There is one thing that every business person will tell you they are short of. That is TIME! Here is a way to drive a wedge into, and free up, more time. So much so that you will, rather bizarrely, find yourself with nothing to do from time to time.
There are any number of books written about Time Management. The mission of Profit Accelerator is to provide you with systems that are heavily distilled and comparatively easy to implement. Therefore, we have attempted to develop a system of Time Management that can work for the owner/operators of smaller businesses and which works already for members of the Profit Accelerator team.
We set out to discuss the elements of an "ideal" system for Time Management and then give a case study and a practical application using readily available free or cheap software on your Smartphone.
When you throw a pebble into a pond, there is a moment of disturbance and activity and then the water resumes its steady placid state. This is exactly what happens with the activity in your business.
Stones which you throw into the pond are the tasks that you get done. But, a few seconds after you have completed a task a whole pond full of other tasks are sitting there demanding attention. There is just no end to the work that needs to be done in your business; or so it seems.
Parkinson (see Parkinson's Law) set a rule that effectively says "work will expand to fill the time available".
This is most certainly the case for managers of a small business. There seems to be a never-ending number of things that need to be done.
Elsewhere in Profit Accelerator we refer to the importance of finding and then optimizing your Constraints (see Theory of Constraints (TOC)). For many owner/operators, having sufficient time is a major constraint so optimizing the use of your time constraint is going to be a major contributor to your success.
The challenge we face in this article is to develop an easily implemented and simple to understand system for getting more done and draining some of the tasks out of the pond which do not need your attention now.
Not all Work was Created Equal
General, and later President, Eisenhower, is credited with developing a matrix with four cells. On one axis, he placed "Importance" and the other "Urgency".
The 80/20 principle, that we discuss widely in Profit Accelerator, also applies here (see Amazing 80/20 Rule article). The "Important" and "Urgent" items in the Eisenhower matrix are typically the 20% of things that are important in the 80/20 Rule.
With due respect to President Eisenhower, from a Small Business point of view, this matrix is 2-Dimensional thinking in a 3-Dimensional world!
In a smaller business, the only person who will pay much attention at all to the direction and future of the business is the owner/operator (yourself). Therefore, we consider it vital that a third dimension to Urgency and Importance is added and that is decisions that range from Tactical to Strategic. In military terms, Tactical decisions are ones that need to be made in a very short period - take that hill, feed the troops, and so on. On the other hand, Strategic decisions are ones with much longer time frames, but of much greater importance. They might be, for example, the planning for the D Day landings in World War II. This then gives us a cube of 8 cells and we now have (for example) “Urgent and Important Tactics” and “Urgent and Important Strategies”.
We distinguish between Tactical and Strategic because it is very easy for a manager to focus on the seemingly more Urgent and demanding short term Tactical issues and not find time for the longer term Strategic issues. If the Strategic issues don’t get their fair share of your time, your sense of direction for the business will get lost in the seemingly ever demanding need to work on short term decisions and tasks.
When we Categorise a task, we also need to decide if it requires a big slice of Time or only a small slice. How much Time constitutes a “small” Time slice is up to you to determine but might typically be the Time it takes to write an email or to make a phone call. This might be 5 to 10 minutes. On the other hand, a big item might need your continuous focus for one or more hours to come to some resolution of whatever the task is. Obviously, you could do several small items in the same period that you can do a large item.
We now have a fourth dimension to our Eisenhower Matrix and that is; is it a Small or Large period of Time required.
So far we recognize that work can be mapped onto:
- Urgent or not urgent
- Important or unimportant
- Strategic or tactical
- Big period of time to complete or small
Not all Time was Created Equal Either
We think of Time as being just hours and minutes and as a single entity. However, this is not the case at all. There are several different types of Time and in order to learn to manage Time effectively, we have to learn to manage the types of Time to their greatest advantage.
Time can be mapped over months, years and periods of several years. These longer periods are the Time frame for which we develop a strategy of the business. The longest period of Time is the Vision which we have constructed for the business. It might be to be a World Class business in 5 years’ time, for example.
The long-term Vision can be subdivided into (for example) 4 quarterly goals a year. These are things that we want to achieve in the next 3 months and which are way stations towards the overall Vision of the company. It is important to subdivide Strategic Time into both long term and shorter term periods. In this example the 5-year world-class vision and a 3-month quarter period.
The principle reason for this is the very same reason that you can never get someone to do their homework until the very last moment.
