“I want to talk to you about time management,” Paddy said as I plunked our coffees down on the table.
“One of my favourite topics,” I replied. “Why?”
“Well,” Paddy said, “my son is having a lot of trouble managing his time and I thought you might have some suggestions. For example, what’s that catchphrase you like to use about time management?”
“You mean days are like identical suitcases; some people can pack more into them than others?” I asked.
“Yeah,” that’s the one he said, “but you usually added something to it.”
“It was probably that everyone has the same 24 hours available every day,” I suggested.
“Right,” Paddy said. “So, what, in your opinion, is the key to time management?”
“There’s no ‘key’ as such,” I told him. “Time management is a very personal matter so there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Different people have different problems managing their time.”
“Tell me about them,” Paddy said, taking his pen and little notebook out of his jacket pocket.
“OK,” I said, “but remember that these are all important aspects of effective time management, so there’s no order of importance here.”
“My pen is poised,” Paddy said, quite unnecessarily.
“Let’s start with the fact that the strongest memory is weaker than the palest ink,” I said, “so you need to have to-do lists. And I deliberately used the plural. Unless your son has a one-dimensional job he probably should have lists covering a number of topics. Also, everyone needs separate home and work lists”
“How about changing the lists?” Paddy asked.
“To-do lists can and should be changed when it’s advantageous or necessary to do so. For example, when you get bogged down in a particularly difficult task, it’s a good idea to pick one or two easier tasks and get a couple of successes behind you rather than stick to the strict order of the list. Also, to-do lists should be changed when priorities change. It’s also important to remember that everything can’t be a number one priority.”
“How many priority items should a person have?” Paddy asked.
“Let me put it to you this way,” I answered, “if it takes you more than five seconds to state your priorities, you really don’t have any.”
“Hey, I like that,” Paddy said, “I often get bogged down because I think I have too many priority items. What’s next?”
“Never let the fact that you can’t do everything you want to do keep you from doing what you can do,” I answered. “You can’t do everything right now, but you can do something right now. Instead of wasting time lamenting about the length of your list, pick an item and deal with it. I call it the 3D system. Every item on your list has to be Done, Delegated or Ditched. If it has to be done by your son and he can’t deal with it right away, he should schedule a specific time later to deal with it. If an item can be delegated to someone else, then he should delegate it. If it can’t be dealt with or delegated he has to ditch it”
“How do you choose?” Paddy asked.
“He should delegate items that he doesn’t like to do or that are weaknesses of his, but he has to be careful not to delegate them to someone for whom they are also weaknesses. As I mentioned, items that he really can’t do or delegate have to be ditched; not all tasks that we think we have to do really need to be done. Keeping an item on a to-do list that you’re never going to get around to doing makes no more sense than keeping an item on the list that you will never be capable of doing.”
I paused for a few moments to take a couple of sips of coffee and to let Paddy catch up.
“Next point, please,” Paddy said when he finished his scribbling.
“Tell your son to examine his habits,” I told Paddy. “Time is usually wasted in minutes, not hours; but a bucket with a tiny hole in the bottom will get just as empty as one with a hole you can put your fist through; it will just take a little longer.”
" What do you mean by examine his habits?” Paddy quite reasonably asked.
“He should keep track of his activities for a week or so and see where those minutes are slipping through that tiny hole in the bucket and adjust his activities accordingly,” I explained. “The only time that anyone can really manage is right now. Take care of the minutes and hours; let the calendar take care of the days, weeks, months and years.”
“Anything else that’s particularly important?” Paddy asked.
“Yes,” I said, “a very important point as a matter of fact. When establishing deadlines, he needs to base them on what he can do, not on what he’d like to do. Unrealistic deadlines are stressful and counter-productive to effective time management. For example, he’ll achieve more with a number of shorter deadlines for the various steps of a project rather than by having one long time line for the project itself. Another thing to remember about deadlines is that they should be changed only when there’s no other choice. When deadlines become negotiable they become ineffective.”
“What’s the biggest time management mistake?” Paddy asked.
“That would depend on the particular circumstances,” I told him. “But the most common time management mistake is taking on more than can be realistically accomplished. If he’s already busy, and I assume he is or he wouldn’t be having time management problems, he’s going to have to drop an old activity before taking on a new one. He’ll never be a good time manager until he learns to say no. A polite no is always better than a broken promise.”
“I’ve got to go,” Paddy said, “but give me one over-riding technique that would be effective for both the office and at home.”
“That’s easy,” I said, “do at least one thing every day that you would rather put off, and do it as early in the day as you can.”
“Does shaving count? “Paddy asked as he got up to leave.
I didn’t dignify that with a response.