Time Management Tips: Taking Control of Your Day

Jun 21, 2013

Time can easily slip away. When this happens, promises to customers are broken, return phone calls aren’t made, appointments and deadlines are missed and new sales opportunities are lost.

We all would like a few extra hours each day. But until the rotation of the earth slows down, 24 hours is all the time that you get. The best that you can do is to adopt behaviors in your life which will help you better use the time that you have.

In this article, I will suggest some time saving tips that I have used over years. My hope is that these ideas will help you better plan your activities, so you can focus on those activities that will yield the highest rewards for you and your business. If, on the other hand, you already are using a time management system, perhaps these suggestions will help you coach any employees that might need some guidance.

Establish Good Habits

Thirty-five years ago, I worked for a general contractor as construction manager. At any one time, I worked on 10 to 20 commercial and residential commercial projects. Working in a job that involved planning and scheduling a myriad of activities and having to deal daily with dozens of distractions forced me to adopt work habits that are still part of daily ritual.

As I have my morning coffee, I review my daily things to do list. I also use this quiet time to read and write and to work on projects that require concentration. I prefer doing the toughest tasks on my “to do list” in the morning, because that’s when my mind is its freshest and I am not distracted by phone calls.

A second habit that I incorporated into my daily routine is to write a daily “things to do” list. I will describe more about organizing a list later.

Along with these two habits, I also learned to value time. We have all heard the phrase that “time is money”. That phrase took on a very special meaning for businesses in the 1970s. At that time, interest rates were in double digits. If you ran a construction company that was borrowing millions of dollars, “time was BIG money”!

The owner of the company never let me forget about the high cost of money. His daily reminders motivated me to keep jobs moving along. If you didn’t keep your proverbial eye on the ball, project delays could kill your business. If you are old enough to remember the days of malaise, when Jimmy Carter was president, you probably remember many stories of multimillionaires, who went from riches to rags. I knew one contractor, who lost his company and his life savings, and ended up as golf course manager.

Establishing good work habits is as important as learning time management systems. In a matter of a couple of hours, you can learn the techniques of any system. That’s the easy part. The difficult part is to take action and put all of those techniques into practice.

The key words are “take action” and “practice”. It does you no good to read a great idea and not do anything about. So if you learn something new, do something about it. And if you want to make these behaviors a regular part of your life, practice these behaviors daily. To turn these behaviors into habits, you have to practice them every single day, without fail, for at least a month. After that, the behavior will be part of your routine.

Time Management Systems

When I worked for a screen printer, I followed a time management program that utilized the “Daytimer” system, which combines a daily calendar and “things to do list”. Some of my friends in the sign industry used the Franklin Day Planner, which is very similar. Later, I graduated to using Microsoft’s Outlook to schedule daily activities, plan major projects and maintain my calendar. Today I keep track of projects in an Excel workbook. Free project management templates are available on-line. More on this later.

When all is said and done, it really doesn’t matter, whether you use a low tech or high tech system. What’s important is that you have a system and that you make using it part of your daily routine.

Usually, I only spend about 30 minutes reviewing and updating my daily schedule and projects. Since I do my plans daily, and keep up with what I need to do, that’s usually all the time that I need. Frankly, I don’t want to spend more time planning than that. If I did, all I would spend more time planning than working.

Goal Setting

What does goal setting have to do with time management? Everything! That’s because our goals provide direction for prioritizing our most important activities and tasks. As Rudolph Giuliani says in book, Leadership, “organize around a purpose”, suggesting that goals and objectives serve as the cornerstone for our activities.

Without a goal as your destination, you wander directionless through life. As the Cheshire cat told Alicein Wonderland, if you don’t know where you are going, it doesn’t matter which road you take because any road will get you there.

Although goals are a popular business topic, very few business people have set them for their personal life and even fewer have written them down. If you are serious about setting goals for your business and your life, you should go through a formal planning process.

You also need to do some soul searching. What do you want to achieve in your career and in your life? What is your purpose in your business, your family and in your community? How do you want to be remembered years after you are gone?

If you have a goal, be sure to write it down. If you try to commit a goal to memory, it often is soon forgotten. Write what you want to accomplish and when do you want to achieve your goal. It also helps to keepa table, so you can chart your progress as you work toward your goal.

