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 developed 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, which can grow your business up to 16 times faster and 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.
To be continued....
Where to now?
- This is just an introduction to time management. If you would like to read the rest of the article, click here Small Business Time Management Intro
- Profit Accelerator has a mission to distill out the best business wisdom and make it available to small business operators in a fashion that lets you quickly take advantage of best practices. Click here for more about Profit Accelerator
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