For the clear majority of people, until there is a looming deadline, they don't assemble their thoughts and activities to meet that deadline. Very few students can get excited about writing an assignment when it is not due for several weeks.
For our smaller business owner/operator to overcome the "homework problem" we break our Strategic Time frame into shorter periods, such as quarters. In many instances, the nature of business might allow you to further sub-divide that into days, weeks or months.
Usually smaller business operators are so stressed managing the here and now that they fail to spend time on the business critical strategic things further out.
Time has Quality
We already know that there are different types of Time and that they have a different Quality to us. There are, for example, Prime Time, Office Hours, Quiet Time and Family Time. We look at these in different ways, with different priorities and with greater or lesser trepidation.
The principle one that we want to discuss here is Quiet Time.
People tend to work best at a particular time of day; be it the morning, afternoon or evening. You probably already have a strong feeling about your most productive time. We are going to call that "Quiet Time".
This Quiet Time is precious because it is the Time when you are most productive and most in the "flow" of things. Therefore, you need to ensure that you carve out as much of your Quiet Time as possible for things that require big chunks of Time for you to process, analyse and bring to fruition.
Military operations like the D Day landings teach us that all plans are shot to bits the moment that the first phone call of the day comes in to you at work. All things being equal, Quiet Time is best first thing in the morning when your Time is more predictable and the distractions have not yet begun in earnest.
Things like meetings that are often largely unproductive and time wasting, can best be scheduled for another part of your day when your energy levels are lower. We might call these the "Flat Battery" part of your day.
We constantly termite our Quiet Time. Humans are amazingly easily distracted, by a phone call, email and so on. Perhaps it is back in our primeval days when we had to be constantly scanning our living environment in case there was a sabre-tooth tiger around the corner. To cherish and take advantage of your Quiet Time, you need to disengage your email, telephone and any other distraction.
Quiet Time is the Time that you are going to use for making the big Important Strategic decisions in your business. Unless you can learn to maximise the use of your Quiet Time, your business is not likely to achieve its maximum potential.
Time is also Location-specific. There are some things that can only be done when you are out shopping, when you are in a meeting, when you are in the Paris office.
Other things are People-specific. They are activities that need to be undertaken with one or more individuals.
We can expand our classification of any piece of work further:
- Urgent or not urgent.
- Important or unimportant.
- Strategic or tactical.
- Big period of time to complete or small.
- Long term Vision, quarterly objective or shorter period.
- Quiet Time or normal hours or ‘Flat Battery’ Time.
- Location / person specific time.
Ideas bubble up all the time. Humans are very good at discerning patterns in their environment and in information but are not at all good at remembering things. How many phone numbers can you remember even though you use them all the time? It is not likely to be more than 2 or 3. It is well known that if a number has more than 7 digits it is remarkably difficult for people to remember it.
Therefore, we need a way to capture items that may make a demand on our Time in the future without being distracted by trying to remember them now.
Many such items will die a natural death anyway as we will realise over Time that they are not nearly as important as we thought they were. Therefore, we do not want to take up an important slice of our memory capacity remembering things that we may never use.
We will call these “idea bubbles” Projects. We will show how to assemble “idea bubbles” into Projects so that you can Categorise them and then forget them until it becomes important for you to return your attention to them.
You have probably all seen the scene in a war movie where one of the soldiers shouts "incoming" and everyone ducks because there is a bomb, grenade or canon shell en-route to their location.
Another analogy is a cricket or baseball player. There is a ball (task) coming down the pitch at them and the business/owner operator needs to hit it off somewhere.
Fortunately, there are some very straight forward rules that allow you to virtually instantaneously deal with any task that is bowled at you.
These 5 rules manage your tasks:
- Manage your Quiet Time
- Take out the Trash
- Known Date and Time
- Pidgeon hole the rest
- Now Forget About It
1. Manage your Quiet Time
Ignore anything that comes to you in your Quiet Time unless it is directly related. This maximises the use of your Quiet Time without the disturbance of a phone call, door knock or email.
Humans seem to be hard-wired to be easily distracted. As well as incoming distractions like email and phone calls, we are often tempted to multi-task but this is a serious Time waster. (For more on these effects see the Multi-tasking article)
However, even in Quiet Time, there seems to be some biological reason for us being able to only maintain focused thought for a certain period of Time. Therefore, even in your Quiet Time, you might find that you need to take a mental break every 50 minutes or so to get up, move around, stretch, get something to drink and get your brain ready to refocus. However, as we have already stressed, it is important not to get side-tracked during this 10 minute break with attention diverting things like email.
