Many business people struggle with time management and would like to accomplish more tasks in a day, or have more time for non-work activities. There are a number of tips and suggestions for improving time management in a person's workplace and home, and different approaches work for different people.
Many of us attempt to accomplish tasks that can be easily assigned to or contracted out to someone else. By delegating a task, you can have more time to accomplish other important tasks. When can a task be delegated and when should you attempt it yourself? Some guidelines are as follows. A primary concern is that you should only delegate if there is a person who is skilled enough to do the task at hand. You can delegate to employees you supervise, those who are your colleagues, and even those above you. When you delegate a task to your subordinate—downward delegation—you have the authority to make sure that the task is done correctly, but assigning a task to an employee who lacks the skill to do it will often require more time than if you did the task yourself. Delegating to a peer, or a colleague, works well if you and the other person have complementary skills. You can trade responsibilities if you each have skills that are stronger than the other person's. Although most employees do not consider it, you can also delegate to employees above you in the organizational hierarchy—upward delegation. If you have been assigned a task that should not be yours or a task that is beyond your abilities, you can ask a superior for guidance or clarification. Your feedback may indicate to your supervisor that the task is better done by him or herself.
Another consideration when delegating is the type of task that can be delegated. There are three types of tasks that are best suited to being assigned to someone else: (1) tasks for which you do not have adequate skill or expertise, (2) tasks that you do not want to do but that others might, and (3) tasks that are easy to accomplish but detract from your value to the organization.
First, if someone else can do something more effectively than you can, you will spend too much time attempting to do it yourself. For instance, if you are planning a retirement party for a colleague, you could purchase, prepare, and arrange the food and beverages yourself. However, if you are not very good at preparing food or creating a buffet, it would be to use your time to hire a caterer for this task. In addition to saving the time it takes to purchase and prepare food and drinks, by hiring a reputable caterer, you would spend considerably less energy managing the task and thinking about it.
A second circumstance that benefits from delegation is if there is a task that another person might enjoy more than you. Again, consider the example of organizing a retirement party. Perhaps you do not enjoy party planning, but your colleague does. You can delegate this task to your colleague, perhaps taking on one of his tasks in return, creating a situation in which both of you feel satisfied with the work you are assigned.
A final situation in which you should delegate is if there is an easy task that takes little skill to accomplish. For instance, if you are sending a mass mailing, it is poor time management for you to stuff the envelopes yourself. A lower-level employee, like an assistant or secretary, might better do this. By allowing this other person to do a task that is easy to complete, you are freed to complete other tasks that require more skill and attention. Since the person to whom you have delegated this task is likely to complete it just as effectively as you would have, then there is no drawback to assigning the task to another.
When should you not delegate? First, you should accomplish your major job tasks. For instance, it may be appropriate for your secretary to stuff envelopes with a letter soliciting business from former clients, but it is not appropriate for this secretary to write the entirety of this letter without your help or final approval. If you consistently have others complete tasks that are supposed to be yours, then you may find yourself replaced by another employee. Second, you should not delegate tasks in which the outcome is critical. If you have tasks that, if not completed, can lose the company a client or money, you must be responsible for this task. If you are accountable for an important outcome, you should use caution when delegating. Finally, there are some tasks for which delegation is too expensive. While hiring a caterer for a party does not represent a large cost, there are other times in which hiring others to complete tasks (e.g., offer training or develop a web site) can be cost prohibitive to some organizations.
Procrastination, or putting off a task that must be completed, is common to many people, even in business environments. Procrastination occurs for many reasons: you may not know where to start on a task, you may not understand a task, you may dislike the task, or you may worry that you cannot complete a task successfully. Often a person's anxiety about a task leads them to avoid it. Therefore, to accomplish more in a workday, it is best to tackle the most difficult or worrisome task first. This is a beneficial because it allows you to devote the time and mental energy that is necessary for a difficult or unpleasant task when you are most able to. Furthermore, by reducing the anxiety associated with this task in tackling it early, you will find that work becomes easier. When the unpleasant task is finished, it no longer creates anxiety and worry, which can save time.
If a person leaves unpleasant or difficult tasks until shortly before their deadlines or until the end of the workday, he or she will have less energy to complete this task. Additionally, the anxiety and dread associated with the completion of the task that has been procrastinated may affect a person's ability to complete other tasks throughout the day. The negative emotions associated with the anticipation an unpleasant task is likely to distract a person from the other tasks that they are trying to complete. This can make even easy tasks more time consuming to complete.
Goals can be very effective ways to meet work-place demands in a timely manner. Goals are measurable, short-term objectives. Simply by setting an appropriate goal, you can better organize your day or week. Decades of research have supported the effectiveness of goal setting on performance in a variety of tasks. However, for a goal to be effective, it must be designed properly by being specific and difficult. Specific goals are much more effective than non-specific goals, because your progress can be assessed. For instance, setting a goal of reading 20 pages of a report is a good goal because you can determine whether or not it was accomplished. If your goal was to "read a lot of the report" then you might determine 5 pages into it, that you had accomplished that goal, when in reality, you had not read enough. Goals should also be difficult, but not too challenging. A goal that is too easy, such as "respond to one e-mail today" are not motivating because they present no challenge at all. Overly difficult goals (e.g., "improve my sales by 50 percent in one month") are also not motivational; they are so challenging that a person may give up too soon, realizing they will never reach the goal. In addition to being appropriately specific and difficult, you are more likely to reach goals to which you are committed. A lack of interest or commitment in reaching the goal makes the goal-setting process futile.
