The A-F of Time Management

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Time Management keynote TalkWe recently spoke at a meeting of the Association of Accounting Technicians on the subject of time management.  We’ve run many training sessions over the years on this subject but this talk was based upon the system that we use ourselves generated by our own experience and with elements of systems proposed by others, in particular ‘Getting Things Done’ by productivity consultant David Allen.  Business is not getting any easier and so, it is now more vital than ever to squeeze the most out of every minute and to do that you do need to have a system in place. Ours is as easy as ABC… DE and F and this is a synopsis of the presentation.

A is for A system. Find a system that works for you and stick with it. Much has been written on the subject. There are some great thoughts within Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, John Adair’s “Effective Time Management”, Brian Tracey’s “Eat that Frog” and of course “Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway” by Susan Jeffers. You’ll find on the internet a proliferation of blogs and websites on the subject. We particularly like the collective knowledge and thoughts within Dave Allen’s “Getting Things Done” primarily because we are so familiar with one of the key tools within the system. Back in our days working in a bank every branch ran like clockwork by virtue of 43 Folders.  In the Sub-Manager’s filing cabinet was a diary system consisting of these 43 folders. There is a folder for each one of the 31 days in a month and another for each of the 12 months adding up to 43 folders in total. When deferring your stuff you literally put it into one of the folders! Then on the relevant day (or better still the day before) you get out your stuff and Do it on the due date! Brilliant.

Dave Allen’s prescribed flow-chart for dealing with your stuff is really easy to follow and you’ll find it in his book.

B stands for bucket, because one of the most important elements of effective time management is that you work on one thing at a time and do not have a desk littered with items that you flit between.  To achieve this, everything needs neatly storing and prioritising in buckets – well if not actual buckets, files & folders, both real & virtual. The first and most important ‘bucket’ is your in-tray.  This is the starting point for all the ‘stuff’ that you have to deal with. Once your life is under control it will only contain items that have arrived that day but to start with it could be a towering heap that needs tackling using The System.  You may actually have two in-trays; one on your desk and a virtual one on your PC but the way that you move stuff along remains the same. Some people print out their e-mails and place them in the live system.

Let’s look at the first three buckets which are for stuff you are not going to action:

The Waste Bin – Seriously, if you are never going to action or refer back to an item, bin it.

The Tickler File – This is for things that you might do one day. Put them all in one place off your desk and clear it out regularly.

The Reference File – This is the place for information items which require no action but which you wish to keep for future reference. File them in a logical way so that you can retrieve them when you want them.

The 43 Folders system requires one drawer in a filing cabinet and more of that later.

There – the desk looks better already!

C is for Consciousness! Be conscious of time passing. Make sure you can see a clock! Better still use a timer to set yourself deadlines! Put yourself under pressure to get things done quickly. So, be conscious of the passage of time and how quickly it takes you to do things. Log how long it actually takes you to do things and cross reference with your plan. This will make you better at judging how long tasks take.
C is also for Chunking… i.e. break down big tasks into bite-sized chunks… “By the yard its hard, by the inch it’s a synch!” Within Dave Allen’s system this is about deciding if a particular task is actually a project – which needs planning. Once planned and “chunked” into smaller tasks – then these are put back in the system for processing and actioning.

D is Do, Delegate or Defer. Now, looking at what is left in our in-tray we need to make some more decisions.

If we can deal with something in 2 minutes or less, just do it. Simple

If there is a task which we should delegate, then delegate it using all the rules of good delegation, in particular remember that we delegate the work and not the responsibility.

There will almost certainly be some items that need to be done but not today. In order to get these off the desk you need a good diary system – the 43 folders. If today is 1 December and I have something that I need to action on 10 December it goes in the “10” folder.  If I decide to defer it until January, it goes in the January folder.  At the end of December I simply empty the “January Folder” and move the items into the folder appropriate for the day it needs to be done.

We are now left with the items to be tackled today and these can be prioritised and worked through efficiently because all the clutter has been removed.

E is for Eliminate or, as we prefer: EXTERMINATE! Get rid of tasks that you do but don’t need to do. They might be fun but unless they are helping you achieve your Aims & Objectives then they are just wasting your time. Tidy up! Throw out all paper you haven’t touched recently! File your heaps into their appropriate buckets and remember to recycle where possible. It’s a great feeling getting rid of paper! And don’t forget to use the trash-can that comes with your e-mail programme. Set yourself a target of dumping 10% of unwanted e-mails every day!

F is for Frog. Yes frog. With thanks to another great book, this one by Brian Tracey called “Eat That Frog!” The point is here that in everyone’s life there are things that they just don’t like doing. For most of us that will include eating Frogs! In work terms it means that task which keeps getting put off because you don’t want to do it. For many people that could be planning and preparing for a presentation that they don’t want to give. Because it gets put off, it is often rushed and, as a result, is not a triumph so the whole thing becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You may not want to do it but if the frog has to be eaten, do it, get it out of the way and you will feel so relieved to have it behind you. If you have two frogs on your desk, eat the ugly one first!

So, there you have it – our A-F observations on time management – just scratching the surface of a huge subject. If we could add another letter it would be O as in “Oh for Objectives” making sure your objectives are absolutely clear will enable you to assess the relevance of much of the “Stuff” you start off thinking you have to do!

If you’d like to see what we have to say about “Tie Management” then that’s another blog!

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