2. Take out the Trash
Bin/rubbish/trash anything that is not relevant immediately. Do not leave it in your in tray so that you need to address it again. If it has no immediate use or value in your mind get rid of it straight away.
If you can’t bring yourself to actually delete the email or throw out the note, do mark it as read so it will drop off your radar unless and if it is needed again.
3. Known Date and Time
If it is a Time sensitive issue, put it onto your calendar immediately. Once it is on your calendar you will automatically be advised in due course as that time and date approaches. You don't need to give any more thought to that event until you need to do preparation or attend the event. Putting it on your calendar gets it out of your mind.
If you need any preparation time for the event, you can also schedule that in your diary before the actual event.
It may also be a good idea to automatically schedule into your calendar whatever Quiet Time periods you want to set for yourself. That will be a constant reminder to you that you want to set this Time aside without interruption. If you have other people making appointments for you, they can also see that you do not want to be disturbed at that Time.
4. Pidgeon Hole the Rest
When a new task or idea is not caught in the filters above and continues to come barrelling down the pitch at you, we need to make some immediate decisions on how we are going to manage it, or rather, how we are going to Pidgeon hole it.
First decide if it is an action item (task) or an idea to remember but is not time-sensitive.
If it is a task, we should immediately decide where it sits on our multi-dimensional Eisenhower Matrix. Is this something that is Tactical, Urgent and Important? If so we put it into that "cell". On the other hand, if it is something that is Strategic, Unimportant and Not Urgent, it goes into a completely different Eisenhower cell.
We therefore need a Time Management system that can store these tasks that you have Pidgeon holed. We will come to that in due course.
If it is an idea that we want to retain but is not Time sensitive, add it to the list of other similar items and tasks in your Time Management System.
5. Now Forget About It
As we pointed out above, having dealt with an incoming task, you can afford to forget about it. Your Time Management System will surface that task when you need it.
Straight away, this gets rid of that nameless dread that you are going to forget something that often preoccupies our minds and wakes us up in the middle of the night. As soon as you have Pidgeon holed it, there is no need for you to remember it or to worry that you will forget it.
An enormous amount of the self-imposed stress that we take upon ourselves with Time Management is trying to juggle priorities when we don’t have a framework for judging what to do next and trying to remember all the things that we need to get done today, next week and within the next 12 months. Once you don't need to worry about these things, you remove a great deal of stress from yourself.
We argue that not all work is of equal importance and we need to manage this fact to make best use of your time. Your Time Management System needs to handle each of these.
- Some work/tasks are urgent and others are not.
- Some work/tasks are important and others are not.
- Some work/tasks are tactical and some are longer term strategic.
- Some work/tasks are time sensitive and others just ideas that we want to keep but don’t need now. Time sensitive will go into our Task Management system. Ideas which are Independent of Time will go into our Project Management system.
- Some work/tasks can be done in a short Time Slice and others will need longer periods.
Sieve the Wheat from the Chaff Daily
We now know that not all tasks are created equal. We need to filter out the “wheat” from the larger mass of “chaff” so that we focus as effectively as possible on doing the most productive tasks.
First thing in the morning or at the end of the day in preparation for tomorrow, every Task that is scheduled for attention on that day, should be scanned for the following:
- Is this a task that needs to be particularly addressed for today? If not, it can be moved to whenever the next review period is. This might be tomorrow or it could be some later time. If you are continually deferring a particular task perhaps it can be deleted. Alternatively, perhaps it can be put in a Project without a specific time on it so that you get to it whenever you look at that Project.
- Is the priority for this Task properly set? Over Time, something that begins out as an Unimportant Task (like a birthday) becomes more Important as the date draws nearer. Alternatively, something that was a priority at some point in Time in your mind may cease to be as Important.
- We also want to classify items by their Size. Is this something that requires a comparatively Large amount of Time or something requiring only a Small amount of Time.
- Finally, if this is a Task that is no longer relevant we can bin it. This is likely to happen reasonably often as a change in events overtakes what you thought was important.
Having classified the tasks for the day, give some thought to the calendar events that are scheduled for the day and make sure that you have sufficient lead time to prepare for the task.
You should also give some thought to your Quiet Time of the day, when you are best at Big attention requiring things, and make sure you schedule that Quiet Time to undertake some Large, and preferably Important task, as your priority.
