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Time Management Techniques and Systems

Here are practical tips, tools and skills to improve time management. Time management starts with the commitment to change. Time management is easy as long as you commit to action. You can train others and improve your own time management through better planning; prioritising; delegating; controlling your environment; understanding yourself and identifying what you will change about your habits, routines and attitude.

The key to successful time management is planning and then protecting the planned time. People who say that they have no time do not plan or fail to protect planned time. If you plan what to do and when, and then stick to it, then you will have time. This involves conditioning or re-conditioning your environment. For people who have demands placed on them by others, particularly other departments, managers, customers, etc, time management requires diplomatically managing the expectations of others. Time management is chiefly about conditioning your environment, rather than allowing your environment to condition you. If you tolerate this and accept without question, the interruptions and demands of others then you effectively encourage these time management pressures to continue.

Time management has enormous implications for organisations and the whole economy. See the astonishing 'wasted time' statistics on the time management quick tips page.

The urgent/important matrix tool offers very quick easy improvement in time management.

Time management skills training

First, this one rule could change your ability to manage your time more than anything else, which is why it's first: If you are a slave to your email system, and particularly if your pc is set up to notify you immediately upon the receipt of any incoming email, then I urge you to make this simple change – it will dramatically improve your control over your time. Turn off the pop-up or noise which notifies you that you have mail. For many people, this is the single biggest obstacle to successful time management. 

Establish a new habit of checking your email at certain times in the day, when it is sensible for you and the business to do so – say, first when you arrive at your desk or start work, second just before lunch, third around an hour before normal business closes. 

You must decide when to look at your emails – this control should not rest with everyone out there who sends emails to you (nor indeed should this control rest with the spamming and virus-spreading community). If your organisation has a policy that insists that you be constantly interrupted by your incoming emails try suggesting that the policy is reviewed – involuntary email notification is the single biggest time management detractor in the world today.

Be prepared to make drastic changes. Be creative to find and introduce different ways of doing things. Challenge and question your own habits, routines, and the way you defend your time when others try to dictate how you should use it. The Pareto Principle (80:20 Rule) is a simple easy starting point for assessing where you currently direct your time, and for identifying where your time could better be directed.

Really think about how you currently spend your time. If you don't know keep a time log for a day or two. Record everything you do for a day or two, better still if you have varied days, keep the time log for a week. You'll be amazed; for instance, how long on average are you able to work between each interruption? Many managers struggle to achieve more than five or six minutes. If that's you, you need to make changes.

Challenge anything that could be wasting time and effort, particularly habitual tasks, meetings and reports where responsibility is inherited or handed down from above. Don't just assume that just because 'we've always done it this way' it's still appropriate or even required at all. Think about why you are doing things, and whether there is a better way. You can view and download a free time management assessment tool in the free online resources section, which will help you or another person to objectively judge your time management, and underlying issues. This tool is also excellent preparation for time management training or coaching.

Review your activities in terms of your short-term and long-term goals, and prioritise your activities accordingly. Especially, plan preparation and creative thinking time in your diary for the long-term jobs, because they need it. If you don't plan for the preparation you'll never do it, and all the work will get left to the last minute (sound familiar?). The short-term urgent tasks will always use up all your time unless you plan to spend it otherwise.

Use a diary, and an activity planner to schedule when to do things, publish or display it, and try to stick to it.

If you are subject to demand and requests by others in your organisation and need to recondition their expectations as to your availability and their claim on your time, you should produce a weekly schedule, showing your planned activities and time-slots for everything that you do. This is a vital tool in helping you to explain and justify to others why you must prioritise and schedule demands from others when it suits you, not others.

Weekly activity schedule

The items here are examples of various activities. You can show precise timings if you wish. It's not necessary to know exactly what will fill each time slot, especially if you are subject to unpredictable demands, as most people are; the important thing is to schedule the time to deal with what arises, and activities that you can predict will need to be done at certain times. You'll know what sport of time you need for these unforeseen activities, so plan time slots to accommodate them. Plan time-slots to check emails and posts, but not to deal with each one fully there and then - desperate emergencies are rarely communicated by email or post – mostly they'd be by phone, so think about the originator's realistic expectations. 

Most emails you'll need simply to acknowledge and give an indication of when you will respond in full, which can be scheduled later, when it suits you, depending on the level of importance and urgency. Plan time slots for returning and making phone calls – don't just do them when you feel like it or when you happen to remember. Plan and schedule things sensibly and logically – try to kill several birds with one stone. Think about how best to use lunchtimes – and don't work through every single one – you need to unwind and take a break now and then. Once you've produced your first weekly activity schedule it's easy to keep it going; many of the slots will repeat. You'll also notice monthly patterns too. The more senior your role, the further ahead you need to plan.

