Time Management

Effective professionals manage their time to accomplish important work, even as they create a healthy balance between professional and personal demands. The skills of time management are thus crucial for both career success and personal satisfaction. Everybody has the same amount of time in a day, but not everyone has developed the skills to manage their own use of that resource:

Setting goals and priorities is the first step to managing time. Many people think of time management as a matter of motivation or self-discipline. Personality does influence the tools and techniques that work best for an individual, but choices all come down to balancing one valuable thing against another.

Good choices start with a thoughtful process of balancing priorities and setting goals. A social life, healthy sleep patterns, and a good education are all important, and motivational tricks can't take the place of some serious thinking about how much time needs to be devoted to each valuable thing. Everything can be done in a lifetime, but not everything can be done at the same time.

There are always things that have to be done soon, and other things you are doing over a longer period of time. Effective goal-setting involves insuring that these two sets of goals are in sync. Time is not being well-spent if you are spending time on immediate goals (completing homework for a course; writing up vendor qualification reports) that do not ultimately achieve long range goals (the course is not needed in your major; the company is trying to bring the production in house).

Start the goal-setting process with the long range goals, then determine what interim steps need to be taken over the next few weeks or months. Finally, create short-term goals that will insure the steps are completed. Your daily or weekly to-do list should include the specific steps that must be taken over the short term to meet the long term goals.

Be sure to include social, health, and spiritual goals in the process, and when finished, you ought to be able to easily identify activities and tasks that you should not be spending time on. This doesn't mean that you won't decide to spend a bit of frivolous time now and then, but if you have thought seriously about your long term goals, you'll find it easier to focus on meeting them.

Most professionals have multiple responsibilities. A crucial aspect of time management involves allocating the appropriate amount of time to each. Begin with listing primary job duties or areas of authority, then determine the proportion of time and energy that ought to be spent on each one. Some professionals are evaluated with a formal system that allocates job responsibility as a percentage of the total merit points. Others might want to explore this issue with a supervisor or trusted mentor.

MeritPercentagesA pie chart can be a good way to visualize the results. One retail operations manager took the value of her merit review categories and scheduled her tasks in the same proportions.

In a typical 50 hour week, she decided to allocate twenty hours to setting and controlling expenditures, five hours working directly with the repair service, ten hours to facilities issues, and so on. Not all job responsibilities will match perfectly to the proportion of time required to meet them, but it serves as a starting point for setting priorities.

Once this allocation is done, it becomes easier to balance multiple responsibilities. Most professionals face one or two areas that seem to suck up all the time with urgent phone calls, meetings, or last minute projects. Equally important areas can then be neglected, simply because those tasks required quiet reflective time or uninterrupted analysis. There will certainly be variations from one day or week to the next, but over the long run, all goals will be met more effectively if an appropriate amount of time is allocated to each.

One of the most difficult parts of setting priorities involves recognizing when important things need to be done by someone else. Most professionals are able to see tasks that need to be done, jobs that are not being done as well as they should, and activities that would improve the product, employees' lives, or customer service. This attitude of continuous quality thinking is itself an important element of professionalism. However, business professionals work within organizations, teams, and departments, because it takes many people to get everything done.

Resist the urge to step in and take over simply because others are not doing a job or not doing it to your satisfaction. If the job is not part of your own responsibility, you'll just be creating time management problems for yourself without resolving the real issue. Instead, be watchful of your own time, and learn to use leadership skills, conflict management skills, and communication skills to see that these tasks are done by the right people.

The key to time management lies in doing the management. That means organizing, directing, and controlling the use of resources to accomplish a goal. Once you've set your goals, the next step is to organize the resource: the 24 hours you have in each day.

The process is very similar to managing your finances. First you'll set up a budget. As you begin spending your time, you'll discover errors and unexpected expenses. After a while, you'll become a better predictor of costs, and you'll set aside time to cover unplanned expenses. Just as with finances, time management is a matter of consistently spending resources on the things that are important rather than wasting them on things that don't meet your goals.

