"Eff" words are (concise Oxford English
||Effective – having a definite
or desired effect
||Efficient – productive with
minimum waste or effort
||Effortless – seemingly without effort;
Personal Time Management is about winning the "Eff"
words: making them apply to you and your daily routines.
What Is Personal Time Management?
Personal Time Management is about controlling the use
of your most valuable (and undervalued) resource. Consider
these two questions: What would happen if you spent company
money with as few safeguards as you spend company time? When
was the last time you scheduled a review of your time
The absence of Personal Time Management is characterized
by last-minute rushes to meet deadlines, meetings which are
either double booked or achieve nothing, days which seem somehow
to slip unproductively by, crises which loom unexpected from
nowhere. This sort of environment leads to inordinate stress
and degradation of performance: it must be stopped.
Poor time management is often a symptom of overconfidence:
techniques which used to work with small projects and workloads
are simply reused with large ones. But inefficiencies which
were insignificant in the small role are ludicrous in the
large. You cannot drive a motor bike like a bicycle, nor can
you manage a supermarket chain like a market stall. The demands,
the problems and the payoffs for increased efficiency are
all larger as your responsibility grows; you must learn to
apply proper techniques or be bettered by those who do. Possibly,
the reason Time Management is poorly practiced is that it
so seldom forms a measured part of appraisal and performance
review; what many fail to foresee, however, is how intimately
it is connected to aspects which do.
Personal Time Management has many facets. Most managers recognize
a few, but few recognize them all. There is the simple concept
of keeping a well-ordered diary and the related idea of planned
activity. But beyond these, it is a tool for the systematic
ordering of your influence on events; it underpins many other
managerial skills such as Effective Delegation and Project Planning.
Time Management is a set of tools which allow you to:
(time) appropriate to a task's importance
long-term projects are not neglected
||plan each day
||plan each week effectively and to do so
simply with a little self-discipline.
Since Personal Time Management is a management process just like any other, it
must be planned, monitored and regularly reviewed. In the following
sections, we will examine the basic methods and functions of
Personal Time Management. Since true understanding depends upon
experience, you will be asked to take part by looking at aspects
of your own work. If you do not have time to this right now,
ask yourself, why not?
What this article is advocating is the adoption of certain
practices which will give you greater control over the use
and allocation of your primary resource: time. Before
we start on the future, it is worth considering the present.
This involves the simplistic task of keeping a note of how
you spend your time for a suitably long period of time (say
a week). I say simplistic since all you have to do is create
a simple table, photocopy half-a-dozen copies and carry it
around with you filling in a row every time you change activity.
After one week, allocate time (start as you mean to go on)
to reviewing this log.
We are not looking here to create new categories of work
to enhance efficiency (that comes later) but simply to eliminate
wastage in your current practice. The average IEE Chartered
Engineer earns about £27,000 per annum: about £12.50 per hour,
say £1 every 5 minutes; for how many 5 minute sections of
your activity would you have paid a pound? The first step
is a critical appraisal of how you spend your time and to
question some of your habits. In your time log, identify periods
of time which might have been better used.
There are various sources of waste. The most common are social:
telephone calls, friends dropping by, conversations around
the coffee machine. It would be foolish to eliminate all non-work
related activity (we all need a break) but if it's a choice
between chatting to Harry in the afternoon and meeting the
next pay-related deadline... Your time log will show you if
this is a problem and you might like to do something about
it before your boss does.
In your time log, look at each work activity and decide objectively
how much time each was worth to you, and compare that
with the time you actually spent on it. An afternoon spent
polishing an internal memo into a Pulitzer prize-winning piece
of provocative prose is waste; an hour spent debating the
leaving present of a colleague is waste; a minute spent sorting
out the paper-clips is waste (unless relaxation). These types
of activities will be reduced naturally by managing your own
time since you will not allocate time to the trivial. Specifically,
if you have a task to do, decide beforehand how long it should
take and work to that deadline – then move on to the next
Another common source of waste stems from delaying work which
is unpleasant by finding distractions which are less important
or unproductive. Check your log to see if any tasks are being
delayed simply because they are dull or difficult.
Time is often wasted in changing between activities. For
this reason it is useful to group similar tasks together thus
avoiding the start-up delay of each. The time log will show
you where these savings can be made. You may want then to
initiate a routine which deals with these on a fixed but regular
Doing Subordinate's Work
Having considered what is complete waste, we now turn
to what is merely inappropriate. Often it is simpler to do
the job yourself. Using the stamp machine to frank your own
letters ensures they leave by the next post; writing the missing
summary in the latest progress report from your junior is
more pleasant than sending it back (and it lets you choose
the emphasis). Rubbish!
