Improving Time Management Skills During a Project

Last Updated May 2, 2007 7:15 PM EDT

Time is a precious commodity for all of us, but even more so for project managers. Without good time-management skills, the many demands on their time—planning and allocating work, monitoring progress, motivating the team, keeping everyone happy, preparing for launch—can turn project managers into harassed individuals stretched too thinly in too many directions. This checklist suggests some techniques that, along with some forethought and discipline, can help you become a calm and productive project manager who uses time well and gets things done.

What You Need to KnowHow can I learn to say "no" when coworkers ask me to do jobs I don't have time for?

The first step is to realize that time is finite and you cannot make it stretch. We all have a tendency to think we can, though. How often do we say, "Of course you can have five minutes"? We do not stop to think that we are frittering away a valuable, non-renewable resource.

A helpful way to think of time is as a bank account with a set amount of money in it. Every time we spend some, we are reducing the total. Obviously we cannot really "save" time; we can only spend it. If you think of time in this way, you may become more conscious of how you use it.

Remember to always make the best use of any "leftover" time. Try working on the train or plane, or spend driving hours listening to language or time-management tapes. You will be surprised at what you can achieve if you make real use of this otherwise lost time.

What to DoIdentify Where Time Is Lost

"Where has the time gone? " we mutter to ourselves, at the end of yet another day. Well, where did it go? You can find out quite easily by looking at your daily routine for a week or so. You may be surprised to see that you waste your time in the same ways every day. Once you know what you are doing to eat it up, it becomes easier to eliminate these time-wasting activities and become more productive.

Use this easy exercise to identify these black holes:

  • Divide a sheet of paper into columns, one for each of your typical daily activities—not forgetting tasks such as answering"quick" queries, photocopying, or answering the phone.
  • Split each activity column into 15-minute boxes, from the beginning to the end of your working day (9:30 am to 7:00 pm, for example). Then put crosses in the boxes to show to which blocks of time you spent on each activity during the day. If you spend an hour in a meeting, for instance, that column gets four crosses.
  • Total up the time used under each heading at the end of the day, and then again at the end of the week.

You will probably be shocked to learn exactly how much time you spend chatting at the water cooler, compared to time you spend planning your work.

Review Your Discoveries

Now that you know how you have spent your time, ask yourself these four essential questions:

  • What should I be more aware of?
  • What am I spending too much time on?
  • What should I spend more time on?
  • What should I stop doing altogether?
Take Control

People tend to be reactive rather than proactive regarding time. Unexpected things happen—you react; urgent tasks need doing—you react; people interrupt you—you react. You are continually rushing to keep up with events that you cannot control. This reactive pattern is the major cause of most people's time-management problems.

You need to learn to be proactive and actively decide what needs doing, when, and how much time to allocate to each task; you choose when to deal with other people; and you decide the appropriate amount of time to allocate to handling unexpected events. In other words, you take the initiative and, in doing so, gain the control that will let you plan and organize your own time and help your team make the best use of theirs.

There are four main things you must do to achieve this:

  • prioritize
  • plan
  • know what not to do
  • minimize (or eliminate) interruptions and external time wasters
Prioritize

To do this, you first need to know how to distinguish between what is important, and what is urgent.

  • Important is highly strategic, and in the long term will make the most difference in whether or not your project succeeds.
  • Urgent, on the other hand, usually has to be tackled immediately, but may not relate to a critical issue for your project. For example, your car may be causing an obstruction outside the office. Urgent? Yes. Important to the work at hand? No.

The best way to prioritize tasks is to split them into the four possible combinations of high/low and urgency/importance, then deal with them as follows:

  • Low urgency/Low importance. Put these on a to-do list.
  • Low urgency/High importance. Put these in your diary, but DO get them done soon. This category will likely yield more long-term gains than any of the others.
  • High urgency/Low importance. Delegate these.
  • High urgency/High importance. Do them yourself, NOW!

The general rule is to begin with your most important tasks and tackle them one by one, making sure that you finish each before starting the next. Do not try to get the easy things out of the way first, or you might find yourself looking back and wondering where the day went, without even having started the most important job.

"But what if I never manage to get the routine stuff done?" you may ask. The way to be sure that you do is to allocate a block of time, say once a week, for your low urgency/high importance tasks.

The Pareto Principle

When you prioritize tasks, keep in mind the Pareto Principle. This principle holds that 20% of quality time produces 80% of results. The flipside—equally important—is that 80% of non-quality time only contributes 20% of results.

