By Christopher Ram
November 23, 2003
Few people, I suspect, are satisfied with what they achieve during the course of the day, month or year. And they also have lots of excuses. The most common among them is, "I did not have enough time." Well, did they not? This is one area in which the world is truly egalitarian. Some have more diverse responsibilities than others and the poor have to spend more of their time trying to earn a meal than others, but we all have the same 1,440 minutes in the day regardless of where we live in the world.
It is how we spend that time that separates success and achievement from failure and under-performance. The topic of time management has become a popular one for training programmes and workshops and there are now all kinds of fancy aids available to 'busy' executives to help them enhance their effectiveness. Diaries, the invention of which must have coincided with the invention of the theory of organisation; to-do lists; e-mail which is intended to speed up communication (how many times have you heard, 'Oh I did not check my e-mail'); and all kinds of reminders have now been compiled into basic software systems. Switch on your Palm Top and the first thing that comes up is your day's appointment. Scroll and you will find your telephone numbers, personal expenses, calculator and just about everything else you had the time to input or import into your system.
Have these tools/toys made us any more efficient? Do we sometimes forget to turn on the computer until long after two or three appointments have passed? How much more effective and organised are we as a result of exposure to all these seminars on time management and the availability of these performance enhancement gadgets? How much do we allow human nature to override what we know we should be doing? Do we find it difficult to say 'no' to a request that will upset either a friend or a deadline to which we are committed? Do we want to do everything so that it is 'done right' rather than delegate it to someone who has the time, needs the exposure and is paid to do that task? Or is it insecurity or jealousy?
To become effective usually requires that we shed old habits and change the way we look at, and do things. Stephen Covey's book with the unpretentious title Seven Habits of Highly Effective People must be considered a landmark work on personal effectiveness. The book is very critical of these band-aid types of seminars and quick fixes to what are far more deeply ingrained problems. We have to be prepared to engage in critical self-examination, reviewing not only how we do things and when we do them, but also how we see them. Do we worry about a problem or do we calmly state and examine the facts and take measures to limit the potential damage, notify and apologise as necessary and take corrective action not only to address the problem, which is more than likely a cause rather than a symptom? Mr Covey, a prolific writer and speaker argues that unless we change ourselves we cannot become more effective as we will be unable to exert positive influence on others.
Internationally-known authority on time management, Dr Alec Mackenzie in his book The Time Trap agrees. He argues that the very idea of time management is a misconception, because you really cannot manage time in the way other resources can be managed. Business, he notes, is concerned with the management of five resources: financial capital, physical capital, human capital, information and time. Each of the first four can be increased, decreased, transferred or otherwise manipulated. Time can't. In this context then, time cannot be managed. Dr Mackenzie reminds us that when it comes to time, we can only manage ourselves in relation to it. We cannot control time as we control other resources - we can only control how we use it. In the world in which we live time cannot be replaced or re-created. It is therefore not for us to choose whether or not we spend or save time but only how we spend it.
There are several misconceptions which we all have about time. They affect everyone, including those persons who may be considered quite successful and effective. Here are some of the misconceptions identified by Dr Mackenzie:
Time management is simple - all it requires is common sense. While it is true that the concept is simple, the self-discipline required to practise effective time management is not easy.
Work is best performed under pressure. All the psychological studies have shown this to be no more than an excuse for procrastination. One does not work well under pressure - one only does the best one can under the circumstances. Pressure and challenge must not be confused. Lara's performance when the West Indies team is in trouble has more to do with application and determination rather than pressure. Just think what is possible if this same determination and application were evident in less high-pressure circumstances.
I use a diary, a to-do list and have a secretary to keep me organised. You keep yourself organised - no one can do it for you. The trouble with the disorganised person is that he hardly has time to listen to his secretary or look at his diary.
I do not have the time. The fact is that you have as much as anyone else - it is how you use it. I will remain convinced that one of President Burnham's most brilliant ideas was turning the clock back. Unfortunately no politician can revert to that situation so you have to make a personal decision to start your day earlier. The effective worker or manager often gets more work done in the first hours of the morning than most laggards get done in the whole day. He then no longer has to work against tight deadlines and under stress, which as we all know contributes to heart problems and not unusually the ultimate reduction of time on this earth.
Time management might be good for some kinds of work but my job is creative. I know one of our top personalities in the arts who is horribly disorganised. Time management is not about routine; it is about self-discipline. His lack of discipline prevents him from being great instead of simply good.
Time management takes away the fun and freedom of spontaneity. But is working under stress, forgetting appointments, making constant excuses and apologies really fun? Would it not be much more fun if by better organisation of yourself, you had one or two more hours every day to spend with the family, to play games, read a good book, plan for tomorrow and the day and week after, or just relax in the knowledge that you have achieved what you had set out to do for that day?
Meetings - a key time waster
Dr Mackenzie has conducted research and studies over the decades and has concluded that the problem of time management is a human and therefore universal one. His research has identified twenty time wasters, and given their universal nature we can all empathise with all of them. Yet there are some which I would emphasise as they are my greatest peeves. The first one is meetings. Call any public official and, increasingly, business executive in Guyana and the chances are that 'he is in a meeting.' The next meeting you attend, put yourself in the place of a disinterested observer. The likelihood is that you will conclude that even if the meeting was necessary, too many of the wrong people were in attendance, it was poorly run, it lasted too long and its productivity was well below acceptable. Not only is there no added value but most meetings are positively time wasters.
No work is produced at a meeting and there is often so little decided there which can lead to meaningful action that I would not be surprised if somewhere, someone has postulated the theory that the amount of work done is in inverse relation to the hours spent at meetings.
Procrastination - again
Another time waster identified by Dr Mackenzie is procrastination. He identifies as a reason for this phenomenon the fear of failure, and another as the lack of interest in the task. I am not sure it is so complicated at all. So often it is just laziness, disorganisation and poor supervision. Procrastinators often have an easy-going exterior even as they put stress on others who depend on their work. But this exterior is to bluff that they have things under control, and in fact they may be no less stressed than the others. Procrastinators behave as though work is limited and forget that if they were to complete one task ahead of schedule they would have more time to plan and even execute another.
Too much time is spent on the telephone, visiting and just creating the 'right,' atmosphere leaving too little time to get the real work done. Friends calling on the telephone to touch base is all very well, but does that friend know what the demands on your time are? Are you confident enough to tell him and to say you will call back, and do?
Do you plan your day and week and month in sufficient detail that will allow you to recognise any slippage? Were we not all told at school that 'to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail?' In consulting it is 'plan your work and work your plan.' That is the nearest we can get to guaranteeing success.
(This column repeats a topic carried two years ago.)