Once you have determined your goals, you can begin to budget the time you have each day so that you can meet them. The basic planning tool is a calendar, although there are many different kinds to choose from. Find one that is most appropriate for your own situation, and then use it to follow a budget:

1. Block out the time allocated to each goal or responsibility.

2. Schedule specific tasks to be done within each time block.

Time Blocks, Not Deadlines

The calendar is not simply a place to write down due dates. As a budgeting tool, the calendar's real purpose is to allocate time for various goals and responsibilities, insuring that all time is properly spent and that the same period of time is not being spent on multiple activities. Often, regular time blocks will be set on a weekly or monthly basis. There will be some variations as to where time is spent in each week, but the basic time blocks will guide decisions about setting meetings, making commitments, and so on.

Here's an example of a weekly time block calendar for a retail store manager. Each of the manager's regular responsibilities has time allocated to it. Most importantly, this experienced manager has allocated enough time to handle each responsibility, leaving a reasonable cushion of unallocated time to handle expected but randomly timed activities such as customer complaints, calls from the regional office, or employee hire processing.


The time block's purpose is to ensure that enough time is budgeted to fulfill all areas of responsibility, rather like creating a financial budget that allocates enough money to pay the regular bills. If money is left over in the grocery account one month, a good budgeter will look around for sales on staple items and stock up for the future. The point is not to spend the extra food money on something else, but to create enough stability that there's always enough to eat in the house...and maybe even a steak once in a while.

In the same way, making the basic allocations of time will allow a person to mindfully prioritize different goals--allowing time for studying, working, and a social life--as well as providing a scaffold for making decisions about spending time on specific tasks. When tasks get done early one week, a professional doesn't take the rest of the day off! Instead, the time is used to catch up on lower priority jobs in that same area of responsibility. Over a few weeks or months, there's enough time to stay on top of the responsibility, even though there might be a deficit or surplus in any one week.

Scheduling Specific Tasks

Once a master calendar is created with time blocked out for all the categories of work that must be accomplished, a weekly or daily planner is used to schedule specific tasks, appointments, and activities. A master calendar might be posted on the wall or at the front of the planner. Most electronic calendars allow times to be blocked out but left not busy. Then, as professional sets up meetings, makes appointments, or plans a major project, she refers to the master calendar to slot activities into the time blocked out for that particular type of work.

Needless to say, the rest of the world doesn't always respect a person's time blocks. While a retail store manager might block out Monday morning to place orders, a vendor wants to schedule a call for Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning. This is no more difficult to handle than discovering the credit card bill came in on the 10th of the month instead of the 15th. The same amount is spent, just on a slightly different schedule. In the example above, the manager might decide to set up an appointment on her day off, coming in a bit later on Monday morning since that was the time allocated for the vendor call. Or, she might switch some sales training tasks to Monday morning. Weeks in which the master plan is followed exactly are very rare...as rare as a month where every single budget amount equaled the exact amount of money spent on groceries, gas, and entertainment. The point is to schedule activities within a time budget that works, in the long run, to meet one's professional obligations.

Most professionals make specific scheduling decisions at a regular time. This might be on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening as the planner page is turned. Many people set up a schedule as they work their in-basket. Regardless of the exact time and place, the process is more productive if a few guidelines are followed:

1. Budget the big boulders first. (Those who haven't heard the sand-in-a-jar story can click here). Whether working out a daily, weekly, or quarterly schedule, start with the hard, long, critical activities. In fact, the "pebbles" that fill in the smaller spaces might not even get listed on the calendar. Instead, a running to-do list or a stack of pending tasks might be the work that gets done in the few minutes left between the end of a major project and the time block allocated for something else.

2. Pay attention to efficiency. An experienced professional will learn that sometimes are better than others for various kinds of activities. A boss might be lethargic in the morning, and meetings scheduled then always take longer. Phone calls placed at the noon hour don't get answered, which might be a great way to leave short, succinct voicemails instead of getting bogged down in conversation.

3. Don't overschedule. Your initial time blocks ought to account for an appropriate level of interruptions and emergencies. Even so, a schedule that is too tight can lead to rushed tasks, in resulting errors and frayed nerves. Too little travel time between meetings can result in road rage and accidents. Too many high-pressure activities in a row can leave even the most experienced professional stressed and drained of creativity.