The lesson here is to make as much of your time as possible quality time, as clearly this is the most productive. Just as important is identifying the tasks that will yield the most significant results—do not be one of those people who spends 80% of their time just keeping busy!

Plan

You have decided on your priorities, so now you can work on organizing your time. Basic project planning is essential, of course, but personal time planning is just as important.

An excellent way to proceed is to use a combination of a to-do list and a diary (calendar/planner/organizer):

  • Your to-do list is the master list for all the activities you and your team need to do, and is ongoing. Every time something else crops up that needs doing, it gets added to the to-do list.
  • Your diary (whether electronic or print) is where you put any tasks of strategic importance, with blocks of time allocated to each, to make sure they get done.

So, at the beginning of each week:

  • set aside 10 minutes and decide on everything you and your team need to get done;
  • list all tasks on your to-do list;
  • prioritize them;
  • put the top priority/most important strategic tasks in your diary and allocate an appropriate amount of time to them.

If you always put the important tasks in your diary, and the less important tasks on your to-do list, you will always have time allocated for your most important jobs, but will not have to worry if all the tasks on your to-do list are not completed.

Useful tips for diary planning

Do not schedule meetings for early morning. Most people are at their most productive in the mornings, so use this time for your most important work.

  • If possible, block out the first two hours of the work day for yourself, and put it in your diary. You can then get the most important work done before any fires flare up.
  • Always factor in a little extra time to deal with unexpected problems.
  • If you have something important to do, book an appointment with yourself in the diary, notify everyone that your are unavailable, then shut your door, turn off the phone, and get to work.
Know What Not to Do

Be aware of the to-do list time trap! Never use only a to-do list—it contains a built-in time trap. This is what happens: you carefully record every single thing that needs doing, and feel organized and pleased with yourself, but, because you have not prioritized anything, you easily fall into the time trap—you spend too much time doing the smaller, simpler tasks.

You will end up with a large number of checkmarks on your list, but the complex jobs, which are actually much more important overall, have been left undone.

Minimize Distractions

The hardest part of any job is getting started, so the last thing you need, once you get going, is to be interrupted. We have identified and covered the ways in which you waste your own time. You need to be just as disciplined when dealing with external distractions.

Here are a few ideas on how to minimize interruptions:

  • Choose unusual times for people to come back, or phone you. For example, tell someone who asks for five minutes of your time to return at 10.32 on the dot. If the matter is that important she or he will return on time. If not, they will either not come back at all, or be late—in which case you can re-book them, given that you have already gone on to something else.
  • If you have an office, close your door when you need quiet time so that people think twice about entering.
  • If you have an assistant, divert your phone calls to him or her for set hours each day, and then return calls in batches.
  • Encourage others to think for themselves. People sometimes forget that they can take the initiative and may come to you too often. Ask the other person what they think the answer to the question at hand is, and take it from there. Guide them if necessary, but if they have the right answer themselves, so much the better.

Deferring interruptions until later is a great test of their importance. You may find that most are simply urgent (rather than urgent and important) and they will get resolved without your help.

Remember Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law holds that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In other words, if you allocate a day to clean your house, it will probably take at least a day if not slightly longer. Yet if you had only an hour before guests were due, the chances are that you would do an adequate job of it in that time! The obvious lesson is, that while you need to allocate a reasonable amount of time in which to achieve a particular goal, do not make it too long or it will take all the time you give it.

What to AvoidYou Fail to Delegate

You may be tempted to do something routine yourself, rather than briefing someone else to do it. Similarly, you may find it very satisfying to complete a large number of trivial tasks and see all the corresponding checkmarks on your to-do list. However, your time could most certainly be much better spent on important project tasks. Delegation is always worth the effort, and being diligent about delegating will ensure that you do not wear yourself out with the effort of trying to be everyone and everywhere at once.

You Never Say "No"

Being too thoughtful and taking on too much can cripple any well-meaning project manager. Having the courage to say "no" is your first line of defense. The way you handle it is, of course, important: you need to be firm, but not aggressive: you will get the best results if stick to your guns but keep positive, friendly, and upbeat.

Your Workspace Is Disorganized

The importance of order to general personal effectiveness cannot be overemphasized. Research has shown that people lose hours looking for things that they have mislaid—telephone numbers, bills, documents, customer details, a stapler, the photocopier paper, and so on. A neat (or at least organized) work environment is extremely important: clutter creates confusion and wastes huge amounts of time.

Where to Learn MoreWeb Sites:

4pm: www.4pm.com/articles

Mind Tools: www.mindtools.com

Work Life Balance: www.wetfeet.com/advice/worklife_balance.asp