Here’s an interesting idea: to stay focused on your goal, tape your main goal on your bathroom mirror, so you have your goal staring you straight in the face as you start every new day. If you have a monthly sales goal, you might post it prominently on a chalk board in your shop, for all of your employees to see. It doesn’t matter where you write your goal down, just make sure that you do it.

Establishing milestones and deadlines for your goal will give your objectives a sense of urgency. Without deadlines actions are put off until tomorrow. Next formulate a detailed plan with specific actions needed to complete the goal. Finally, to keep you on track, decide on which yardstick will be used to monitor your progress.

“For most sign shop owners, money is a good way to keep score,”says Butch “Superfrog” Anton. “In my shop, I keep close tabs on monthly sales, shop costs and profits. I also track my productivity, which gauges how much time I actually spend working on jobs versus other activities that I can’t charge to a job, such as sweeping the floor and answering phones. If I don’t meet the standards that I have set for myself, then I know it’s time to evaluate what I am doing and determine what changes that I need to make. In some cases, I need to modify my plans. More often than not, if you aren’t achieving your objectives, it’s because you’re not following through on the plan.”

Daily Planning

How many people do you know that try to rely on their memory? The ones that do, are usually not very reliable. Although l have a good memory, I have learned to write everything down that I need to do. If I don’t, activities have a way of slipping through the tracks.

An essential part of planning your day is to write a list of everything that you need to do. For me, organizing activities in this manner is infinitely preferable than to try to keep track of a hundred of post-it notes or scraps of paper that end up in a hundred different places or get washed with the laundry.

To plan your daily activities, you can use the 1 day view of the Outlook calendar, to list all of the activities that you would like to accomplish that day. If you are using either the Daytimer or Franklinplanners, use the spaces on the calendar sheets for listing daily activities. Your daily schedule should include any of the jobs for that day, meetings that you must attend, appointments and all the phone calls that you need to make. If you are using Outlook, you can plug an activity into a particular time slot.

For each activity, estimate how long it will take you to accomplish it and then allocate sufficient time to accomplish each task. Most projects take longer than you expect so give yourself so leeway in scheduling. That way you will not feel rushed or pressured. Also, allow yourself extra time for each activity to handle the inevitable interruptions and emergencies that we all encounter. Don’t build in too much cushion time. It’s human nature to use all of the time allotted for an activity. That extra time is generally wasted.

In planning your day, you should schedule the most difficult activities which require the highest degree of concentration. This is a good practice for a couple of reasons. First, it helps to overcome procrastination. Second, you usually have more energy earlier in the day, and can focus better on the demanding tasks. Schedule activities, which are less mentally demanding, such as phone calls and your daily planning session, for the end of the day.

Some people keep separate lists for all types of personal and business activities. In my opinion, keeping multiple lists just complicates your life. It’s much simpler to keep all of your daily activities on one list. That way you have only one list to organize and only one list that you could potentially lose.

Limit the number of activities on your daily things-to-do list to manageable number -“ few than ten items. It makes no sense to write a list so long that you cannot accomplish it during the work day. Most people (myself included) try to cram 100 hours of work in a 40 to 60 hour work week. What’s the point of listing more activities than you could possibly do in a day?

Prioritize

In one of the Dirty Harry movies, Clint Eastwood says, “A man’s got to know his limitations”. As a human being you are probably capable of accomplishing anything that you set your mind to do. You just have to come to grips with the reality that you can’t do it all.

In managing your time, perhaps your only limitation is that you only have 24 hours in a day. Your challenge in making the most of your day, is to make good decisions regarding what you will and will not do.

After writing out your list of activities that you would like to accomplish, you need to prioritize them. Some people divide their activities, goals and projects into three groups: A for high priority activities, B for normal priority, and C for low priority.

The most important activities on your list should help you accomplish your most important business objectives (that’s why goal planning is an essential part of time management). The high priority tasks are the ones that you should work on first. If the activity is not important, ask yourself if it is worth doing at all and if you are the one who should be doing it. Scratch unnecessary busy work from your list or assign the job to a subordinate.

At the end of the week, review all of the remaining activities that you did not do and decide which ones are really important. This is also a good time to do some soul searching to critique your performance for the week. Did you accomplish everything that you set out to accomplish? How could you have better spent your time? How sidetracked that week, if it did? What can you do better next week?

