priority Level 2
• Administration to prepare for tax filing in 3 months: Priority Level 3
• Research on competitors: Priority Level 3
• Reading material on industry/market trends: Priority Level 4

Step 4. Exercise means finally getting down to doing the actual work that now sits in front of you. You are now equipped with a process model to effectively work on the things that are most important to your business and your success first. This step includes:

1. Process the stacks - use the Priority model, starting with Priority 1 items
2. Use Priority model for all new items so that each new item is immediately assigned a priority
3. Put reading/research into a "Save" stack. If several months later you still haven't read it, scan through it and throw all the stale material away.
4. Never accumulate any other stacks going forward by immediately deciding the category and priority of each incoming item.

Step 5. Regularize means adjusting your daily routine and work habits to match the new system you have just created. Consider the following elements in this ongoing phase:

• Establish a routine fast response to all Level 1 items. Be prepared to bump level 3 or 4 items off your calendar and defer them in favor of a new level 1.
• Schedule time on calendar for all items, and that include all levels as well.
• Fix frequent time on your calendar for Levels 1 & 2 so that daily attention is paid, by design, to the most important priorities.
• Schedule Level 3 for twice a week "checkups" - half-hour each time. The checkup serves to review and decide whether the priority remains the same or should be changed, and also when to schedule time to execute that item.
• Schedule Level 4 for twice a month "checkups" - half hour each time. Limit time, but schedule it on your calendar, for all the reading material that builds up in "save" piles. After 3 months, review the "save" pile and ask yourself this question "what is the worst thing that would happen if I did not have this information?" Odds are you can't think of anything bad. Then throw the item in the TRASH.

Finally, every day with every task or project you take on, ask, "Is what I'm doing or about to do getting us closer to our objective?" as Robert Townsend put it. If not, go and look at your level 1 or 2 lists and do that instead. Don't forget to celebrate the small successes and pretty soon you'll be surprised at how much you have accomplished.

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