Become a Time Lord (or Lady!)

If you want to be supreme governor of your time, you have to work at it continually. It's all about building good habits, and dropping bad habits, says author Patrick Forsyth. Here, he explains how to ditch one of the worst...

By Patrick Forsyth

Time management must be seen as synonymous with self-management; it demands discipline, but discipline reinforced by habit. In other words, the good news is that it gets easier as you work at it.

Making time management work for you is based on two key factors: how you plan your time, and how you implement the detail of what you do. The first of these creates an important foundation upon which you can then build and work. The second consists of a multitude of operational factors, practices, methods and tricks, all of which can individually and positively affect the way in which you work.

One of the big time stealers often goes unnoticed, partly because the concept is rather absurd: it's doing things which are unnecessary! Most people will deny, if asked, that they spend time doing things that are unnecessary. But it does happen. And it happens for all sorts of reasons.

Consider a few examples:

  • Habit. You have always attended a monthly meeting, read a regularly-circulated report, checked certain information, filed certain items, and kept in touch with certain people. And it is easy for things to run on, repeating automatically without thought, and for such things to take up time unnecessarily.

  • Insurance. You do things for protective reasons. In case something goes wrong, in case someone asks why, in case… what? Sometimes the reason is not clear, there is just a feeling that it is safer to do something than not. Filing and documenting things are examples of this.

  • Avoidance. The real reason for something to be done has long disappeared, but continuing to do it means you have no time - and excuse - to take on or try out something new and perhaps risky. Be honest, have you really never put off doing something new?

  • Expectation. You do things not because of their real worth, but because it is, or you feel it is, expected of you. In a team environment you do not want to let others down (though you will let things down more by ignoring priorities).

  • Appearances. You do things because they are "good things" to be involved with, perhaps politically, and every organisation has some politics. Your position and people's perception of you around the organisation are important, but you must not overdo this kind of involvement, not least because it can become self-defeating, being seen as the ego trip of someone who has nothing better to do.

All of these and more may occur, and, make no mistake, there are no doubt valid reasons under each heading - you really do need to attend some meetings simply to demonstrate commitment and this is a tangible and priority result. But… but, this is an area to address very hard.

Are there any things you are doing that you can stop doing without affecting the results significantly? For most people an honest appraisal shows the answer to be "yes", so review it immediately if you have not done so for a while, and regularly afterwards, to ensure that unnecessary tasks are not creeping in again.

How is this done? Very simply (it is something consultants like me spend a lot of time doing with their clients). You ask "Why?". "Why is something being done?" And if the answer is because that is the way it is, that is the system, or - worse - that is the way it has always been done, then ask again. If you cannot really find a better reason then the task may well be a candidate for elimination. Failing that, maybe you can do it less often, in less detail or otherwise adjust the approach to save time and allow attention to the priorities.

If you are ruthless about this kind of questioning and honest about the answers, time may well be saved in this way.

Here are some other thoughts to help you control your time:

  • Think long-term. Allow yourself thinking and creative time to plan the best approach. Invest time, for example, in delegating tasks to others, or in learning software to help you work faster

  • Strike a balance between quality, and cost & time. Perfection is not always required, so don't waste time attaining it on every task. Keep this management phrase in mind: "I didn't want it perfect; I wanted it yesterday."

  • Control meetings rigorously. Set times for start, finish, and agenda items; publish the meeting's objectives in advance; and "encourage" people to prepare beforehand

  • Deal with persistent interrupters. Don't invite them to sit down; set a time limit ("I can give you 10 minutes"), and indicate an ending ("One more thing then I must get on...")

  • Build others' independence. When someone asks your opinion when they're capable of solving the issue themselves, simply ask: "What do you think you should do?"

  • Make full use of the WPB (Waste Paper Basket). Have the courage to throw documents away!

Every time saving, every productivity gain whether large or small adds to the total way in which your style of working contributes to your effectiveness. And the more you adopt the tricks of the trade that work for you, the more time-efficient you become. Try to keep a regular eye on whether you are working in the best way possible throughout your working life. This too can become a habit!

Patrick Forsyth runs Touchstone Training and Consultancy, which advises on marketing, sales and communication skills. An established author he has written a number of successful books including "Successful Time Management", "How to Motivate People", "Marketing on a Tight Budget", and "Developing Your Staff", all published by Kogan Page (

Patrick is also the author of "The Managing Upwards Pocketbook" (Management Pocketbooks, £6-99). It presents a plethora of practical advice about working with - and managing - your boss; even if they are a difficult one!

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