Time in a Bottle

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We are all allotted the same 24 hours, but what we each do with that time separates success from mediocrity. It is never too late to learn time management techniques and even the simplest system can improve your job satisfaction.

It’s all relative

Metaphors thrive to illustrate the finite quality of time. There is the 24-litre bucket, a pickle jar, a bottle, the calendar – all nice and two-dimensional time-management techniques. The images remind us that you have this much fixed time, you need to do this much in it, so you just prioritise what needs to be done and it follows logically that it can and will be done in the best possible manner. But does it?

The world seems to have gone crazy about coming up with time management systems, all promising a magic bullet that will change you into an efficient, satisfied, and productive employee. Indeed, you may recognise that you need help in managing your time if you are constantly stressed, you fail to take lunch breaks because there is so much to do, and you take work home with you. Life is becoming more complicated because we are multi-tasking so much more, and have so much vying for our attention. If we do not have a system in place to keep us on track, we can easily be sidetracked by phones, emails, the internet, chit-chat, and impromptu meetings, amongst others. The most common interruptions result in a fragmentation of working time which is then broken up into periods so small that it is virtually impossible to handle any serious task.

Control follows focus

If we agree that everyone would benefit from time management, the question now is whether you are ready to empower yourself. If you are the kind of person who likes to let life happen to you, or be told what to do, or who feels like you have no choice in what happens, then no way are you going to even consider a plan of action. What you might think about, is how considering the concept of time management will give you an insight into how you do have control over what you choose to focus on in life.

When choosing whether and how to better manage your time, keep in mind that you can have the most sophisticated and tailor-made time management system set up, but you have to have the motivation and commitment to stick to it. Every time management system has to take into account a person’s personality, too.

What shall I do next?

It may be taken for granted, but who’s to say that the goal of time management is to get as much done in as little time possible? We cannot deny that many workers get by without any type of time management system at all. They work proactively, doing what is urgent first, or what is asked of them, and the tasks get done. Some of the smartest managers of time may even be the skivers of this world. Yes, those people who get away with doing the least possible, only doing the absolute minimum whilst remaining totally unflustered. They set their goals such as ‘do only what I can’t get away with not doing’ and they achieve them. Full marks! We have to recognise that it is the individual person who holds the reins.

Apart from jobs where there is constant interaction with clients, machinery, equipment or instruments, no matter what the company’s goal might be, it is the individual employee who calls the shots. For example, call centre personnel are more like machines in that they have no choice as to what to do next. Most of us do have this choice, a choice we are constantly making, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Tracking time-frames

Ever tried juggling? Two balls are relatively easy; three balls are twice as tough as two. It is just as difficult to keep track of various time-frames in time management. You need to plot, plan, allocate time to each individual workday, see how each day overlaps with your personal life, prioritise projects that span more than one day as well as autonomous work and teamwork, and on top of this, plan for the unexpected. Phew! It sounds like a battle plan! Critics even point fingers at the amount of time spent on planning that is inherent in time management!

Time management is a question not of managing the clock but of managing ourselves with respect to the clock. The best technique to start with is to learn how to focus on the job at hand. This will ensure that your work gets finished on time and is far better in quality that it used to be. Don’t let yourself get distracted on the way.

Basic advice as a starting point would be to keep any system as simple as possible, and then evaluate how well that works for you. You can use the tried-and-tested ‘back-of-the-envelope’ system; that is simply spending one minute every morning to remind yourself of what needs to be done. Even though it sounds simple, it may be one further rung up the ladder for you and just what you need to keep focused. You could try having a whiteboard on the wall near you that you can’t avoid looking at. There are many software packages and e-mail clients that include task list applications, which allow you to prioritise tasks with due dates, alarms, reminder notes – you name it.

Planning and structure

A simple tiered task list system includes a general to-do list to record all the tasks the person needs to accomplish, and a daily to-do list which is created each day by transferring tasks from the general to-do list.

Task lists are often prioritized. One method of organizing a general to-do list is the ABC method. The list is divided into three sections, labelled A, B, and C, containing tasks that need to be done within a day, a week, and a month, respectively.

To prioritize a daily task list, either record the tasks in the order of highest priority, or assign them a number after they are listed (“1” for highest priority, “2” for second highest priority, etc.) which indicates in which order to execute the tasks. Pareto’s 80:20 principle helps in understanding the ratio of work to achievement. Pareto analysis is the idea that 80% of tasks can be completed in 20% of the disposable time. This principle is used to sort tasks into two parts. The Pareto Principle reminds you to identify and focus on the 20 percent that matters. Those 20 percent produce 80 percent of your results. The concept of ‘fit’ looks at how well the requirements of a task correspond with the available resources at the time. If you have a gap of 15 minutes in your schedule, it is more efficient to complete a task that would require 15 minutes, than to complete a task that can be done in 5 minutes, or to start a task that would take 4 weeks. This concept also applies to time of the day and location: free time on the road would be used differently from free time at work.

A SMARTS formula (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-oriented, Signed off) can also help assess the validity and priority of a task.

Steve Prentice, the author of Cool Time and the Two Pound Bucket, suggests that every task should fall into one of four quadrants i.e. Urgent And Priority, Urgent But Not Priority, Priority But Not Urgent, Not Urgent And Not Priority.

Prentice also points out that most people work in phases, and only at about one third of their total effectiveness. As the body and mind go through highs and lows every 90 minutes, you need to keep in mind your natural cycles while planning. Scheduling time for ‘white space’, to simply do nothing, is also recognised as being important for rejuvenation and reaching one’s full potential.

Another interesting time management theory is known as The Pickle Jar. The theory states that if only your large priorities are tackled, scheduled, and done for the day, you can then let the smaller but less important things in. Everything fits well because you first schedule in your major priorities and simply watch how your other necessary tasks – the unexpected and little things you do all day – fill in the gaps. You don’t need to schedule them in because they are low on the list of priorities and will fit into smaller time frames anyway.

Carpe diem

Be prepared that any changes that you are going to adopt will take some time to perfect and become routine. Watch out for negative personal habits such as worrying and procrastination through indecision will outdo even the best time management plans. Improving your decision-making and delegation skills are paramount to making a success of your new worklife changes. Once these changes are put into motion, your workday, and life as a whole, should be much smoother and rewarding. Good luck!

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