One of the advantages of setting goals to improve time management is that, over time, you gain a more realistic understanding of what can be accomplished in a workday. People who do not often set goals may not be aware of what their capabilities are; however, those who have set goals more consistently have a good idea of which goals they have been able to meet and which were set too high or too low.
Some people thrive when working under deadlines. Newspaper reporters operate each day with a set of firm deadlines. However, many other people find deadlines to be daunting and stressful. Deadlines are set to help us manage time. By always meeting deadlines, or even by meeting them early, you can appropriately manage time. If you complete deadline work early, you reduce the stress associated with your schedule, and you have more self-confidence about completing work tasks. Additionally, a person's work is likely to be higher quality if deadlines are met; attention to detail can suffer when a person is hurrying to finish a project. To meet your deadlines early, you can break larger tasks into smaller ones and prioritize them. In addition, setting interim deadlines before a final deadline can help you to set goals and to make a large and seemingly unmanageable project seem easier to complete. Finally, tackling more difficult tasks first, as described previously, may increase your ability to meet deadlines.
Organization and time management go hand in hand. Many people waste time looking for documents, messages, or other information necessary to complete tasks in a timely manner. There are a number of steps that can help you stay organized. First, arrange your workspace in a way that promotes organization. That is, have a place for everything, and put everything in its place. If you do not have a specific location for telephone messages, it is not surprising that you might spend time looking for a telephone message or even misplace one. Additionally, put the items that are most used closest to you. If you use a reference book (such as a dictionary or a computer programming language reference book) frequently, putting that book across the room wastes time. You want to minimize the amount of time you spend getting up from your desk retrieving or looking for items.
A second suggestion for staying organized is to spend a little time each day organizing your work-space. Discard paper and electronic documents that are no longer needed, file documents that will be needed at a later time, and write a to do list for tasks that must be accomplished that day or the next day. Some time management experts suggest that you only touch each piece of paper in your office once. That is, if you receive a memo, you should read it when you receive it and take action based on it only once, rather than reading the memo, putting it down, and having to reread it several times before acting on it.
A third suggestion it to use a calendar or day planner to stay organized; this will help you to remember important dates and deadlines. Without a calendar in which such dates are noted, some tasks or meetings may be forgotten; instead of planning the time you need to do certain tasks, you may have to drop everything to accomplish a task that must be done for a meeting that you forgot was later that day. For a calendar to be effective for time management, however, you must be sure to note important dates. An incomplete or inaccurate calendar is useless. This suggestion fits nicely with the recommendation to spend a little time each day organizing your workspace. If part of your organization effort includes documenting any important dates and times and reviewing events on a calendar scheduled fro the following days, this can aid time management.
Each person has a time of the day in which they are better able to concentrate or to do certain types of work. And, most people have a time of the day in which they have difficulty staying focused and getting things done. Some people are very productive in the mornings, but less able to concentrate in the afternoons. Others cannot tackle difficult tasks in the morning and prefer to wait until later in the day to do work that requires attention to detail. By determining when you are best able to do certain types of tasks, you can schedule them throughout your day so that you are most productive. For instance, if you are able to read and evaluate best in the morning, schedule those tasks for when you first arrive at work. If you find yourself getting sleepy in the afternoons, then reading quietly is not the best task for this time of day. Instead, you may choose to do tasks that involve a little bit of physical activity or that do not require as much mental concentration. Perhaps returning telephone calls or meeting with co-workers is better for afternoon tasks.
By scheduling tasks during the times of day when you are best able to do them, you are likely to be able to complete your work in a more time effective manner. Many people waste time trying to concentrate or solve difficult problems by doing so at a time that is ineffective for them. Re-reading a memo three times because you lack concentration in the late afternoon is a poor choice when you could read the memo once in the morning.
Stress is a major barrier to effective time management. Stress created by the workplace or by personal concerns can create anxiety and worry that are distracting from work. Even ineffective time management can lead to stress, since anxiety over completing tasks in a timely manner can hinder their accomplishment. To manage stress, it is important to first recognize what is creating the stress. Is it worry over a particular task, a work situation, or an issue at home? Once the stressor is recognized, it can be better managed. If the source of stress is unidentified, then it cannot be managed.
Once the source of stress is identified, you must determine which parts of the situation can be controlled and which cannot. For instance, if the source of stress is a looming deadline for a project, tackling some elements of that project or scheduling some of the tasks may relieve stress. However, there may be parts of the project that are causing stress that cannot be managed. For instance, if part of the successful completion of the project depends on the work of another person, this may create stress that cannot be controlled unless you have some ability to monitor the work of the other person. For stressors that are out of your control, you must either find ways to exert more control or to ignore the issue and focus on those tasks that you can control.
