As a Learning and Development Professional, time management is one of the most frequently requested training topics by Managers.   I have in the past gone ahead to deliver these training sessions, only for them to come back a year later requesting a ‘refresher’ session.  Over the past few years, I have been telling my delegates that this time management training is not going to work!  This usually gets their attention.

On Amazon.com, you will get 127,011 book search results when you type in ‘Time Management’. This is obviously a hot topic and as technology advances, it appears that our time management skills become more redundant and we feel the need to go to yet another time management workshop or read another book.

The Big Mistake: You Can’t Manage Time

I have since come to the conclusion that many of us have made a  big mistake with the terminology “Time Management” – think about it; can you really manage time? A simple definition of management or manage is “to direct or control the use of something”. This definition makes perfect sense when it comes to things like money, stocks or widgets, however, ‘Time’ is different. You really can’t control time because whether you like it or not, time does not wait for you, hence, the term “Time Management” becomes a misnomer.

There is therefore something fundamentally wrong when we think we can manage time. A typical time management training will encourage you to prepare a daily list, put it into your day planner or outlook calendar, crack on with your first task and then go on to the next. There was a time long ago when this was possible. In those days you didn’t have emails popping up because you didn’t work from a screen, you didn’t have text messages coming into your mobile device and your tablet and there was no Facebook or Whats-app to distract you.

The challenge we have and face these days is trying to use completely outdated methods to solve new challenges that we ‘knowledge workers’ are facing.  In the industrial age, majority of workers were making widgets, employed to do basic tasks which would usually be repetitive in nature. Managers of these employees would simply come on the scene to inspect, ensure that business was going according to plan and in some occasional situations, this regular routine might be disrupted.

Generally speaking, most Industrial age workers had clarity on their job description and also on their working hours.  Very rarely, (maybe apart from senior management) would a worker need to take work home. And very rarely would an organisation be able to reach a worker while at home.  In those days, it was practically impossible for a worker (even senior management) to be reached while on vacation. You might be wondering which era I am referring to; this is from the early 1900’s up to about end of the 1970’s.

Why You and I Are Time-Frustrated

I once heard a good explanation of what causes disappointment: “whenever you expect something to happen and it does not, you open yourself up for disappointment”.

Another way of putting this is “Expectation when not met, leads to disappointment”. It is really important to understand this when it comes to time management.  The typical time management advice involves thinking through your day and putting the things you want to get done in your calendar, as I have already mentioned above. Many people, however, tell me that they rarely get those things done and that over time, this leads to disappointment which can progress into frustration. This is because after reading a book, going to the training session/workshop, they most likely thought “Aha! Now I finally get this time management thing!

The reality is, however, that eventually time wins because time is always moving and you are the one struggling to keep up!

What we fail to acknowledge is that since the 80’s technology has created so many distractions that even if we want to stay focused, we are challenged.

Multitasking is Not the Solution

Maybe you attempt to deal with these challenges by multitasking; you work on your desktop, going through your emails while talking to an employee who reports to you. We’ve all done it- you dip in and out and catch the last few words they say just to keep the conversation flowing, you only realise that you weren’t fully listening when you ask them a question and they reply “But I just told you the answer to that question”! Ouch!!

Although I too am always tempted to multitask, studies from Stanford tell us that “media multitaskers pay a mental price as Professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues discovered after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests. What they found was that those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.  (You can download the study from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Type in Cognitive control in media multitaskers –Aug 29 2009 edition in the search bar).

The problem with multitasking is that you can rarely be as focused as you need to be on any one thing. Jeremy Hunter and J Scherer go into more detail about this in Chapter 11 in the book The Drucker Difference’. From their research, they conclude that “multitasking damages your productivity, your relationships and your brain.”

Another problem with some old fashioned methods e.g. ‘list time management method’ is that it was set up to fail right from the beginning because most people try to plan 80-90% of their day.  In today’s world this is rarely going to be accomplished if you are a knowledge worker, so what then, is the solution?

The Suggested Solution: ‘Time Allocation

I have since come up with a simple solution, although it may seem the same on the surface, the terminology that we are going to use is the key to understanding how this works. Rather than calling what we are trying to accomplish “Time Management”, why not call it “Time Allocation” because in reality, that is what we are trying to do. The key to understanding this approach is coming to realise that you are constantly in control of where you choose to spend, invest or waste your time – but the key understanding is that ‘you are responsible for that choice’.