The scheduling of specific tasks is probably the hardest element of time budgets for young professionals. It does take some experience to know how long to allow for various activities. Unfamiliar co-workers can surprise you with expectations that take more time than you had planned. Even the time it takes to negotiate driving times in a new city can play havoc with a schedule. In a few weeks or months, things should be settling into place; if they are not, don't waste time in asking for a mentor for a bit of advice!
Time Management Tools A surprisingly important part of professional time management is finding the tools that work best for you. Some of this has to do with personality, and people are actually using their tools for somewhat different time challenges. A second factor has to do with the professional environment. An outside sales person who spends most of her time on the road will use different tools from a desk-bound financial analyst. Calendars, Planners, and Devices A calendar might be the obvious tool, but there are many kinds of calendars!
  • Wall calendars
    Wall calendars might seem low-tech these days, but they remain a popular holiday gift (and advertising medium) because they perform an important function. A wall calendar provides an easy way for a group of people to monitor their common dates, events, deadlines, and project timelines. Some work teams create huge calendars that fill up an entire wall and use them to motivate each other as well as coordinate schedules.
    The calendar might be paper, magnetic, or white board, and color is often used to track different individuals' schedules, on-going projects, or shared priorities.
  • Desk calendars
    Many individuals keep a small decorative calendar available simply to check the date without having to turn to a computer or electronic device, but the more useful desk calendar is one that allows a small space for jotting down quick notes that don't need to be attended to until the actual day has arrived. A desk calendar usually has one page per day, which is turned (or torn off) as the day ends. This is a good mechanism for ensuring that you attend to the notes written on the calendar.

    Turn or tear off? Some folks like the sense of closure that comes from making yesterday disappear. Others like to use their daily calendar as a place to note data--daily expenses, for instance, or tallies of work performed--that will be used later. Either way, using this tool requires turning to a new page every day.
  • Planners
    Although many professionals have moved to electronic alternatives, the traditional planner remains a solid choice for those who can't rely on constant or consistent computer access. Planners come in a variety of sizes and styles, and most can be customized to keep track of exactly the information a user needs. New users can benefit from time spent checking out the various options and thinking about how they can use the equipment most efficiently.

    Planners will generally have a long-range planning section of some kind. This can be useful for mapping out long-range projects, setting milestone dates, and deciding how much time will need to be blocked out on a regular basis to get the job done.

    The planner's main section will include daily or weekly pages on which to block out regular budgeted activities as well as specific tasks, meetings and appointments, and special events to watch out for--such as a holiday when the bank will be closed or a town event that is sure to make traffic slower than normal.
  • Some features to consider when choosing a planner:
    Size (What can you easily carry with you at all times?)

    Time increments (Does your work come in 1-hour segments? Half-hour? Quarter-hour?)

    Page format (What elements does each page include, and how are they arranged? Do you need to keep track of billable hours? Expenses? Business hours or an overnight format? weekends?)

    Regardless of the format you select, use just one calendar for all of your responsibilities. Otherwise, you'll spend extra time comparing a work calendar with a personal calendar with a club calendar just to avoid collisions. If you get a timeline on a project or a team calendar, transfer the information to your own calendar right away.

    Lists, References, and Calculators

    Additional time management tools can offer extra detail on specific jobs. In many cases, these tools are incorporated into a planner or electronic calendar. Not everyone uses the tools in quite the same way, so experiment to find the solution that works best for you.
  • Master Task Lists

    For long-term team projects or complicated processes, a master list of tasks that need to be accomplished is often created. This will include tasks and milestone dates for everyone involved in the project, and it is used by both the project manager and team members to coordinate their activities.

    Each individual will enter his or her own tasks to a personal calendar or planner, but the master calendar is also reviewed--perhaps as a large wall chart or shared project management software--to ensure that any changes or problems are communicated to the entire team.
  • To-Do Lists

    Many planners and calendars feature a daily tasks or to-do list, and many professionals use this tool to maintain focus on their highest priorities. There are two basic ways to use a to-do list, and they have two very different functions.

    The daily to-do list. Create a new list each day by reviewing your incoming work, coming deadlines, and emerging priorities. List the 2-3 "must do" items, and then use the list to focus your mind and your time. This is rather like your "bills to pay this week" list, which includes important items with close due dates.