When to Plan Your Day

For years I did my planning the first thing in the morning. For the last year I have tried to change my routine, planning at the end of the day. One of the most successful graphics salesmen that I knew, planned his work this way. The next day, he hit the ground running. He was out the door early enough so he was at his first sales appointment by 8:00 AM. Jerry retired from the industry a multi-millionaire. Who can argue with success?

Of course, everybody has their own routine. Butch Anton of Superfrog Signs & Graphics in Minnesotaplans the work for his shop the first fifteen minutes of every morning. “I lose valuable production time, when everybody is standing around, staring at work orders and scratching their heads, trying to figure out what to work on next,”says Anton. “You need to get everybody focused on the day before them. In morning meetings, you should quickly review what’s been done, what didn’t get done and what needs to be done for each job.” During these meetings, Butch advises that you give your employees a chance to give their input.

Butch recommends concluding morning meetings, by summarizing what was discussed and putting together a list of those things that must be accomplished that day, starting with the most important jobs first. By prioritizing and working on the most important tasks first, Anton feels that you can meet your deadlines and keep your commitments to yout customers.

In addition to daily planning, weekends are a great time to do weekly planning. Planning weeks in advance on the weekends, provides you with some quiet time to reflect on your progress.

After you finish your planning, a good habit to adopt is to clean the clutter from your desktop before leaving the office -“ even if your office is in your home. This way you are prepared for the start of the next new day.

Project Planning

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, several free project planning templates are available for Excel. You probably won’t find an out-of-the-box template that will satisfy all of your needs, so you will likely need to modify it. For my project planning spreadsheet, I include the following:

  • When the project was initiated or last worked on;
  • The status of the project (Planning, In-Progress, Under Review, Completed);
  • Project priority (Low, Med, High);
  • Description of the project;
  • Key deliverables;
  • Deadline (date);
  • % Complete;
  • Days left until D-day;
  • Estimated Cost; and
  • Actual Cost

Establishing a deadline is always critical for success. Otherwise, projects linger forever and never get accomplished. In doing this, make sure that the deadline is realistic. Impossible deadlines are an exercise in futility, dooming you to unnecessary stress and ultimately to failure.

As essential as having a deadline is, deadlines are usually not set in stone, so don’t be afraid to ask a customer, boss or editor for a deadline. You will be less likely to come up against a deadline if you allow yourself enough time when you are planning. In committing to a deadline, make sure that what you are promising a customer or your boss is realistic. There’s nothing wrong with establishing a deadline that is later than when you really expect to complete the project.

At the onset of any project, you need to establish the objectives or goals for the project, which you can include in the description. As Dr. Stephen Covey advises in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.”

The next step is to break that massive project into bite-sized-pieces. This can make an overwhelming project into some more manageable or easier to swallow. Do you remember how the ant ate the elephant? One bite at a time.

After dividing the project into manageable parts or action items, you need to assign these actions to someone on the project team. If you are working with a team of people, make sure that everybody understands the project goals and who is going to do what and when.

Once you start a project, you need to regularly monitor its progress. In your project reviews, you need to check to see what has been done, and if it hasn’t been done, why wasn’t it done, and when it will be done.

Time Thieves

Because you always have more things to do than time to do them, you need to focus on the most important tasks. When you allow interruptions, e-mails, phone calls, to distract you from your primary goals, your productivity drops.

If you are wondering where all of your time goes, and want to see how efficiently you use time, try keeping a time log to monitor your activities for a week. In tracking your time, be honest. What distractions do you allow that rob you of valuable hours? How do you spend the first hours of the day? Do you get caught up in bull sessions? How much time do you waste surfing the web?

The following are some common distractions and my suggestions on how to deal with them:

E-mail, Snail Mail & Voice Mail. E-mails, junk mail and phone calls can be some of the biggest distractions, preventing us from being productive. No one has the time to read every e-mail that he receives. Most of what I receive, I delete. For those e-mails that demand attention and a response, I usually wait to answer them at the end of the day. If a message has any kind of particular relevance to a project that I am working on, I copy and paste it in my project file. E-mails from or about customers go immediately into my customer file.

Before I leave the post office, I sort through my mail. After I quickly scan it, I decide what is and isn’t important. At least 50% goes right in the trash.

By using caller ID and voice mail, you can minimize distractions and interruptions, and better manage your phone time. Caller ID is a worthwhile investment because it gives you the option of deciding who to talk to. Used along with voicemail, it can help you track who called and when. If you are working on a project that requires your concentration, I also suggest that you turn off your cell phone.