Time management task/activity schedule example

Use a simple weekly planner to manage and protect your planned activities. You'll manage your time by managing your activities - that means protecting the time slots you plan for your tasks. Time management is mainly dependent on planning activities into time slots and then protecting the activities from interruptions, whether from other people or your own distractions.

  Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
  1. check emails, post, initial response.
  2. review last week reports
  3. department meeting
  4. agency meeting
  5. check emails
  1. check emails etc.
  2. staff appraisal 1
  3. staff matters arising time-slot
  4. project time-slot
  5. check emails
  1. check emails.
  2. chase figures for weekly report
  3. strategy meeting
  4. process review time-slot
  5. check emails
  1. check emails
  2. my appraisal
  3. staff appraisal
  4. staff appraisal
  5. check emails
  1. check emails
  2. weekly report
  3. conference planning
  4. unresolved non-urgent issues
  5. phone calls
  6. check emails
  • with agency
  • project team working lunch
  • with customer
  • with appraisee
  • with boss
  1. return phone calls
  2. emergency situations time-slot
  3. reading monthly reports
  4. appraisals preparation
  5. check emails and initial responses
  1. supplier visit 1
  2. supplier visit 2
  3. major phone calls
  4. check emails
  5. thinking time-slot for new strategy project
  1. customer visit
  2. customer visit
  3. my appraisal preparation
  4. check emails
  5. phone calls and correspondence
  1. emergencies time-slot
  2. systems and process review time-slot
  3. weekly report preparation
  4. check emails
  1. agenda for next week dept meeting
  2. plan next week's schedule
  3. spare time-slot for staff issues
  4. check emails
  5. clear up outstanding issues

Here's a free time management task scheduler template based on the above.

Try to plan and defend time slots for everything that you do. Make lists and work on them. You are at your most efficient the day before you start your annual leave. If you really want to you can be this well-organised every day. You must also plan time slots for unplanned activities - you may not know exactly what you'll need to do, but if you plan the time to do it, then important things will not get pushed out of the way when the demand arises.

Use the test: is this urgent or important? A job may be terribly important, but may not need doing now. Get the genuinely urgent jobs out of the way first, and don't allow yourself to be distracted by the bigger jobs that you can do later.

The following matrix tool will help you manage your time according to urgent/important task response, prioritising and planning. It is based on, and extends, the time management matrix featured in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.

Urgent and important time management matrix

The judgement as to whether activities are urgent, important, both or neither, is crucial for good time management. Most inexperienced people, and people who are not good at time management, nor in managing their environment, tend to spend most of their time in boxes 1 and 3. Poor time managers tend to prioritise tasks (and thereby their time), according to who shouted last and loudest (interestingly, loudness normally correlates to seniority, which discourages most people from questioning and probing the real importance and urgency of tasks received from bosses and senior managers). Any spare time is typically spent in box 4, which comprises only aimless and non-productive activities. Most people spend the least time of all in box 2, which is the most critical area for success, development and proactive self-determination.

Summary overview matrix

  urgent not urgent
important 1 - DO NOW 
  • emergencies, complaints and crisis issues
  • demands from superiors or customers
  • planned tasks or project work now due
  • meetings and appointments
  • reports and other submissions
  • staff issues or needs
  • problem resolution, fire-fighting, fixes

Subject to confirming the importance and the urgency of these tasks, do these tasks now. Prioritise according to their relative urgency.
  • planning, preparation, scheduling
  • research, investigation, designing, testing
  • networking relationship building
  • thinking, creating, modelling, designing
  • systems and process development
  • anticipation and prevention
  • developing change, direction, strategy

Critical to success: planning, strategic thinking, deciding direction and aims, etc. Plan time-slots and personal space for these tasks.
not important 3 - REJECT AND EXPLAIN 
  • trivial requests from others
  • apparent emergencies
  • ad-hoc interruptions and distractions
  • misunderstandings appearing as complaints
  • pointless routines or activities
  • accumulated unresolved trivia
  • boss's whims or tantrums

Scrutinise and probe demands. Help originators to re-assess. Wherever possible reject and avoid these tasks sensitively and immediately.
  • 'comfort' activities, computer games, net surfing, excessive cigarette breaks
  • chat, gossip, social communications
  • daydreaming, doodling, over-long breaks
  • reading nonsense or irrelevant material
  • unnecessary adjusting equipment etc.
  • embellishment and over-production

Habitual 'comforters' not true tasks. Non-productive, de-motivational. Minimise or cease altogether. Plan to avoid them.