    The running to-do list. This list is used to remember lower priority items. As ideas or requests come in, record them, and then act on them when you have a few minutes to spare within an appropriate time block. This list is more like a Christmas shopping list. The idea is saved, but the actual purchases are made when you get to the right store. An idea might even change as you find a great sale or a new idea that's even better.
  • Resource Pages
    Most people don't think of an address book or an account list as a time management tool, but if your job requires the regular use of information, you will be far more efficient if it is immediately accessible. Most planners include an address book, at minimum, but consider other types of information that you use regularly, and create a section for quick look-ups.
  • Time Tools

    Rod Library Assignment Calculator is a resource that can calculate an estimate of time management for a paper due next month. It will break down the assignment into manageable chunks. Business Portal is a link that will guide you through basic research steps. Use the links to navigate through your research.
As demands are made on a professional's time, the time budget also helps to identify tasks that do not support primary goals or areas of responsibility. A co-worker asking you to spend time on a project that doesn't fit anywhere into your time blocks is just the same as a salesman asking you to buy an item that doesn't fit into your financial budget. As you choose your response, think about your options:

1. Say no. Communicating about time can be complicated and challenging, but the first step always depends on knowing what your own budget looks like.

2. Plan for the unexpected. Sometimes, emergency situations do call for emergency expenditures. Other times, an outrageously good price will make an unplanned expenditure the best choice. The point is that both disasters and opportunities are a normal part of life. The rule of thumb for projects of any kind is a 10% contingency margin. Over-budget that much time on every task, and you'll find yourself with room to maneuver.

3. Change your goals. It's always possible that the co-worker has introduced you to an option that is even better than whatever goals and responsibilities you had picked for yourself. It doesn't happen all that often, but an open mind can lead you in wonderful new directions.

4. Pay attention to repeated requests. If you received repeated email requests to purchase unwanted items, you'd eventually block the salesman's emails! You can also develop strategies for dealing with time wasters, but the first step is to recognize that a pattern has developed.

Leftovers and Surprises

There are a number of ways to be surprised, just as there are with financial budgets. Something might simply cost more than planned, or you might discover that your food budget has gone up as you've switched from junk food to a healthier diet. A friend might have an emergency that you cover until he can pay you back. A thief could take some of your money without any intention of ever giving it back.

Each of these has a corollary with time, and as you become a seasoned professional, you'll learn to deal more effectively with them all.
  • A job takes longer than planned
    Even when all responsibilities and tasks are put on the calendar, a specific task can take longer than the amount of time budgeted for it. At the moment the overage happens, an initial decision must be made. Do you stop working on the task and call it good enough? or, do you allocate additional time to it? This decision has to do with other priorities and goals, but if you decide to allocate additional time, the next question is, when? Do you just stay late to finish and cancel the lunch you were going to go to? or do you take a look at the calendar, find a different task to cut short (or eliminate entirely), and finish later? As you learn your own (or your boss's) goals and priorities, you'll find that these decisions get easier. You might also begin to realize that you are underestimating certain kinds of jobs or failing to account for external conditions. A job that is done on Monday morning with multiple customer calls coming in might simply take longer than one done on Wednesday afternoon when your clients are all playing golf. Or, you might realize that you simply aren't very efficient at doing the job yet. Looking for ways to do your job more productively is an important part of professionalism. A mentor or experienced colleague might be able to offer advice!
  • A responsibility area takes more time than planned
    If the tasks allocated to a certain time block are simply not fitting into space on an ongoing basis, it's time to look at the big picture. Perhaps your job description called for supervising three people, but over the past year, you've taken on added responsibility for a couple of part-time seasonal people and an intern. The time you'd allocated for supervision is simply not enough anymore. One solution might be to stop doing the extra work--akin to going back to eating junk food because it is cheaper. Chances are, your career will be better-served by going back to the goal-setting stage to rethink priorities and reallocate the time you spend on your new job responsibilities.
  • Interruptions and favors
    Any competent professional will be asked for help, and part of being a good colleague is giving it. Some careers are prone to emergencies, extensive customer or public contact, or highly variable conditions--all requiring that professionals build more contingency time into their calendars. Other professionals will find themselves developing strong relationships with colleagues who regularly help each other and begin to allocate their time as a team. The occasional needy colleague who takes more than he seems to give will be a part of any professional career, but for the most part, sharing resources--including time--will be part of a healthy business organization.
  • Time thieves
    Do be on the lookout for time spent on tasks, people, or responsibilities that don't have any place in your life. Most of us do not have enough time to do all the things that we want to do. We see attractive or useful tasks, so we add "just one more thing," but never eliminate something else. The result is an ever-increasing time crunch, but we are often our own worst enemy. Pay attention to the lost and wasted time, and if you find a thief--a television addiction, lazy roommate, or disorganized desk--put it in time-management jail.

Comments are closed.