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Time Management: the inherent paradox

November 8, 1999
by Pat McClellan

If time really were money, then we'd live in an egalitarian world where everyone had the same wealth as everyone else. Time is allotted to each of us in quantities of 24 hours each day, and unless there's some hot new IPO with a chrono-server, I feel safe in saying that we better stick with using something else to measure wealth.

The term "time management" seems a bit of a paradox when you realize that time will pass quite well and predictably, with or without our expert attention. I remember a James Taylor tune where he sings, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." The lyric recognizes the inevitability of the matter. So perhaps we can adapt that notion to our professional lives -- in hopes that it can reduce our stress level and make us more effective. Of course, what we're really interested in is resource management. How do you make the best use of the available resources to accomplish the most in the time you have?

Have you noticed that some people seem to be able to accomplish so much while you struggle to find the time to do your laundry? For example, omni-media entrepreneur Martha Stewart is something of a legend. She routinely publishes her personal calendar in her magazine, showing her schedule for turning the compost, canning the tomatoes, grooming her pets, throwing an intimate dinner party for 16 -- all this while she manages an 80-hour workweek taping television shows and running her empire! Rumor has it that she only sleeps 2 hours a night. But the fact is, 22 hours a day still wouldn't be enough time unless she's a great manager.

Has this ever happened to you? You've got two days of work to do by tomorrow. And you've got a client lunch meeting today. And you said that you'd pick up the dry cleaning this afternoon. And you're supposed to revise some graphics for a proposal for your boss. And the oil pressure light came on last night as you were pulling into the driveway, so you better not drive far without getting the oil checked. And you still haven't bought that anniversary card. It adds up fast; small tasks and diversions which get in the way and use up your whole day.

The inevitable, unstoppable passage of time can be like a monkey on your back. When you've got a deadline looming, watching the hours fly past can really add to your stress level. The good news is that most of us can get better at dealing with it. When I start feeling this sort of stress, I kick into "high effeciency mode". That's what I call it, to psyche myself up. Really though, it's just a mindset where I focus on three basic tasks: list, prioritize, and delegate.

List

Start with a list. Take the time to write down everything you've got to do. Keep the list with you everywhere you go today, adding new tasks and deleting those you've accomplished. Even if you don't do anything else, this list tremendously valuable. The list remembers stuff for you, so you can lose the stress of trying not to forget the important stuff. It keeps you focused so that as soon as you complete one task, you can immediately move to the next. It also lets you survey all of the tasks at hand, which can lead you to group tasks for efficiency. For example, your dry cleaning won't be ready until after 3, so schedule your oil change for late afternoon and pick up your shirts on the way. Finally, the list gives you a great sense of accomplishment, as you are able to check off tasks as they are completed. This is important for your morale and stress level.

Prioritize

Once items are on your list, you're ready to prioritize. There are a lot of factors which go into this procedure. I start with these two questions:

  1. Is it urgent?
  2. Is it important?

At first glance, these questions seem very similar, but they're not. As you scan down your list of tasks, try to place them into this quadrant.

Recognize that many things are urgent which are not really very important. For example, you told the lady at the dry cleaner that you'd pick up your shirts today, but who cares if you do it tomorrow instead. That's not important, and not really urgent either. If it happens that you're passing by when you're out today, then pick it up. But otherwise, forget it.

The client lunch meeting you'd planned for today? That's definitely important, but is it urgent? If the deadline you're working on happens to be for that client, then maybe you can explain the situation and reschedule the lunch.

Ideally, you'll focus your attention to items which are both urgent and important. Important but not urgent tasks can be rescheduled -- just add it to your list for tomorrow. Those things which are urgent but not important are ideal tasks to be delegated to others. And of course, don't waste your time on things which are neither important and nor urgent.

Delegate

I know what you're thinking... "It's faster and easier to do it myself than to explain it to someone else." To which I respectfully respond, "bullshit." The fact is that most people aren't very good at managing people, but this is perhaps your most valuable resource. A good manager is someone who can manage people, and if this doesn't describe you, then it's an area you should work hard to develop. While it's true that it may be faster to do it yourself than to explain it to someone else, in most cases, similar tasks will arise in the future. So time invested in teaching someone else to help you will pay off in greater efficiency on the next job. The point is, don't wait until you need help before you start delegating.

Some people are too insecure to delegate. They are possessive of their assigned skill set and don't want anyone to realize that they're not indispensable. Newsflash: if you think you're indispensable, take a quick look at DOUG's job board. But I'll tell you want is indispensable (and every client and employer out there will agree). A person who can delegate and get things done is rare and valuable.

Balance

Given the profession-driven lifestyle of modern society, it's very difficult to draw a distinction between work time and personal time. I know this is true for me, so I won't even pretend to know where to find the balance. I frequently remind myself of the quote, "On the deathbed, nobody ever said they wished they'd spent more time at work." And I recount this great wisdom to you as I sit working on a Sunday afternoon. Happy weekend. ;-)

Patrick McClellan is Director Online's co-founder. Pat is Vice President, Managing Director for Jack Morton Worldwide, a global experiential marketing company. He is responsible for the San Francisco office, which helps major technology clients to develop marketing communications programs to reach enterprise and consumer audiences.

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