Having shuffled the tasks that might be done in the day into a priority order, you pop off the first task that you have and work on it until it is completed or you become stuck on how to continue it. If you become stuck, you may need to make several sub-tasks to put together a method of resolving the problem and schedule them with a Time at some point in the future.
When popping off a task, you would be best to pop off the next most Important task; either a Big or Small one. Ideally, you would continue to work through your Big and Important tasks but almost certainly you will come to a point where you have either run out of Quiet Time for the day or you have had enough of Big thinking tasks for the day.
When popping off tasks, you might like to alternate between Big and Small so that your brain gets some rest between doing Big tasks. If your Time is properly allocated, you are probably not going to get enough Time to do more than one or two Big tasks in a day. This is not a problem because there are generally only a few of them, even if you only do a few a week you are likely to run out of Big Important tasks fairly quickly anyway.
At some point in your day, chaos will descend on you and people and events will start to interrupt your train of thought. Or, as mentioned, your brain will have become tired of the heavy duty thinking tasks. Once you begin to lose control of your day, you can move over to executing less important tasks. Many of these are comparatively mindless operations that you can execute. It is also a time when you can hold meetings, in so far as possible, so that your prime thinking time is not wasted on a comparatively unproductive meeting.
So far we have realized:
- Not all tasks are equally important and require the same amount and type of resources.
- We should separate them accordingly to make the most productive use of our time.
- There are a lot of tasks and ideas to juggle and to remembers so we need software or a diary system to manage what we can’t keep in our heads.
We thought it might be useful to demonstrate a real example of a Time Management System to give you some idea of the way it operates for us.
A Profit Accelerator Team Member runs a multi-million-dollar business employing 20 staff and managing 960 residential apartments in 6 buildings. He sits on a University Board of Directors, chairs a Local Government Committee and is a Volunteer Mentor.
I think that we can agree that he is as busy as any small business operator is likely to be, making him a reasonable Case Study for Time Management. This is a breakdown of his Time Management tasks into the Pidgeon holes described above:
- 173 tasks that have been allocated by either an actual date or a time frame.
- 47 of them are ideally due today.
- 143 are due in the next 7 days.
- 3 are categorized as Big/Important/Today.
- 6 are Small/Important/Today.
- 3 are Big/Unimportant/Today.
- 23 are Small/Unimportant/Today. Interestingly, many of these are repetitive tasks done daily or weekly. For example, a daily check of the banking and a weekly payroll run.
- 6 of the items are Person-Sensitive and need to be discussed with the businesses CEO today. They are Pidgeon holed to be discussed when the CEO rings in for a daily phone conference and until then he won't worry about them.
- There are 69 projects. Some of them are Location Specific and ‘pop’ when he is at that location or talking to that person
- There are 718 ideas filed in the 69 Projects. It is clearly impossible to remember all these ideas in any sort of context but it is not necessary in this Time Management System.
- All this is available on the ToDoIst app on his phone, tablet, desktop and Apple Watch so is always ready and accessible. We look at ToDoIst next.
- Despite his workload, he finds that good Time Management lets him spend the better part of two days a week on Profit Accelerator and probably an average of ½ day a week on other volunteer activities.
- He attributes this largely to good Time Management using the tools and methods below.
It is one thing to talk about Time Management in the abstract and it is quite another thing for you to commence your Time Management program and get some experience. In order to demonstrate how simple this is to get control of your timetable; we will walk you through the use of the ToDoIst App that we presently use at Profit Accelerator. There are, without doubt, many other apps but this one has the advantage of being free, works on almost any device and is quite a powerful solution.
To give you some idea of what to look for in an electronic Time Management app, we dot point the attractions of ToDoIst below. This may help screen any other application that you have in mind.
- Is available on a desk top, mobile phone, major browsers, tablets and even Apple Watch.
- It can be shared with other people so that you can have your personal tasks and team tasks. When a team task has been completed, by an individual to whom it has been assigned in the app, all the other parties are notified.
- Comments can be added to a task indefinitely. These are date stamped automatically and allow a discussion to be carried out in relation to the work outlined by the task. This can be a useful memory jogger for the individual, but is even more important when the task is shared so that various people can contribute what they have done.
- Tasks and sub-tasks; we know that tasks are the work items that are scheduled to be carried out at some point in Time. The advantage of sub-tasks is that they can be collected under the "Parent" task and can be ticked off as completed individually. In ToDoIst, completed sub-tasks that are shared remain available but greyed out so that you can see how progress is going.