The same holds true for voice mail. I try to reply quickly to calls from customers and business associates. Most calls from sales people, however, get deleted. Unless I need a particular product or service, these calls get deleted.

Do Your Own Work. Although teamwork is essential to anyone’s success, doing the work of another is usually a waste of your time and will distract you from accomplishing the essential goals in your life. It’s very easy for sign makers to say “yes” to every customer request. When you over-schedule yourself, you end up not meeting deadlines. Sometimes you just need to say NO!

Matters that get referred to me, that are not my job, get referred to the appropriate person. As one friend frequently says, “If I’m doing your job, I won’t have time to do my job.” If you are the boss, delegate. Of course, don’t be surprised if the task that you assign doesn’t get done. As he was leaving office, Harry Truman said that Eisenhower was in for a real surprise. He predicted that Ike would sit at his big desk in the Oval Office, and make all kinds of pronouncements, only to discover that nothing got done

To make sure that assignments are accomplished, keep a file on each employee containing their assignments. Regularly review the file with the employee to keep him or her on track. You also need to come to an agreement with your employee, which outlines his or her two or three primary responsibilities. Without that understanding, no one can be effective.

The Bull Ring. Your colleagues can also be a big distraction. When my plate is full, I don’t have time for company gossip or bitch sessions. During times such as these, I need quiet time. When I am home and don’t want to be disturbed, I turn my answering machine. In a business environment, I suggest closing the door to your office and telling your employees that you need some quiet time to get your work done. Most of the time your associates can answer questions and handle issues, if they do their own thinking.

Meetings. Meetings can be another major waste of time. If a particular meeting is not essential to your job, do your best to excuse yourself from as many of these meetings as you can. If you are the one conducting the meeting, here are a couple of suggestions:

  • Before the meeting, publish an agenda with the topics that you want to cover.
  • Set a time limit for each of the topics. (Many years ago, I had attended a sales training seminar conducted by a speaker, who used a timer during the sessions. The timer reminded him to finish one training module and move on to the next. This helped him cover all of the topics that he had intended to cover and finish the seminar on time. The same method is effective for meetings. Without someone designated as a timekeeper, most meetings tend to get off track or turn into a rambling bull session.)
  • Start and finish your meeting on time.
  • If your meetings tend to run long, hold your meeting either just before lunch or at the end of the day.
  • At the end of the meeting, assign specific activities to your employees.
  • With 24 hours circulate the meeting notes.

Long Memos. If you are writing memos, keep your message short and to the point. Shorter memos save the recipients time. Be sure that you value the time of others as much as you value your own. Use simple, easy-to-understand words and sentences. The first sentences of the memo should contain the key points that you are trying to make. To make your memo easier to read, try using bullet points.

Mistakes. Fixing mistakes is always a waste of time. Do you want to save time? Do your job right the first time.

Unqualified Prospects. If you are a sales person, one of the biggest wastes of time is talking to unqualified prospects, who either don’t need your products and services, or don’t have the authority to make a purchasing decision. Another waste of time is chasing after business when you are either incapable of making the product or producing it at a competitive price. Sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But it happens all of the time.

Unplanned Phone Calls. Unplanned phone calls usually meander aimlessly, taking longer than necessary. I try to keep phone conversations under ten minutes. Here are a few time-saving tips when making business calls:

  • Outline of the topics that you want to cover in the conversation, before making the call. That way, you will cover all of the topics that you want to discuss.
  • Don’t multi-task when you are on the phone. I often try to work on the computer while the other person is talking. You need to carefully listen to what the other person is saying, rather than being distracted by another activity.
  • Get in the habit of taking notes during a phone conversation.
  • Being personable is important; but getting to the point is critical and it is also respectful of the other person’s time. Remember, that when you make a phone call, you are interrupting the other person’s day. Maintain good files, so when you call a customer, prospect or associate, you have all the information that you need to conduct a productive phone call. If you are have a phone conversation with someone who tends to ramble, you can get control of the conversation by politely asking them “What’s your point?”

Conclusion

Countless hi-tech and low-tech systems work for scheduling jobs or planning your day. What’s important is to find the easiest way that works for your business and incorporate it into your company’s daily routine. Your reward will be that you will spend less time on unimportant activities and putting out fires and more time on the meaningful, important projects that are in concert with your personal and business goals.