5 Ways How to Make Time Allocation Work

1. Take Responsibility

The first essential ingredient to making time allocation work is that you need to take responsibility for how you spend your time. Many times, we blame other things and lament that we just don’t have the time. When we learn to take responsibility for our time, we will no longer empower other circumstances and blame situations around us for our lack of time.  This is a very important fundamental fact. We must realise that when we are faced with any situation, we have the ability to choose our response. Part of being an adult is knowing that we have that ability. With this in mind, the remaining guidelines will fall into place.

2. Have clear answers to the bigger questions:

You will never know if you are allocating time to what is important to you unless you have an idea of where you as a person are going.  With this in mind, it is therefore fundamental that you take time to ask yourself some higher level questions that will serve as a compass for you.  Below are some questions which could give you a better sense when making decisions to know what is of importance to you and how you can more easily make decisions on where to allocate your time:

a. What is your vision?

Ask yourself: What vision do I have for my life? What kind of impact do I want to have in the world? What kind of business do I want to build? Where do I see myself in 20 years?  As I mentioned, these are high level questions that we need to allocate time to answer as they provide clear direction.

b. What is your personal mission?

Similar to the previous, ask yourself: What am I passionate about? What do I want to see changed in the world?  My own personal mission is “to seek and do what is best for others by adding value to their lives and business’.  Your Mission can be broad or very specific but this, is what gives your life purpose.

c. What are your Core Values?

I have written about Core Values on an organisational level and the same will apply on a personal level. In fact, if you are a CEO, business owner or entrepreneur, your business should be an extension of your personal core values as the business’ core values are only as good as the people that run the business! This will also help in making time allocation decisions when you are faced with decisions which may involve you sacrificing time, re-allocating time etc because you will simply be following through on living out your core values.

For example, if one of your core life values is integrity and you made a decision to meet with someone on a certain day and on that day you are feeling tired or are simply too busy, for the sake of integrity you might still deny yourself in order to follow through because ultimately, you want to be known as a person of integrity.

3. Set Goals

Many of us are familiar with the concept of setting goals, and yes, it is still helpful to set yourself SMART goals (meaning that they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time bound). The time bound element can be broken down into the following areas:

a. Long-term Goals

As the world changes, the word ‘long-term’, doesn’t seem as long as it used to be. Some now consider 3-5 years long-term because there are so many changes taking place at any one time. I would suggest that ‘long-term’ be based on what you consider to be long depending on the specific goal and the conditions that you can observe around that goal which may directly affect it, e.g., is it an area that changes rapidly? For example, in the area of software technology, if you want to be teaching a particular software programme for the next 10 years, this might not be realistic since changes in software are so rapid and in 10 years the software may be long outdated.

Long-term goals should be set in those areas you want to see achieved over a good span of your life.  E.g. Start a business within the next x years, give x amount of money away to charity over x number of years, hire x number of employees over x period, take my business public within the next x years.

A good way of ensuring that you are planning long-term for all areas of your life will be to think of these six areas: Faith, Fitness, Family, Friends, Finances, Future.

b. Yearly Goals

“Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.” This famous quote by Bill Gates teaches us that unless we do the hard higher level planning, we will try to do so much in one year and yet most likely not feel like we are moving forward.  What makes ‘Time allocation’ work is that with this method and with the overall vision of your life declared, you can now begin to allocate your time to ensure that what you do on a regular basis is in line with where you want to go.

