41 practical and quick ways to get on top of that mountain of work and free up time for the important things that really matter
By Dr Bill Robb, PhD, DEd
We are all required to do more and more with less and less. This is taking its toll on our productivity, our health and unfortunately on family life. This is a great pity because over 20 years of doing face-to-face time management workshops I've found that many of us are making easily avoidable mistakes that cost us dearly in time ? and money.
Time is all we have to achieve our dreams and to succeed. Time also is the key ingredient in enjoying our family and life. This report will help you overcome the tyranny of "too much to do and too little time to do it in". I've chosen the seven biggest mistakes and offered 41 ways for avoiding them.
I suggest reading about one mistake per day ? don't rush. Think about the suggestions and figure out a way to apply them in your office or home. You'll be pleasantly surprised if you apply just a few of the 41 suggestions. ALL SUCCESS!!
MISTAKE NO. 1 Not getting clear what you want
Just think how often we interact with people. We have appointments and meetings. We give presentations and attend conferences. We ask people to do things for us. We write letters to them and write reports for them and make telephone calls to them.
In all these interactions, and more, the main reason we lose valuable time is not getting clear what we want. I know this sounds so simple that you may not see the value in this suggestion so here are just a few examples.
1. You are unhappy in your current job. So you're going to ask the boss for a change. If you go in and just talk about how unhappy you are you'll come across as complaining ? you give a problem without a solution and the boss switches off and you don't get what you want.
2. As a boss, you ask one of your employees to write a report on the health and safety standards in the factory. If you don't tell the employee that you want an excuse to spend the $30,000 that's left in the health and safety budget, they'll go away and spend three weeks detailing everything! I know because it happened. So all that work and you still don't have your excuse.
3. You chair a certain meeting. Someone is waffling off the point (there is always one ? isn't there). You try to bring him back on track and he says, "What I'm saying is important". You don't think it is and a mini-argument develops. If you don't have the purpose of the meeting clear, it's very difficult to make judgements about the relevance of any contribution and your meetings take longer than they should.
Do you see what I mean? Getting clear what you want is a compass to keep you on track. It will help you shorten reports and letters because you can get to the point more quickly. Similarly when you know what you want the time you take on telephone calls will reduce because once you've achieved your objective you can politely end the call.
From now on just take 30 seconds to ask yourself, "What do I want from this interaction and can I get it any easier or quicker way?"
MISTAKE NO. 2 Not doing enough to escape from meetings
If you're like most human beings your biggest bugbear with time management is MEETINGS!!! Often we find it difficult to break the habit ? we can't see how to save time when faced with meeting after meeting.
Please forgive me being so blunt about you not doing enough to escape. I'm being a little controversial to try and help. Let's take the case where you think you don't have choice ? you have to attend a meeting because your boss or client expects it!
But do you really have to attend? Look at some of these ideas.
4. Could you not explain in detail how you could do something else that would be a valuable help to the team/department instead of squandering the time in the meeting? Will the boss really refuse when he/she knows you'll be giving value and won't just be skiving off?
5. If your request is refused could you not ask to be excused half way through or get permission to attend half way through? Again, you'd have a genuine reason to show how you can do more to help your boss or client or department in the time when you won't attend.
6. If someone has to be at that meeting does it have to be you? Could you find someone who could go in your place? It could be a colleague ? and you'll help her out with something. It could be a junior colleague who would find the experience exciting and a chance for personal development Naturally you'd brief them properly and inform the Chair.
7. Even when you personally have to attend a meeting there are things you can do to rescue your time. For example, if you're fairly senior you could offer to compile the agenda and even chair the meeting. If this will save a few hours, why not? You could participate effectively by talking only when you can contribute to the objective, by politely asking people to get to the point, by intervening when people are arguing pointlessly or by asking if people are ready to make a decision.
8. Of course you want to be professional but if your boss or client doesn't accept any of the above, take some other work with you and do it in the meeting (even if it's thinking about something). Be careful and pretend to participate now and again by making a comment or asking a question.
MISTAKE NO. 3 Allowing reports to take over
You know what it's like. You spend weeks preparing a report and no one reads it properly. Or you've done a brilliant job with the research and the layout and someone says, "Bill, 'received' is spelt wrongly on page 64". To take back some control over our working lives we need to control the way we deal with reports.
9. Think of a report you're required to write and ask the boss/client if you can scrap it. Show the boss what you'll do in the time saved. Please do try this because some bosses don't have time to think about the value of every report. So by not having to do a report you help yourself and your organisation.
10. When you hear the word "report" get into the habit of thinking, "Is there another way I could get the client/boss the information they require?" Perhaps a short memo or oral report would have more impact and you could get them the information more quickly. Remember bosses don't want reports ? they want information to help them make decisions.
11. If scrapping a report is not allowed, ask for the frequency to be reduced. For example, just imagine how great it would be if you could submit a report once per quarter instead of once per month. Just ask ? you'll be successful 50% of the time.
