Last reviewed 5 June 2017

Gudrun Limbrick looks at the development and usefulness of time management.

Not everyone does their job fantastically well all the time. In fact, if the truth be told, very few of us do our jobs perfectly any of the time. As we strive to do our jobs well, for the good of the company and for our own personal job satisfaction, we can spend a great deal of time analysing where we are going wrong. There are always external reasons, occurrences beyond our control, which affect how we do our jobs, but sometimes we have to face the fact that it might be internal factors which are holding us back. Analysing these internal factors often suggests that not enough work is being carried out in a given time period, or that work which is being carried out is rushed and inadequate.

This is where the concept of time management was born. It stands to reason, if there are not enough hours in the day to get our work done, we either have to accept that the job is too much for the time allotted to it, or we have to work out how to manage time better to squeeze the job into the time. As the former can be an expensive option to resolve, the latter option has gained popularity as a way of resolving a problem.

Time management has become something of a pseudoscience with numerous tomes written about it, courses, and endless printed “to-do lists” and action boards to enable us to organise our time better. All of these solutions need an investment of the very resource we are short of: time. Is it really worth expending more time in the hope of saving time further down the line?

The first step in traditional time management is to monitor how time is currently being spent. Subjectively, we are generally pretty terrible at assessing how well, or otherwise, we spend our time. For this reason, to get an objective view, we have to keep a diary which objectively (stopwatches at the ready) records how much time we spend on each activity through the working day. This can be a complicated task as we endeavour to categorise all the time in our day and it can also be a very uncomfortable task. There are many things which have to happen in a working day which add little directly to our work tasks — chatting with colleagues and customers, making cups of coffee, visiting the toilet, staring out of the window, arguing with the photocopier, looking for the sellotape. The amount of time we spend on these tasks can be huge, and thus a source of embarrassment, but it is impossible, and unwise, to eliminate this “empty” time altogether.

The problem is that keeping these diaries and analysing the results takes a great deal of time. It is only a task worth undertaking if there is a genuine commitment to making changes based on the findings from both the employee themselves and those in management. If an entire department keeping diaries results in a significant change, such as outsourcing a particularly time-consuming area of work, or appointing a new member of staff, for example, keeping a diary will generally only add a level of understanding where the time is going, rather than helping to change this drain on time.

The second stage of the time management analysis process is to keep lists of all the tasks which need to be undertaken in a particular time period. A good “to-do list” will include firm deadlines, actions required from other people, prioritisation classifications and flowcharts of what needs to happen in what order. These lists can sap a lot of time from a day. Money can be thrown at them as well — software is available to keep track of task lists, specially designed boards to take post-it notes and apps for phones. Whether you write a to-do list on a piece of paper or on a board, the chances are that it will be out of date as soon as the next urgent task lands on your desk. Rather than being the answer to poor time management, designing and updating complex to-do lists can be a procrastinator’s dream!

One of the biggest problems in keeping track of where our time goes arrives in the form of emails. Emails are a massive problem to time management as they are a never-ending demand on our time. They all look equally important so we give them all equal priority when they come in. Even if our decision is to ignore or delete them, they take up time. If we forward them to someone else to deal with, they inevitably copy you into a response and the process starts again.

Emails form their own constantly increasing to-do list and our inbox can serve as a constant reminder of what we have not yet done. Significantly they also serve as a way of hiding away from other tasks. I could quite easily spend a day replying to emails, sporting my emails, digging out those emails I should have dug out long ago, and sorting out and deleting other messages in my inbox. That day would essentially be non-productive — I would end up having achieved remarkably little, expect the generation of a whole raft of new emails — thanking me for my email, asking for follow-up, copying me in on someone else’s email. Superficially however, I would be hard at work at my job.

Communication is now so easy that we unwittingly communicate much more. If we still relied on the landline and written letters, we would probably not be aware of a tenth of the communications that land in our inboxes every day. It can be overwhelming. However, the floodgates having been opened, we have little choice but to make time to deal with them.

Time management can be a polite (or constructive) way of telling a colleague that they are not working hard enough. Going through the process of keeping diaries and prioritising tasks will generally only serve to take more time out of each day.

In reality, we all really know where time is really draining from our days and where there are problems with time, they need to be first addressed by cutting out those things. These can be issues such as too much chatting; getting involved in work that is not your responsibility; delegating effectively; cutting down on time in meetings. Making changes in these areas does not need time to be spent on diaries and lists but can immediately free up more time to productive work.

Generally, when an individual or a department is having significant problems with how much they are able to achieve in a day, the solution will never be as simple and straightforward as managing time. This will warrant a complete reassessment of how well-suited the individual or department is to the task in hand, how well delegation is taking place, what support is needed from other departments, what other resources and technology are needed, and how well the whole team is being managed. Simply looking at time management in isolation is simply a waste of … well, … time.