The yearly goal is where you want to start giving yourself something to focus on, with tangible outcomes. Examples:

  • Generate x amount of profit for my business
  • Go on two vacations with my family
  • Work on and accomplish projects x, y, and z
  • Write a book
  • Hire a ‘x’ for my business
  • Begin the process of mentoring my successor
  • Be more generous by giving away x amount of money
  • Have date night with my spouse once a week
  • Take my children out for a one-to-one catch up once a month
  • Generate x amount in sales revenue this year

These are specific examples that you can track and use to keep yourself in check; by doing these, they keep you aligned to your long-term goals, overall vision and mission.  And now we are beginning to create areas that need our time.

c. Quarterly Goals

The quarterly goal concept helps especially with certain projects that you might be working on. Just as businesses tend to work in quarters, you can align your own life in this way.  In his book Three Big Questions for a Frantic FamilyPatrick Lencioni does a fantastic job teaching families how they can be structured in a more effective way by having a strategy and focus for every 3 months.  The quarterly goals are to help you and your teams have a clear focus and priority. It usually takes around 30 to 90 days to form new habits so the 90 day plan or quarterly goal gives room for you to break your yearly goal into stages.

d. Monthly Target

Depending on the nature of the goal, monthly tasks are a good way to begin the process of using your time in more efficient ways.  A lot of the time, we talk about the goal but what we fail to ask sometimes is the simple question: ‘What do I need to be doing to achieve this goal’.  Example, if the goal for the year is to write a book, then maybe your quarterly goal is to have a first rough draft written.

You then figure out roughly how many words you need to write e.g.  90,000. Therefore your monthly target is 30,000 words.

This becomes an important part of the process as you can see that in this area of work, we have a priority focus for the month. Your responsibility is to do this in all the areas mentioned above.

4. Weekly Review and Weekly Planning

The weekly planning is potentially the most important skill that you are going to work on till it becomes a habit. Failure to do this will create only more frustration and challenges. The planning process involves looking at your vision, mission and goals and then allocating the appropriate time for activities that help you towards achieving these.  These are sometimes called ‘Rocks’, taken from Stephen Covey’s analogy.

Allocating time for planning itself will be the key to making this work. Blocking out about two hours (if not more) to first review the previous week and then schedule your next week in all areas mentioned will give you a sense of balance and control.  These are some of the reasons why we feel stressed, because we feel like we are not in control.

i. Some of you may be thinking “I have done this and it doesn’t work”!

At this point, I know that some of you reading this will be saying, “I have scheduled my week and sometimes that’s when the worst things happen and I feel even more guilty about time wasted”…Please continue to read as I will be addressing this below.

Thinking ahead and anticipating what could happen needs to be carefully thought through. As you know, no two weeks are the same so the weekly planning should take into consideration some of the out-of-ordinary weeks/circumstances.

ii. Don’t over Schedule 

The problem sometimes with your schedule might be that you are too optimistic.  Most of us rarely have the same day so we should start getting into the habit of scheduling just around 60% of our time. If you did this weekly, it would give you the flexibility to move things around and accommodate the unforeseen situations that occur.

Again, ‘Rocks’ are those important tasks and appointments that need to be in your calendar.  These are the things that you know need to happen on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.  But in this case, it is aligned with the Vision, so it should inspire you and remind you of its importance.  Your responsibility is to allocate time to things that matter to you and that will help you achieve your goals

iii. Don’t just plan, Review

The weekly review becomes the second most important skill and habit that needs to be developed when it comes to time allocation.  The reason being that your motivation is most likely to fade as aspects of life hit you. Therefore the process of the weekly review is designed to help you re-focus and be re-aligned back to your ultimate vision, mission and goal.  Many authors have written about this such as Stephen Covey and David Allen. The review involves you looking briefly at what you’ve accomplished and where you are on the journey towards your ultimate destination. It becomes a tool that will enhance your emotional intelligence as you become more self-aware about who you are and whether you are really living out your values.

5. The Daily Agenda: Focus

The rubber hits to road with the daily agenda and as author John Maxwell says, ‘The secret of your success is determined by your daily agenda. Hopefully, you can see that without the vision, mission and long-term goal setting, your day to day activities may not be leading you in the direction that you ultimately want to go. In some situations, your daily activity is taking you nowhere because you yourself don’t know where you are going.

What should be on your daily agenda?

I recommend you have these 4 P’s on your agenda that will help you move closer to your ultimate goal and help you deal with the challenges you face today:

a. Priorities

The first thing that you may want to be constantly focused on is ‘what are your priorities right now?’  The answer to this question is always ‘moving’ so you have to check whether the task is urgent and important or not urgent but important.