12. If a report has to be written, find someone who would welcome the opportunity. An experienced assistant could draft an outline. You could commission an outside person to do it. Perhaps you have a colleague you could trade with. He may enjoy and be good at writing reports. You could take on a task he doesn't like or at which he is not as good as you are.
13. Ensure you fully understand the report brief and what exactly you have to do? Ask the person commissioning the report WHY he wants it. If you can get a sound answer to this question you'll free-up tons of time. Knowing "why" enables you to use your initiative ? to find quicker ways - to get the information required.
14. Watch out for the "take home trap". Because it's nothing to do with facing people directly we tend to put off our report writing and end up taking it home. To avoid this trap select a day and time slot in the diary and budget, say, two hours for writing the report. Do whatever it takes to meet this time limit.
15. Remember the 80/20 rule. You'll have achieved 80% perfection in the time you take to prepare the second draft. After that, get another person to read it and correct errors and then submit it. This is not an excuse for poor presentation but time spent labouring over every word and every issue about the cover and layout is not time-effective.
By now you'll be getting into the swing of finding ways to protect your time. Keep thinking ? that's the answer!
MISTAKE NO. 4 Under-estimating the time-guzzling nature of telephone calls
There's no doubt that most of us underestimate the time they spend on the telephone by about ONE-THIRD. You know yourself that a five-minute call can turn into a twenty-minute one. The telephone is great ? it saves us attending meetings but at the same time if uncontrolled it swallows our time. So although the seven tips in this lesson are easy to follow ? you must start applying them if you're not doing so already.
16. Gently and politely keep bringing the person you're speaking to back to what you want or to what he/she wants from you. Naturally, you won't be rude about this. Allow 30 seconds of social chat and then say something like "Sounds like you had a good time in Spain Bill. Could I ask for your help on??" Or "Hi John. How are you keeping? [then after the response] "Listen, would you be able to meet on??"
17. Have necessary data/notes at hand before starting the call. Not only does this save time, it gives others the signal that you're organised. If you're telephoning to make an appointment with someone, have your diary ready and mark up the dates you want.
18. Set time limits for longer calls. Tell people what this limit is right at the start of the conversation. After the usual brief social introduction, say something like, "Bill, I need only three minutes of your time" or "Jane have you got two minutes?"
19. End the call politely once you have achieved what you set out to achieve. Say something like, "Thanks Sue, I won't keep you any longer". "Thanks for your time George, it was good talking to you ? have to rush ? see you next week at?". I know this sounds robot-like and rude, but with just a little practice it becomes a natural and professional way of doing business.
20. Get people's direct numbers and avoid the delay of having to go through reception. Also, ask for peoples' mobile telephone numbers: if you can't get them on a landline you can usually reach them on their mobile telephones. Most senior people and most decision-makers get into the office early and leave late, so telephone before 08.30 or after 17.00.
21. Be very pleasant to receptionists and personal assistants. Of course you would do this anyway because it's the right thing to do. However, be extra nice. Introduce yourself, take five seconds for small talk, explain your problem and say "please" and "thank you". A simple "please" can save you days when you gain access to a decision maker.
22. Every week ask a colleague to take your calls for an hour so you can get something else done. You can reciprocate some other day or do some other task for that colleague that he/she hates doing.
MISTAKE NO. 5 Under-using or over-using technology
How would we survive without our technology? Imagine how slow everything would be and how much "donkey work" we'd still be doing. Just think of the time we'd waste if we had to write complex reports without the word processor!
However, as you know, this wonderful technology can quickly enslave us if we don't watch out. It speeds things up and if we allow it, it can rule our lives. So here are some thoughts on using technology to free up our time ? time we can use to improve the quality of our lives.
23. Use an answer machine to filter telephone calls and take messages. It is now good business practice to do this. However, get back to people as quickly as possible. Get the latest model that allows you to retrieve messages and change your message remotely from any telephone.
24. Keep your mobile telephone switched off most of the time and DON'T give out your number to everyone. Having your mobile switched on means that anyone with your number can contact you anytime, anywhere. This creates an open invitation and people WILL contact you - even with trivial matters. If you're worried that people can't cope without you this signals a need to develop your people more.
25. Double your productivity by using a dictaphone. If you've never used one your own voice sounds strange at first but it takes only a week or so to get used to. Use the dictaphone for minutes of meetings, short notes when you're travelling (but not driving, of course) and for first drafts of lengthy letters. Get someone else to transcribe the tapes.
26. Make sure you know and your staff knows how to get maximum benefit from the equipment you have. For example, modern telephone systems allow you to do all sorts of time saving things like storing most-used numbers. Photocopiers enable you to collate, staple and even put top sheets on an existing document.
27. Move even more to electronic storage and delivery. The more data/paperwork we have digitised the quicker we can search it. You can set up a mail merge and print letters to 1000 people (personalised) while you get on with something else. Ask people if electronic versions of reports and invoices are acceptable? They are becoming more so ? and indeed- preferred.