- In a similar way, Projects and sub-Projects can be constructed to hold ideas that may or may not be time sensitive. Tasks can be grouped into Projects and have time allocated to them so that time sensitive elements of a Project or sub-Project can be managed.
- ToDoIst allows the setting of recurring dates. You can pop the task, for example, each Monday or each 21st or each week day. Once an item is completed the first time, ToDoIst allows you to set up to 4 different priority levels for each task.
- You can send an email to ToDoIst and have it either drop into a Team inbox or a Project inbox.
- You can save emails from Gmail or Outlook into ToDoIst so that you can click on them to immediately visit the saved email.
- You can automatically import and export tasks from those applications using the sharing app.
- Having labelled a Task or Project, it can be retrieved by filtering for that tag specifically or some combination of tag. This is a handy application, for example, when you get a phone call from a staff member, you can label for that staff member and identify all the Tasks and Projects associated with them. While you are on the phone you can discuss whatever work priorities you have shared.
- There are several video's available on www.todoist.com and there are dozens of YouTube video's accessible.
As mentioned there are no doubt several other apps that are equally powerful but the purpose of this illustration is to indicate the sort of functionality that you might look for in any app and to give you a starting point with this app.
Let’s say that you have decided to test drive ToDoIst. We will now indicate more specifically how you would run this.
You can create Projects and Sub-projects in advance by spending a few minutes listing various major "Folders" that you would like to dump ideas into. Even if you do not have a comprehensive list, ToDoIst will allow you to create a new Project as things evolve.
Also, when setting up, if you have the Premium version, you could create Labels for various individuals and locations so that you can find all things relating to that person or location in one quick search no matter where they are in your Task and Project list. We want to create 4 labels - "Big/Important", "Small/Important", "Big", "Small". The intention of these labels is to tag tasks with their relative importance. .
ToDoIst allows you to create filters and the ones that we find most useful are a combination of “Today” and the Importance of a Project. By clicking one pre-set filter button, you can find all the "Big/Important/Today" assigned tasks grouped together.
Once a day you would go through all the tasks that appear under the “Today” heading. You revise these tasks to see if their importance has changed. As you make a change on one device, all your other devices are automatically synced so are always up to date.
When you start work for the day, you can click on the “Big/Important/Today” filter (for example) and show all the major projects that are candidates for your attention today.
During the day as your energy levels fall and/or you need a mental break, you can switch the filter to Small or less Important tasks.
It is easy to do something similar with email; a massive modern day time waster.
Consider creating several email folders:
- Trash - trash the not important the first time you read them so you never go back to them.
- Not Urgent/Important: maybe do a daily review of (4) and (5) and trash the now dead ones or move them to an 'Important' folder as they become time sensitive.
- Not Urgent/Not Important .
- Possible topic/project related: if an email does not require action but contains ideas, you could drag it into a folder for that project. If you use ToDoIst, you can put the entire email into your ToDoIst system.
The First Day of the Rest of Your Life
You no doubt have heard the old adage; today is the first day of the rest of your life.
If you don’t already have an effective Time Management System, I strongly encourage you to download the free ToDoIst app.
And just simply get started!
If you continue to just think about it, you may never get a system up and running and you will likely continue to be overworked. As soon as you begin to focus on your tasks sufficiently to be able to get them into ToDoIst you are likely to automatically become better at Time Management and you will then find that you have more Time to focus on important things than you anticipated.
A by-product is likely to be a reduction in the gut-wrenching feeling at night that you have forgotten something or that tomorrow will have an impossible number of tasks to get through.
If this material made sense to you and, even better, if you have implemented it and found your life was easier, why not share it with your staff?
You can collectively agree to recognize each other's "quiet time" with the proverbial "sock on the door" so you know not to disturb.
The team can also agree on the priorities and work together to knock them off. If you go down this track, you are very likely to find the Kanban technique is very helpful reaching this consensus.
There is a huge number of books on Time Management. Part of the reason that Profit Accelerator exists is to pull out the wisdom from these books and make it more readily available to you. However, if you are interested in further reading the Grand Daddy book in this field is "Getting Things Done" by David Allen. This book is so well known that many Time Management applications and books simply refer to the process they talk about as "GTD" shorthand for “Getting Things Done”.
The book is pre-digital and is a little outdated. It still talks about folders and paper but there can be no doubt that it has been very influential in theory and practice.
There are many YouTube videos on Time Management in general. In particular, the ToDoIst application that we case studied in this article has several of its own videos on YouTube.
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