Even when stressors have been identified and controlled to some extent, you may still experience stress. To reduce stress physically, you can get an appropriate amount of sleep, exercise regularly, and eat properly. Many Americans are sleep deprived, and skipping even a couple of hours of sleep each night can have noticeable consequences in the workplace. Some sleep experts liken working while sleep deprived to working while drunk. Although many people think that they will get more done by working more hours and sleeping less, getting appropriate amounts of sleep can instead make a person more productive during their working hours, requiring less time on the job. There are many suggestions for improving sleep, as detailed in Exhibit 1.
Physical exercise can also reduce stress. Sports and other fitness activities can reduce a person's resting heart rate and blood pressure, which can help to alleviate the negative effects of stress. Many people forgo physical activity, believing that time invested in exercise will detract from a person's ability to complete other tasks. However, much like getting proper sleep, even minimal physical activity can make a person more effective during working hours due to decreased stress and anxiety.
Many people who struggle with time management do so because they have too many obligations. People agree to take on tasks or responsibilities, knowing that their time is limited, but feeling that they cannot say no. However, people agree to take on tasks that they have little time for because they want to help others, they feel guilty for saying no, feel obligated by a superior, or misjudge the time they have available. Saying yes to people who make requests can feel good, but not having time to accomplish tasks can be a letdown to the person and the organization. So, often times, saying no to a request is a better option than taking on a task for which there is not adequate time. Therefore, knowing the right time to decline a request is important.
How does a person know when to say yes or no to a request? First, you must consider what the actual commitment is; that is, how much time, effort, and energy it will take. If you do not fully explore the possible commitments required by a certain request, you may be agreeing to do something that takes much longer than you originally anticipated. Second, you must decide if agreeing to the request is a good use of your time. If you compare the proposed commitment to your normal duties, which is more important? Those tasks that have very meaningful outcomes may be worth agreeing to do even when time is limited.
Even when a person knows that they do not have the time available to say yes to a new commitment, saying no can be difficult. To decline a request more effectively, you should do four things. First, offer the person a reason for your answer of no. If you do not provide a good reason to decline the request, then others may assume that you are lazy or selfish. Second, be tactful when you turn someone down because the denial may make him or her angry or hurt. Third, suggest an alternative that takes less time. By giving the requester another option, such as a different employee who might do the task or another time when you can help, you show that you want to cooperate, while still protecting your time. Finally, tell the person "no" as soon as possible. By asking for time to think over a decision when you know that you will decline their request, you may cause more problems or even find yourself obligated to say yes.
The availability of communication technology, such as e-mail and cellular telephones has done much to improve the ability of Americans to get work done. However, communication technology can also hinder your ability to get work done. Employees now have many interruptions while trying to get work done. If you find that the arrival of a new email message or the ringing of the telephone is interrupting your work, you may choose to ignore them. If you are able to postpone speaking with people or responding to email messages, it may be helpful to set aside a time period that is communication free. For instance, you might decide that from 1–3 p.m. each day, you must concentrate on getting specific tasks done, and during that time, you will not take calls or read e-mails. It is important, however, after this period of no communication to respond to work-related messages received during this time period.
Because time management can have an effect on employees' productivity in the workplace, some employers are now offering information and assistance for employees who want to better manage their time. Some organizations now offer time management workshops that teach skills such as those listed above. Additionally, seminars may be developed around particular models of time management, such as those presented in Steven Covey's book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Another approach employers can use to assist employees in time management skills is through wellness programs. Wellness programs are opportunities offered or subsidized by the organization to promote physical and emotional health and well-being, thereby reducing stress. They are intended as preventative measures and aim to reduce health risks and/or emotional stress. One of the outcomes that may be associated with a wellness plan is the ability to better manage time—if people are more physically well, many of the stress-related barriers to time management are reduced. Wellness plans may involve free or reduced-cost health club memberships, on-site health clubs, relaxation courses, stress-reduction courses, smoking cessation courses, and even time management courses. Some organizations even take the step of reducing health insurance premiums for those employees who participate in a wellness plan.
Finally, many organizations now offer benefits and services intended to help employees manage non-work activities. Flexible work hours, on-site day care, leave banks, and even valet services are now being offered in some organizations. These types of services, while often improving employee recruitment and retention, may also help to reduce distractions at work, to reduce employee stress, and to assist employees in being more productive during working hours.
Time management is a challenge for many people, and there are a number of tips that can help employees to make better use of their time. By learning delegating skills, prioritizing tasks appropriately, setting goals, meeting deadlines early, staying organized, finding the most productive time of the day, minimizing stress, saying "no" to some requests, and reducing the intrusion of technology, employees may be able to improve their time management. Additionally, many organizations now offer programs to teach employees time-management skills in order to reduce stress and improve overall well-being, and to assist them in managing their non-work lives.
Marcia J. Simmering
Covey, Steven R. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1989.
Mancini, Marc. Time Management. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003.
Tracy, Brian. Time Power: A Proven System for Getting More Done in Less Time Than You Ever Thought Possible. New York: AMACON Books, 2004.