Time: Harnessing the Elusive Resource

ISE Magazine -Volume 49: Number 04
By Stephen C. Harper

 Making common sense common practice is the key professionally and personally

While managers are responsible for managing an organization’s resources in the most effective and efficient manner, it is clear that time is the most unique resource.

Time cannot be created or saved. Money can be raised and placed in a money market account or other investments. People who have high potential may be assigned various developmental projects while waiting for a promotion. Equipment and products can be placed in inventory until they are used or sold. Information can be saved until it is needed. Yet you cannot add sand to the hourglass. All you can do is make the best use of what you have. If you don’t use it, it is gone forever. As management guru Peter Drucker noted, “Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed nothing else can be managed.”

Can time really be managed?

Numerous authorities have provided their own frameworks and sets of specific tips for managing time. Yet time management is the farthest thing from rocket science because most of it is common sense. Unfortunately, for most people, it is not common practice.

Yet in 2007 a Galileo-type event occurred that would shake people’s views on time management to the core. That is when Timothy Ferriss launched his book The 4-Hour Workweek. Ferriss’ approach to how one should spend his or her personal and professional time truly was radical, especially when it comes to trying to find a way to stay away from the office so people there will not be able to see how you actually spend your time using his techniques to create a four-hour workweek. Yet the true value of Ferriss’ book rests in three areas. First, it is full of valuable insights and ideas. Second, it nudges the reader off center by making some extreme suggestions. The third point may be the most important and shocking. He states, “Just a few words about time management: Forget all about it.”

You may think that his third point negates reading the rest of this article. Yet he makes a crucial claim that is an integral part of this article. We cannot manage time … it is a given. The same point was made by author, businessman and educator Steven Covey years earlier when he observed, “Time management is really a misnomer – the challenge is not to manage time, but to manage ourselves.” Managing one’s self involves dropping certain habits and creating new ones. Aristotle noted: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”

This article incorporates this observation by focusing on how people need to change how they use their time rather than seeking more time.

 Investing time in the right areas

If you cannot put more sand in the hourglass, then you need to free up time to do the important things by reducing the time you spend on less productive activities and eliminating the things that rob you of time you never will have again.

Piercing decisional fog

Eisenhower’s system, enables managers not to fall prey to the “tyranny of the urgent,” when less important but urgent activities, or those in category three, pre-empt category one activities. Activities with low importance and low urgency are placed in what Eisenhower called category four. Many activities are often long-standing habits with limited value. Managers should minimize or discontinue them because every moment spent on a category four activity robs managers of time that could tackle more valuable activities.

This system’s greatest strength may be its ability to identify and commit to activities that aren’t urgent but that are very important for long-term success. Managers need to make a deliberate effort to identify and schedule these category two activities because it is easy to put them off to “someday.”

The irony here is that most category two activities come due before most companies and managers are ready for them. They are things that could have been done and should have been done but weren’t. Guilt and regret come when you know you should do something and don’t.

Habit change: Produce more by discontinuing time wasters

Kurt Lewin’s “three-step change” model and the “five-actions for change” model also provide useful frameworks for determining how to invest time.

Lewin, a psychologist, recognized that most change efforts fail because people just go ahead and introduce the change. He noted that before you can introduce the new and desired behavior you need to “unfreeze” or discontinue the existing behavior so it does not compete with the new behavior. Lewin’s three-step process starts with unfreezing. Then you introduce the change before you proceed to the third step, freezing or reinforcing the new behavior so it is internalized and becomes the new habit.

The five-actions for change model encourages managers to identify what needs to be discontinued, reduced, continued, increased/improved and initiated/created. This model has similarities with the three-box model and Lewin’s model because it recognizes that to move forward, the organization will need to reduce and discontinue certain things deliberately.

Timely perspectives

Many people think managing their time involves creating a “to do” list. Yet their “to do” lists tend to be just lists. By not having the activities screened, prioritized and scheduled, they often tend to remain just lists.

Successfully managing one’s time requires two other lists: a stop-doing list and a don’t-do list. Randy Pausch, best known for his insightful and emotional Last Lecture, encouraged people to start their day by doing those tasks. That path gives you a sense of control over your day rather than spending the day dreading or postponing those things to the next day and beyond.

Starting your day with attacking the things you dread, even if they are relatively small, could be the first new habit you create.

The need to focus attention on one thing at a time also applies to the tendency of more people, especially younger people, to try to multitask just about everything. This is particularly true in meetings.

Good intentions only take you so far. If you do not act on the intentions, then you are just a dreamer.

Getting more from your time

The preceding mental frameworks provide a good overall or 30,000-foot perspective for managing time. The following microtips represent doable or even baby steps for changing how one invests one’s time.

  • Forget speed reading.
  • Treat time like you do capital budgeting.
  • Figure the money value of your time.
  • Good is not always the enemy of great.
  • Embrace delegation.
  • Use the “salami technique” for managing projects.
  • Beware of other time wasters.

Don’t wait for a bucket list

Managing one’s time and thus one’s life involves identifying what is truly important and being committed to making those things a reality. It involves finding new ways to do things and new things to do. It thereby involves habit breaking and habit making. It involves having such clarity that one knows what the yes’s are, what the no’s are and what the must do’s are. It involves having a call to action. Steve Jobs often was heard exclaiming, “We need to drive a stake in the ground” when he and his people faced decisions. It was his way of fighting procrastination.