With this in mind, your days will change and depending on your role, you might not have a strict routine, however, since I am recommending a weekly review and planning time, hopefully, you will be able to allocate your top priorities in your calendar.

b. Personal

It is paramount that you allocate time for yourself- for your own welfare and well-being, e.g. resting, leisure, regular exercise, thinking, reflection time and scripture reading and time for prayer or meditation if you are into that sort of thing.

Since your body is not a machine, it needs daily attention, so, allocate your time every day.

c. People

Part of what helps us through life are our relationships with others. These include our spouse, children, friends and business associates so we need to be asking ourselves on a daily basis: “Who am I going to connect with today”? The next question should be one asked consistently on a quarterly, monthly and weekly basis: “who should I arrange to spend time with”? People are busy, so I have found that the earlier you book quality time with them, the more you are likely to meet up. Schedule it in your calendar and send them an invite. This can be an ongoing process.  If you need to spend time with certain people on a regular basis, allocate a reoccurring date in the calendar. This will avoid distraction and alleviate some of your people problems

d. Productivity

Productivity is basically the impact and results we want to achieve with and through our work. First we can divide our work into three key areas:

i. Process

Think about the tasks that you need to do on a regular basis, that is, daily, weekly or monthly. An example could be reports, meetings, items that you purchase frequently or balancing the books, going through emails, reading articles or writing materials. Turn these tasks and activities into processes so that they get attended to regularly and put the time and date when they are supposed to occur in your calendar. This therefore makes your weekly planning a bit easier as you already know what needs to go into your weekly schedule.

ii. Projects

I define a project as a series of more than one task having a beginning and an end.  With this definition, many of our day-to-day activities will fall into this category. In fact, from this definition, our quarterly goal is more likely going to be a series of tasks, which makes it a project. Breaking things down into tasks gives you the essential things that you need to do to ensure that you accomplish your goal.  Doing this helps you to begin to define your priorities on a daily and weekly basis.  In your weekly plan, you can now, ahead of time, block out 2 hour slots for projects, this way you can create some level of structure, you can then choose which project you want to spend that time on.

iii. Tasks

A ‘task’ is the specific action that needs to be done. It is the ‘thing to do right now’. Eventually, all activity should be defined as tasks – e.g. Write the report, write the blog post, call John, book the meeting, make client calls, buy milk, book my travel, write copy for the brochure etc.

Most of us in today’s complex world are struggling with this aspect of too many tasks to choose from at any one point in time. You bundle up a series of tasks and get overwhelmed because you don’t know where to start. You are not clear if the task at hand is urgent or important, you are not sure if it is a process (meaning that it is something that you should be allocating time for on a regular basis). You are not clear on who else could be doing this and it all gets muddled up. In addition to this, you are not consciously aware of four major hindrances that we all face on a daily basis that is working against us from being more time effective. These are things that STOP us and I have coined this as an acronym for Self, Technology, Other, and People.

How to S.T.O.P those distractions

In the book ‘First things First by  Stephen Covey, Roger and Rebecca Merrill share a fascinating story about a consultant who hired a Horticulturist for his new apartment. This consultant, however, really wanted a garden that took care of itself and they share that the Horticulturist had to pull him aside saying: “Where there is no Gardener, there is no garden”.

One of the main reasons why many of today’s time management training don’t seem to work is because there is an assumption that the scheduled tasks stay in place.  Just as weeds begin to grow every day no matter how beautiful your garden might look, in the same way, stuff happens no matter how neat your planning might be.

Knowing this means we have to embrace a more flexible and fluid process that acknowledges and respects this.  As I have mentioned earlier, “expectation not met leads to disappointment”.  Many leaders and managers are disappointed because they had a long list of things to accomplish and only managed to get through 2 or 3 items from their list.  The question you should be asking yourself is: “since I know that due to the nature of things around me I only accomplish 2 or 3 things daily, what 2 or 3 things should I focus on accomplishing today”?

From this, after doing your weekly planning, (which I know some of you have done in the past) you need to be aware of the distractions you are going to face just to get those 2 or 3 things done and this is where knowing about STOP can help you create strategies around this.

1. Self

Whether you know it or not, in many cases, you are your greatest obstacle! We procrastinate, we don’t spend enough time asking ourselves those deeper questions about where we are heading overall in life. We complain, but do nothing about it. We are not clear on what our priorities are.