Time management activities examples and management methods

  urgent not urgent
important 1 - DO NOW 
  • real major emergencies and crisis issues
  • significant demands for information from superiors or customers
  • project work with an imminent deadline
  • meetings and appointments
  • reports and other submissions
  • staff issues or needs
  • problem resolution, fire-fighting, fixes
  • serious urgent complaints

Subject to confirming the importance and the urgency of these tasks, these tasks need doing now. Prioritise tasks that fall into this category according to their relative urgency. If two or more tasks appear equally urgent, discuss and probe the actual requirements and deadlines with the task originators or with the people dependent on the task outcomes. Help the originators of these demands to re-assess the real urgency and priority of these tasks. These tasks should include activities that you'll previously have planned in box 2, which move into box 1 when the time slot arrives. If helpful you should show your schedule to task originators in order to explain that you are prioritising in a logical way and to be as productive and effective as possible. Look for ways to break a task into two stages if it's an unplanned demand – often a suitable initial 'holding' response or acknowledgement, with a commitment to resolve or complete at a later date, will enable you to resume other planned tasks.
  • planning and preparation
  • project planning and scheduling
  • research and investigation
  • networking relationship building
  • thinking and creating
  • modelling, designing, testing
  • systems and process development
  • anticipative, preventative activities or communication
  • identifying the need for change and a new direction
  • developing strategy

These tasks are most critical to success, and yet commonly are the most neglected. These activities include planning, strategic thinking, deciding direction and aims, etc., all crucial for success and development. You must plan time-slots for doing these tasks, and if necessary plan where you will do them free from interruptions, or 'urgent' matters from quadrants 1 and 3 will take precedence. Work from home if your normal place of work cannot provide you with a quiet situation and protection from interruption. Break big tasks down into separate logical stages and plan time slots for each stage. Use project management tools and methods. Inform other people of your planned time-slots and schedules. Having a visible schedule is the key to being able to protect these vital time slots.
not important 3 - REJECT (DIPLOMATICALLY) 
  • trivial and 'off-loaded' requests from others
  • apparent emergencies
  • ad-hoc interruptions
  • misunderstandings appearing as complaints
  • irrelevant distractions
  • pointless routines or activities
  • dealing with accumulated unresolved trivia
  • duplicated effort
  • unnecessary double-checking
  • boss's whims or tantrums

Scrutinise these demands ruthlessly, and help originators - even your boss and your senior managers - to re-assess the real importance of these tasks. Practice and develop your ability to explain and justify to task originators why you cannot do these tasks. 

Where possible reject and avoid these tasks immediately, informing and managing people's expectations and sensitivities accordingly; explain why you cannot do these tasks and help the originator find another way of achieving what they need, which might involve delegation to another person, or re-shaping the demand to be more strategic, with a more sustainable solution. 

Look for causes of repeating demands in this area and seek to prevent re-occurrence. Educate and train others, including customers, suppliers, fellow staff and superiors, to identify long-term remedies, not just quick fixes. For significant repeating demands in this area, create a project to resolve cause, which will be a quadrant 2 task. Challenge habitual systems, processes, procedures and expectations, eg "we've always done it this way". Help others to manage their own time and priorities, so they don't bounce their pressures onto you. Question old policies and assumptions to see if they are still appropriate.
  • unnecessary and unchallenged routines
  • 'comfort' activities; computer games, net surfing, excessive cigarette breaks
  • chat and gossip face-to-face and phone
  • social and domestic communications
  • silly emails and text messages
  • daydreaming and doodling
  • interrupting others
  • reading nonsense or irrelevant material
  • unnecessary adjusting, tidying, updating equipment, systems, screensavers, etc.
  • over-long breaks, canteen, kitchen visits
  • embellishment and over-production
  • passive world-watching, TV,
  • drink and drug abuse
  • aimless travel and driving
  • shopping or buying for no purpose

These activities are not tasks, they are habitual comforters that provide a refuge from the effort of discipline and proactivity. These activities affirm the same 'comfort-seeking' tendencies in other people; a group or whole department all doing a lot of this quadrant 4 activity creates a non-productive and ineffective organiaational culture. 

These activities have no positive outcomes, and are therefore demotivating. Often they may be stress related, so consider why you do these things and if there's a deeper root cause address it. 