Large gains can be made by assigning secretarial duties to
secretaries: they regularly catch the next post, they type
a lot faster than you. Your subordinate should be told about
the missing section and told how (and why) to slant it. If
you have a task which could be done by a subordinate, use
the next occasion to start training him/her to do it instead
of doing it yourself – you will need to spend some time monitoring
the task thereafter, but far less than in doing it yourself.
Doing the Work of Others
A major impact upon your work can be the tendency to help
others with theirs. Now, in the spirit of an open and harmonious
work environment it is obviously desirable that you should
be willing to help out – but check your work log and decide
how much time you spend on your own work and how much you
spend on others'. For instance, if you spend a morning checking
the grammar and spelling in the training material related
to you last project, then that is waste. Publications should
do the proofreading – that is their job; they are better at
it than you; you should deal at the technical level.
The remaining problem is your manager. Consider what periods
in your work log were used to perform tasks that your manager
either repeated or simply negated by ignoring it or redefining
the task, too late. Making your manager efficient is a very
difficult task, but where it impinges upon your work and performance
you must take the bull by the horns (or whatever) and confront
Managing your manager may seem a long way from Time Management,
but no one impacts upon your use of time more than your immediate
superior. If a task is ill defined, seek clarification (is
that a one-page summary or a ten-page report?). If seemingly
random alterations are asked in your deliverables, ask for
the reasons and next time clarify these and similar points
at the beginning. If the manager is difficult, try writing
a small specification for each task before beginning it and
have it agreed. While you cannot tactfully hold your manager
to this contract if he/she has a change of mind, it
will at least cause him/her to consider the issues early on,
before you waste your time on false assumptions.
The next stage of Personal Time Management is to start
taking control of your time. The first problem is appointments.
Start with a simple appointments diary. In this book you will
have (or at least should have) a complete list of all your
known appointments for the foreseeable future. If you have
omitted your regular ones (since you remember them anyway)
add them now.
Your appointments constitute your interaction with other
people; they are the agreed interface between your activities
and those of others; they are determined by external obligation.
They often fill the diary. Now, be ruthless and eliminate
the unnecessary. There may be committees where you cannot
productively contribute or where a subordinate might be (better)
able to participate. There may be long lunches which could
be better run as short conference calls. There may be interviews
which last three times as long as necessary because they are
scheduled for a whole hour. Eliminate the wastage starting
The next stage is to add to your diary lists of other, personal
activities which will enhance your use of the available time.
Consider: what is the most important type of activity to add
to your diary? No: stop reading for a moment and really, consider.
The single most important type of activity is that which
will save you time: allocate time to save time, a stitch in
time saves days. And most importantly of all, always allocate
time to time management: at least five minutes each and every
For each appointment left in the diary, consider what actions
you might take to ensure that no time is wasted: plan to avoid
work by being prepared. Thus, if you are going to a meeting
where you will be asked to comment on some report, allocate
time to read it so avoiding delays in the meeting and increasing
your chances of making the right decision the first time.
Consider what actions need to be done before AND what actions
must be done to follow up. Even if the latter is unclear before
the event, you must still allocate time to review the outcome
and to plan the resulting action. Simply mark in your diary
the block of time necessary to do this and, when the time
comes, do it.
The most daunting external appointments are deadlines:
often, the handover of deliverables. Do you leave the work
too late? Is there commonly a final panic towards the end?
Are the last few hectic hours often marred by errors? If so,
use Personal Time Management.
The basic idea is that your management of personal deadlines
should be achieved with exactly the same techniques you would
use in a large project:
specification – are you sure that you agree on what
is to be delivered?
task down into small sections so that you can estimate
the time needed for each, and monitor progress
of your progress (e.g., after each sub-task) so that
you can respond quickly to difficulties
Like most management ideas, this is common sense. Some people,
however, refute it because in practice they find that it merely
shows the lack of time for a project which must be done anyway.
This is simply daft! If simple project planning and time management
show that the task cannot be done, then it will not be done
– but by knowing at the start, you have a chance to do something
An impossible deadline affects not only your success but
also that of others. Suppose a product is scheduled for release
too soon because you agree to deliver too early. Marketing
and Sales will prepare customers to expect the product showing
why they really need it – but it will not arrive. The customers
will be dissatisfied or even lost, the competition will have
advanced warning, and all because you agreed to do the impossible.
