Putting a Priority on Your Time

By Mark Ellwood

Where does all the time go? Long hours. Late nights. Snatched lunches. Some employees boast about their excessive work schedule as if it’s a badge of honor: "I start work at 7:00 a.m. and work right though until 8:00 p.m." Some of their Herculean claims border on the absurd. "Last night I went to bed at three a.m. and had to get up two hours earlier to finish a report." Or, "I used to eat lunch at my desk. But I need to save more time, so I’m giving up eating…"

The problem is NOT that there isn’t enough time. Time doesn’t expand. The problem is that people burden themselves with too many activities. The key to success is how you allocate your time to the important ones. In research we’ve conducted for clients, average employees spend about 50% of their time on A and B priorities. But among the top performers, A and B priorities will approach 60%. That’s an increase of 5 hours per week that can make all the difference.

Here’s how to think about setting priorities. "A" activities are those that influence long term results. If you had nothing else to do tomorrow, what would affect your results one month from now? For sales people this means selling, which in fact only amounts to 23% of their time. For managers this means supervising people, which is only 18% of their time, and planning which is only 6%.

"B" priorities are the aspects of your job description that must get done today. This could be responding to customers, attending monthly meetings, preparing reports, inputting data or shipping products. For example, store supervisors oversee maintenance, a "B" priority that takes up 7% of their time.

"C" priorities are those unplanned or unwritten aspects of your job that need to be done. They include filling out expense reports, opening the mail, filing and answering requests from other departments. These are also known as administrative activities. Our research indicates that administrative tasks amount to 20% of the time. Within this, paperwork alone can take 5 hours per week. If you’re spending more than that, the system is bogging you down.

Finally "D" activities are those things that could be put off for a couple of days. Perhaps some of them are things you shouldn’t be doing at all. They include reading trade magazines, handling tasks that should be delegated, and conducting superfluous internet research. Miscellaneous time can be as much as 5% of the week.

So make sure to focus your most productive time on the high priority items that will make a difference. Here are a few other time tips for employees:

Create a list of activities each day. Make a list of things to do with A, B and C priorities written beside each. Write your list on a piece of paper, in your time planner or even on a Post-It note. Paper doesn’t quite seem to have disappeared from the office. The advantage to paper is that you can see it readily, you can change it and you can tick off items once they’re finished. But don’t write, "Work on monthly report." This is too vague. Instead, be more specific with "Prepare tables for monthly sales results."

Block your time. First off, schedule time for your "A" priority activities. Plan to do them when you’re at your peak and when interruptions are least likely to occur. Write the time down in your time planner like it’s an appointment. Then, if someone asks you to meet during that time, say "Sorry, I have an appointment." No one will ask whom it’s with. It’s an appointment with you.

Delegate things you think only you can do. If your department’s intellectual capital lies with you alone, then you need to delegate more. And if you think someone isn’t ready for a new task, just remind yourself; they’re ready! Delegate the objective, the standards to be met and then ask the person what they need to get started. If they need help, they’ll let you know. Then watch them wow you with results.

Stop sorting the mail. Do your important work before looking at the mail. Even if you have just a few minutes, there’s always something you can do on your major tasks. When you have to handle your mail, don’t keep putting in different piles, FLAG it. That means File it, Let someone else handle it, take Action on it or throw it in the Garbage. The same goes for both traditional mail and e-mail.

Spend money to save time. People say, "time is money", but for many of them it isn’t. They’ll drive across town just to save a dollar on a tank of gas. Or, they’ll spend hours doing unpleasant tasks that they could easily delegate. They’re the same people who crave more time. But they spend their time to save money. On the other hand, successful people will spend money to save time. They hire others to do things they don’t like doing or aren’t good at. They don’t worry about spending a dollar if it will save them an hour.

Go to a movie. Make time for balance. Working all day and night will increase your stress level. Schedule time for art, culture, recreation, spirituality, community or family activities in the same way you schedule your "A" priorities. Don’t let time for the important things slip away. Plus, the experiences and insights you gain from these activities will allow you to do your job better.

Above all remember, your time is worth it.

Mark Ellwood is a productivity consultant and trainer who specializes in measuring and improving how employees spend their time. Contact him at (416) 762-3453 or via www.GetMoreDone.com

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