Juggling Time

Oct 23, 2012   //   by Steve Wooding   //   A Slice of Lemon, Articles  //  No Comments

Juggling Time

IN SHORT: Successful time management doesn’t come from just knowing what to do – it comes from actually doing it!

Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever.”

[Samuel Smiles, 19th-century Scottish author and reformer]

(~1140 words, approx 6-9 mins to read)

Last time we talked about the ‘magic number’ of projects or other activities you can devote your time and energy to without things beginning to fray at the edges, which turned out to be two and a half.

But many of you probably know people that seem to manage a lot more than that, those seemingly inexhaustible people who juggle time like Doctor Who and seem to squeeze several extra hours out of a normal day. And I promised that this time I’d reveal how they do it, or at least how they create the impression that they are.

So here goes: seven principles from those Masters of Time, culled from my reading, observations and experience:

  1. “If you want it done, write it down.”
    You’ve probably heard this so often, but that doesn’t make it any less true; productive people plan ahead. Not necessarily in fine detail or obsessively, but they think ahead and write down what they have to do. The most common forms I’ve seen are well know to us all, even if we don’t use them: a diary and a to-do list. The most productive people I know write their to-do lists at the end of the working day ready for tomorrow – that way they can just get into action first thing without having to remember where they got up to the day before.
  2. “Do what you *need* to do first.”
    How often have you had a report to write and you look for the perfect font before you’ve got the content sorted? Or it could be changing the layout of the table six times before you’ve started cooking for your dinner party? Many tasks have a mix of more and less enjoyable elements and it’s easy to let ourselves get sidetracked into doing the fun parts first, rather than the necessary bits. The masters of time don’t. They start with the necessary elements and get those out of the way, or at least a sizeable chunk of it done. What this often does is leaves enough time for the tweaks anyway, rather than the time-sloppy way of doing the fun stuff first then finding you’re tight on time for the really important bits! Time-savvy people also don’t add unnecessary spit and polish and focus on ‘fit for purpose’ unless perfection is absolutely what’s needed. Which brings me on to the next principle…
  3. “Little and often.”
    If I mow my lawn once a week during the summer I can do it in half an hour or so because the grass hasn’t grown too much and I don’t have to empty the mower more than a few times. However, if I leave it a couple of weeks instead, it takes much, much longer as the mower has to work harder to cut through the longer grass, and I have to empty the mower much more frequently as the grass box fills up quicker. When it comes to repetitive necessary tasks, especially those we find tedious or boring, the time-savvy crowd simply do them more often and keep on top of them so they don’t pile up and consume hours or days instead of just minutes at a time. Little and often also makes sure that a tedious task is kept short and doesn’t become so long you want to quit before finishing. It’s also easier to slot in a slice of it here and there rather than have to do find time to do it all in one huge effort. However…
  4. “Better to do some than none at all.”
    If you have a limited slot of time, say between other activities, and there’s something that you could be doing but you’re not sure  you can finish it in the time you’ve got, many of us would wonder whether it’s actually worth doing any of it. Not the time-savvy! Their mind set is “Well, at least I can make a start.” They might not get it all done, but they know they’ll have less to do next time they come back to it. And a handy trick related to principle #1 is to make a written note of where you’re up to – that way you don’t have to waste time figuring out how far you’ve got when you come back to it. This principle overlaps a little with the next one…
  5. “Run things in parallel.”
    Most of us do this here and there – if you’ve ever prepared a full meal you know that you sort the elements of the meal in descending order of cooking time. This means that, for example, once you’ve put something in the oven, you don’t just stand around waiting for it to cook, you get on with preparing the rest of the meal so that it all happens in parallel and everything comes together at the same time. Productive people do the same with as many of their activities as they can, so that whilst they appear to have many things on the go and have many things come together at their proper times, at any single given moment they’re still obeying the magic number. However, that does require some thinking ahead, which also spins us back to principle #1!
  6. “Guard your time.”
    I can’t emphasise the importance of this principle enough. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the “Can I just have five minutes?” interruption and we all know it’s never just five minutes. I once had a colleague leave the office on the basis of a five-minute interruption and he came back over 2 hours later! The most productive and time-savvy people I’ve worked with are actually quite selfish with their time, especially when working on more tedious tasks, and are comfortable using phrases like, “I’m sorry, I’m really busy at the moment. I have 15 minutes spare at 2:30 – can you come back then?”* Some of them even schedule their ‘interruptible time’.
  7. “Be realistic.”
    Too often we are overly optimistic with how fast or productively we think we can work or what we can get accomplished in a set amount of time, often because we don’t account for hiccups or problems that might crop up. I’ve found this especially true of people’s estimates of meetings! Great time managers are a lot more aware of their true pace of work and much more realistic which their estimates of how long something will take, even under pressure. They take stock of their past performance and plan according to experience rather than naive hope.

There you have it – seven key principles for becoming more masterful of your time. Remember though, successful time management doesn’t come from just knowing what to do – it comes from actually doing it!

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve got other principles you’ve found useful too.

Until next time,

* One knock-on effect of this ‘can you come back later’ approach is that often they don’t return, having gone away and figured it out for themselves – from some anecdotal estimates it can be as high as 2 out of 3!

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