To deal with the self-issue, I recommend going through the high level questions above and in addition, getting people to hold us accountable- a coach or a group of friends so that  we can stay on track doing the things that we want to do even though sometimes we don’t feel like doing them.

2. Technology

Technology can definitely help us to be more time effective and productive but it can also be a major distraction if you don’t take charge and create some barriers for yourself.

Many of the Managers I train tell me how they are so addicted to checking their email every time they see an email pop up at the bottom of the screen.  I have sometimes had to switch things off so that I can focus. Many of us to some extent, have become addicted to checking our mobile phones on a regular basis and these distractions are not helping us to focus on the few things that we need to get done daily.

Removing, switching off or restricting yourself from answering to technology is an essential skill that is going to become priceless in the near future.  We will begin to see more retreats and country holiday homes using ‘No access to the internet’ as a selling point as we are going to realise that ‘time to think’ is becoming more difficult and those that take the time to do this will be the influencers and leaders of the future.

3. Other Distractions

There are many other things that will distract you, some you can anticipate, while others you can’t.  The advice is to not waste your energy on things you can’t change. If you are working in a busy environment, an open planned office or there is construction work going on where you work, don’t allow yourself to get emotionally distracted.

Remember, take responsibility to either remove yourself from that area or invest in a good pair of ear plugs! Some offices like to have the TV on, an idea could be to turn your desk away (if possible), if you can’t persuade the rest to switch it off.  If you are the boss or leader why not call a meeting and discuss with the team some of the things you have in the office that distract you from doing your work?  Note: I am not talking about removing things that encourage relaxation, this is essential for our well-being; I am referring to things that distract.

4. People

Apart from yourself, one of your major challenges with distraction is going to be ‘People’.  And since leaders are to serve other people, it could become a confusing decision when to say ‘no’ to people and when to change your plans for other people.  Knowing what is important and urgent is the only criteria you can use to confidently decide when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a request that is taking you away from what you have previously planned.

Since we are dealing with people, this is not an easy thing. If I am working on an important project that has a deadline costing a lot of money but then my son or daughter needs me because they are sick and I need to take them to the hospital, the decision is a no brainer. I will drop the project and take my child to the hospital.  But not all decisions are that black and white and we are bound to make mistakes.

From the ideas above, you are encouraged to allocate people-time separate from productivity-time and this means that you’ve considered that there is a time when your main objective is to get with people.

If you are being distracted by people constantly, you could create the habit of them first coming up with an answer to their question before seeing you, you can also get them to give you a scale of how urgent it is. E.g. Is it a crisis, it there a penalty, deadline or cost? You could ask; ‘If I don’t answer you now, what will happen?’

If you are being approached by someone you work for i.e. senior manager or your employer then you can always clarify first if what they are asking you to do is urgent and let them know what you were working on.

Saying ‘No’ is one of the most difficult things for many of us.  I listened to a TED Talk recently by Conor Neil titled: ‘The Discipline of Finishing’ and he said ‘one of the reasons why Warren Buffet is one of the wealthiest men is because he has the ability to say ‘no’ more often than others’.  To put this in context, the reason why we are encouraged to say ‘no’ is because we want to stay focused on the great work and not just the good work and some self-discipline and conviction is needed to get there.

To Conclude

So, in summary, what have we learned about the concept of ‘time management’? We have learned that we talk about it a lot and seek it out very regularly, however, it is somewhat of a misnomer! We cannot manage time because we cannot control it! What we are and can be in control of is ourselves.

We have learned that ‘Time Allocation’ is a more effective concept to what we are all trying to achieve!  Allocating our time alleviates frustrations and manages our expectations. It allows us to take responsibility for how we spend our time and what we give priority to which makes us as effective and efficient as we desire to be. Time allocation helps us to answer the ‘big questions’ and set SMART goals which enables us plan for success. Time allocation helps us achieve a clear focus and eliminate all those distractions which come at us from every angle.

Why do your time management activities never work? Maybe it is because you are trying to manage the wrong thing ‘Time’.

Let’s start to allocate time and then self-manage ourselves to be present at those time slots to accomplish what we scheduled to do.