The best method for ceasing these activities, and for removing the temptation to gravitate back to them, is to have a clear structure or schedule of tasks for each day, which you should create in quadrant 2.

Other time management tips

When you're faced with a pile of things to do, go through them quickly and make a list of what needs doing and when. After this handle each piece of paper only once. Do not under any circumstances pick up a job, do a bit of it, and then put it back on the pile. Do not start lots of jobs at the same time.

Be absolutely firm in dealing with time allocated for meetings, paperwork, telephone, and visitors. When you keep your time log you will see how much time is wasted. Take control. If you keep a weekly activity schedule you will be able to control the time allocated for your tasks.

Review your work environment, layout, IT equipment, etc, and set it up for efficiency. Tidy up your workspace and keep all paperwork filed away unless you're working on it. Keep a clean desk and well-organised systems, but don't be obsessive, or spend all week adjusting the settings of your screen-saver.

If you have one, give 25% of your responsibility to your successor. 

Delegate as much as possible to others.

If you can't stop interruptions then go elsewhere when you need time alone. Fight for your right to work uninterrupted when you need to.

Review all the regular reports you write and receive for usefulness, and make or recommend changes. Set up an acceptable template for the regular weekly or monthly reports you write, so you only need to slot in the updated figures and narrative, each time. Why reinvent the wheel?

If you can, get a good assistant, secretary or PA.

Sharpen up your decision-making. If you can't decide, then decide how to, (eg consult, get more information, delegate, etc), but don't just let it sit there. Remember 'JFDI'.

Learn to say 'No', politely, and constructively. Don't make a rod for your own back. Be careful about accepting sideways delegation by your peers to you. If you find it difficult to say 'No' you'll find it easier by using business reasons to justify your position, eg., "I understand this is urgent for you, but I have other priorities which I must deal with first for the good of the business - I'd rather agree a realistic deadline with you than one which I can't meet." And show people your schedule, which justifies and proves how you prioritise and manage your time.

Always probe deadlines to establish the true situation – people asking you to do things will often say 'now' when 'later today' would be perfectly acceptable. Appeal to the other person's own sense of time management: it's impossible for anyone to do a good job without the opportunity to plan and prioritise.

Never try to eat an elephant all in one go, (ie break very big tasks down into digestible chunks). Use project management methods for large jobs.

And above all, choose at least three of the above tips – preferably more – and put them into effect.

Skill development

Here are some ideas for time management training.

Focus on the practical issues. Time management training benefits from a practical approach. Time management theory is difficult to put into effect because problems are often caused by habit and environment, so training should concentrate on helping people to implement necessary changes to their routine, planning and especially their response to others. Successful time management, especially for front-line or internal services staff, is about re-conditioning the environment, as much as making changes to personal planning and task completion.

Use the time management tools, templates and examples here, and explore how best to adapt them for your own people's best benefit.

Work with the delegates to identify problems, and solutions and then agree on commitment to making changes, which need to be supported by line managers. Follow up with one-to-one mentoring and coaching (and involving managers to get their support).

Particularly good improvements to time management can be achieved with small groups from the same department (max 4 training delegates) – comprising colleagues from the same work team. Small group sizes and short sessions, up to two hours each, enable a strong practical focus and results-based approach. Fortnightly sessions enable follow-up and identification of next actions and changes.

It takes a while to change time management – ongoing follow-up is critical or it remains a theory. Delegates are helped by a group discussion about time management issues, causes, and personal difficulties in implementing change and control, which also allows the trainer to identify and coach solutions. Identify practical improvements and then formalise commitments to make changes (no need to do it all at once - identify solutions one by one; seek improvements in stages rather than strive for one big all-or-nothing change).

Look at the basics like diaries, wall-planners, a place to do big tasks free from interruptions (eg home), better control and use of systems: mobile phones, email, Outlook, etc. – they can all undermine time management if they become masters, not tools; day-books and updating daily priorities lists, planning time-slots (for projects and routine activities) and keeping the time slots protected. Use flow diagrams to establish and plan time slots for routine tasks.

The involvement of colleagues in the group is essential because mutual job covering enables time slots to be protected, and interruptions to be reduced. Involve delegates' managers in changes - it's in their interest to understand and support (managers are often the main cause of time management problems because they don't respect their staff's time-planning and protected slots for projects or big tasks activities). Time management requires re-conditioning the environment rather than allowing the environment to condition the worker.

Time management training works when people can examine and develop solutions for their practical issues - identify problems, develop solutions, agree on commitment to change, and arrange support (mutual within the team, and from managers).