You can avoid this type of problem. By practicing
time management, you will always have a clear understanding
of how you spend your time and what time is unallocated. If
a new task is thrust upon you, you can estimate whether it
is practical. The project planning tells you how much time
is needed and the time management tells you how much time
are four ways to deal with impossible deadlines:
||Get the deadline
||Scream for more
||Get the deliverable
redefined to something practical
||State the position
clearly so that your boss (and his/her boss) have
If this simple approach seems unrealistic, consider the alternative.
If you have an imposed, but unobtainable, deadline and you
accept it; then the outcome is your assured failure.
Of course, there is a fifth option: move to a company with
One defense tactic is to present your superior with a current
list of your obligations indicating what impact the new task
will have on these, and ask him/her to assign the priorities:
"I can't do them all, which should I slip?" Another
tactic is to keep a database of your time estimates and the
actual time taken by each task. This will quickly develop
into a source of valuable data and increase the accuracy of
your planning predictions.
There is no reason why you should respond only to externally
imposed deadlines. The slightly shoddy product which you hand
over after the last-minute rush (and normally have returned
for correction the following week) could easily have been
polished if only an extra day had been available – so move
your personal deadline forward and allow yourself the luxury
of leisured review before the product is shipped.
Taking this a step further, the same sort of review might
be applied to the product at each stage of its development
so that errors and rework time are reduced. Thus, by allocating
time to quality review, you save time in rework; and this
is all part of project planning supported and monitored by
your time management.
Finally, for each activity you should estimate how much time
it is worth and allocate only that amount. This critical appraisal
may even suggest a different approach or method so that the
time matches the task's importance. Beware of perfection:
it takes too long – allocate time for "fitness for purpose,"
and then stop.
Your Personal Time Management also affects other people,
particularly your subordinates. Planning projects means not
only allocating your time but also distributing tasks; and
this should be done in the same planned, monitored and reviewed
manner as your own scheduling.
Any delegated task should be specified with an (agreed) end
date. As a Manager, you are responsible for ensuring that
the tasks allocated to your subordinates are completed successfully.
Thus you should ensure that each task is concluded with a
deliverable (for instance, a memo to confirm completion) –
you make an entry in your diary to check that this has arrived.
Thus, if you agree the task for Tuesday, Wednesday should
have an entry in your diary to check the deliverable. This
simple device allows you to monitor progress and to initiate
action as necessary.
There are many long-term objectives which the good manager
must achieve, particularly with regard to the development,
support and motivation of his/her work team. Long-term objectives
have the problem of being important but not urgent; they do
not have deadlines; they are distant and remote. For this
reason, it is all too easy to ignore them in favor of the
urgent and immediate. Clearly a balance must be struck.
The beauty of Time Management is that the balance can be
decided objectively (without influence from immediate deadlines)
and self-imposed through the use of the diary. Simply, a manager
might decide that one hour a week should be devoted to personnel
issues and would then allocate a regular block of time to
that activity. Of course if the factory is on fire, or World
War III is declared, the manager may have to re-allocate this
time in a particular week – but barring such crises, this
time should then become sacrosanct and always applied to the
same, designated purpose.
Similarly, time may be allocated to staff development and
training. So if one afternoon a month is deemed to be a suitable
allocation, then simply designate the second Thursday (say)
of each month and delegate the choice of speakers. The actual
time spent in managing this sort of long-term objective is
small, but without that deliberate planning it will not be
Once you have implemented Personal Time Management, it is
worth using some of that control to augment your own career.
Some quiet weekend, you should sketch out your own long-term
objectives and plan a route to them. As you would any long-term
objective, allocate time to the necessary sub-tasks and monitor
your progress. If you do not plan where you want to go, you
are unlikely to get there.
Personal Time Management is a systematic application of
common-sense strategies. It requires little effort, yet it
promotes efficient work practices by highlighting wastage
and it leads to effective use of time by focusing it on your
chosen activities. Personal Time Management does not solve
your problems; it reveals them, and provides a structure to
implement and monitor solutions. It enables you to take control
of your own time – how you use it is then up to you.
First published in a series of ten articles by The Institution
of Electrical Engineers (IEE) UK, 1991-2.
About Gerard M. Blair
Dr. Gerard M. Blair was a senior lecturer in VLSI design at
the Department of Electrical Engineering, University of Edinburgh.
He is now a hardware design engineer with Hewlett-Packard
in Fort Collins, Colorado. His book Starting to Manage: The
Essential Skills is published by Chartwell-Bratt (UK) and
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA).
For more information, visit his Web site at www.ee.ed.ac.uk/~gerard.