28. Don't waste time reading instruction manuals for everyday domestic and office technological items. They are almost always badly written and too complicated. Get help ? now! Find someone (a friend, a child, a neighbour or professional) who can explain things to you ? even pay them ? it's worth it
MISTAKE NO. 6 Failing to organise the mass of information
There is no doubt that we humans are suffering from information overload at work and in our social lives. We're suffering from over-choice and struggling to make sense of all the data pumped at us all day, every day. I know from hard experience that you'll find the following eight suggestions brilliant!
29. Educate people by explaining that they don't have to send you reports/data/newsletter any more. Cut down on your subscriptions ? even free ones and bin newsletters/magazines unopened. Do you really need to read the newspaper everyday?
30. Store information on CD-ROM or floppy disc and store documents electronically for fast transfer and faster searching. Contract a company to do the scanning for you ? it's too labour intensive for you or your staff.
31. Devise a filing system that works for you. It's difficult to describe any one useful system because it depends on what you need. As an example here's what I have: A file for each workshop or product such as Effective Time Management, Effective Presentation Skills, Effective Leadership and about twenty others; a file for each client; a file for each administrative task such as accounts, expenses, and invoices; a file for each major supplier; a file for each current project. Even though many of my projects are short term, each has its own A4 folder into which all relevant paper is placed.
32. Keep vital family/domestic information in one folder and keep that folder in one place. Just think about the time we waste looking for things such as insurance policies, bank account numbers, loan details, vehicle registrations, roadworthy certificates, licences and so on.
33. This week, plan in your diary, just one hour to go through and discard stuff you don't need. Do the same for next week and the week after that. One hour a week and you'll save half a day!
34. Compile your own directories. Most of us will do this to some extent for say telephone number and addresses. But it's surprising how much time you'll save if you keep even more numbers such as those of main contacts in other departments and supplier companies. Also, do this for domestic purposes - local cinemas, friendly trades people, airport, train station, hotel venues and the children's school.
35. For each project you have on the go (and a project could be anything - work and domestic - produce a project summary top sheet. This top sheet will keep a running record of the last action taken and what you have to do next. This is great for people picking up where you left off and for you to transfer items to your "to do" list.
In the last part of this report we'll get into some real good stuff ? how to use your subconscious mind to help you overcome PROCRASTINATION.
MISTAKE NO. 7 Not fighting procrastinating hard enough
All the techniques in the world and all the fancy, expensive time management systems won't help if our subconscious sabotages you. Procrastination is a terrible subconscious barrier so let's learn how to overcome it.
Procrastination is intentionally, habitually or unconsciously putting off something that you KNOW should be done today. In this short report we can't go into the many reasons why we humans procrastinate so I'll get straight into seven very useful "tricks".
36. Trick your subconscious by saying, "I'll do just five-minute's worth ? that's all just five minutes then I'll stop". Guess what happens? Once you've started you feel okay about continuing. Keep taking small bearable steps with breaks in between. This is usually not time-effective, but if this is what's needed to help you overcome procrastination, why not?
37. Just begin. The difficulty is in beginning. Often it's the thinking of what to do and how to do it that causes the inertia. Once you've done that it's easy. Start anywhere ? start with anything. Do a table of contents of a report, for example.
38. Remind yourself that it will get worse ? generate some positive fear. This is what happens by default anyway. We keep putting off until the fear of negative consequences is greater that the fear of doing the task ? then we act in a hurry with all the accompanying stress. Don't wait for the real fear of your boss's telephone call asking why the project isn't complete. Keep reminding yourself that unpleasant tasks do not become more pleasant with time.
39. Ask for help ? as early on as possible. Seek assistance and consult with your manager and colleagues and anyone else. Why struggle when a comment or suggestion from another could give you the key to overcome inertia and save hours?
40. Do the difficult things first. If you do the smallest but most difficult thing first that gets it over and done and the rest seems easier. For example, if you're doing a series of staff appraisals start with the ones that make you feel a bit uneasy because you'll have to ask someone to improve their performance.
41. Visualise, as much as you can, how good you'll feel. Just imagine the relief you'll feel when the budget for the year is completed, the accounts are with the accountants or when the long report is submitted.
For 20 years Dr Bill has helped people and organisations get better results by using their time to maximum advantage. He's passionate about saving and making time because it's all we have to achieve our goals and dreams. Bill tells it like it is. Learn more about taking back control of your time and life at www.mytimemanagementsecrets.com
Copyright (c) 2004 Dr William Robb Electronic publishing permitted but publication in print prohibited without written permission
For 20 years Dr Bill has helped people and organisations get better results by using their time to maximum advantage. He's passionate about saving and making time because it's all we have to achieve our goals and dreams. Bill tells it like it is. Learn more about taking back control of your time and life at http://www.mytimemanagementsecrets.com/