With 86,400 seconds a day to negotiate, Joanne Barnfather navigates a path

Time is precious. You cannot save time. You cannot put a couple hours away in a cupboard to use later when you need them. It seems that time is the greatest enemy of many people. Yet some people seem to get the job done with ease and in time. The difference is each person’s ability to manage their time. It is essential to be aware of how you use your time.

This will be the first of three articles that I will be writing on “Time Management or Behaviour Management?” Is it really about the time or is it about my behaviours – procrastination, lack of delegating etc that impact on my time? The articles I share with you will include exercises and explanations so that you can practically apply the skills at your desk and create new behaviours.

Let us begin…

We are all given 86,400 seconds every day. What do we do with them?

Let me ask you some questions and you can ponder on your responses.

  1. You have a task to do that should take you half an hour. However one hour later you are still working on the task. Why?
  2. You leave your desk, quickly, to collect something from the printer and you return 25 minutes later. Where have you been and what have you been doing in that time?
  3. Do you monitor the time at your desk or do you look up and suddenly discover that the whole morning is gone and you have not achieved anything?
  4. Do you get home at night with the feeling of “I rushed around all day, but I have no real outcomes to show for it”?
  5. How often do you have people sitting at your desk that are uninvited and then won’t leave?
  6. Do you attend meetings that have no agenda, people are unprepared and in the end you were not really needed?
  7. Do you attend meetings where two or more people have the same information but there are other areas of the meeting that have no information and so we need to reschedule?
  8. How often do you take on “someone else’s monkey” because you think you are helping or it is actually easier for you to just do it yourself?

I can go on and on but I think that the questions above have engaged you and you have become very aware of what you do or do not do with your time during the day.

So where do all these behaviours come from?

We all assume time to be something. All of us were exposed to “different time management habits” while growing up. At school and when we first started working “time” was spoken about but no one really demonstrated the “how” in working with time. So we make assumptions on what we see and what we experience.

Time is personal. Learning to manage your time better is a personal affair. Only you can do it. Furthermore, you can do it only if you are willing to do it, and if you believe you can. Examine all your assumptions. Are they accurate? Are they reasonable? Your behaviour patterns are closely tied to the assumptions you make. Change your assumptions and you will find it much easier to change your behaviour. When your behaviour is consistent with your objectives, you are managing your time effectively.

So let us go and explore what we assume time to be. Below is a questionnaire. Read the statement and simply tick TRUE or FALSE based on how you see the statement.


Most people are overworked because of the nature of their job.
Your job is unique and not subject to repetitive time patterns.
Higher level people with more authority usually make better decisions.
Further delay will probably enable you to improve the quality of your decisions.
Managing time better is essentially a matter of reducing the time spent on various activities.
Your job deals with people, and since all people are important, you cannot establish priorities.
Delegating will probably free a great deal of your time and relieve you of some of your responsibilities.
Finding “quiet time” is usually impossible, especially in small offices.
Most people can solve their time problems by working harder.
Most of the ordinary day-to-day activities do not need to be planned, and most people could not plan for them anyway.
It is not always possible to work on the basis of priorities.
Finding the problem is easy; it is finding the solution that is difficult.
A good way to reduce wasted time is to look for short cuts.
Most people know how they spend their time and can easily identify how they procrastinate.
It is not necessary to write out your objectives.
Most of the results you achieve are produced by a few critical activities.

Now for the results!

Numbers 1 to 15 are all FALSE.

Number 16 is the only TRUE answer.

This may come as a surprise and I can hear a lot of questions and disagreements happening right now. Let’s explore the statements and the answers.

1 Most people are overworked because of the nature of their job. FALSE.

It is not the nature of the job, it is the nature of the person. From time to time everyone is overworked. However, if this is a normal occurrence, something is wrong. The something wrong is usually you. Overwork is often the result of failing to delegate, being unable to say “no”, failing to establish proper priorities, spending too much time on details or trivia, or having sloppy work habits. The job seldom overworks the person, but people often overwork themselves.

Exercise: Take an arm’s-length look at your job.

What are you doing that does not have to be done?

What are you doing that could be done by someone else?

Do you have trouble saying “No” to people? – Give examples of where you said “Yes” when you should have said “No”?

Finding answers to these questions will get you moving in the right direction.

2 Your job is unique and not subject to repetitive time patterns. FALSE.

All jobs have patterns. If your job appears to be non-patterned, you do not know the nature of the pattern. To discover the pattern, you need data – and you need to think about cause-and-effect relationships. An example will help clarify this concept. Many people consider the telephone a major time-waster. Yet they seldom know what pattern is involved in their use of the telephone. For instance, how many calls do they handle each day – at what times, from whom, about what? How many problems or questions are resolved on the initial call? How many require one or more call-backs? Do particular people call about certain things or call at specific times each week or month? With enough data you can identify the pattern.

Once you know the pattern you can predict events, and with prediction you can gain more control. Once you can anticipate you can schedule.

Exercise: Analyse the various activities of your role and highlight the job patterns that you experience in your position.

3 Higher level people with more authority usually make better decisions. FALSE.

Lower level people are perfectly capable of making good decisions, and their decisions are often better because they are closer to the situation. The assumption that decisions made at higher levels are better can lead to two problems.

First, by people may refer too many decisions to superiors. Some decisions should be routed upwards, but most need not be. Often the person believes that people with more authority should make decisions, and that such decisions are automatically better.

Second, by people may fail to delegate authority to subordinates. This is often accompanied by the belief that subordinates simply cannot make decisions as well as the manager can. Most often, the real problem is inadequate training and development of the team or assistants. Well trained people make good decisions.

Suggestion: For the first problem, start building your confidence. Start making decisions in minor areas. Work your way up to larger decisions. Succeeding with larger and larger decisions will provide a tremendous boost for your confidence.

For the second problem, make sure that the team you work with are adequately trained. Wean yourself from too much decision-making by delegating smaller decisions first, and gradually move up to larger decisions. You will probably be pleasantly surprised at the capabilities of people.

4 Further delay will probably enable you to improve the quality of your decisions. FALSE.

Unnecessary delay seldom improves the quality of decisions. It is simply procrastination. You are probably fearful of making a mistake or have a very strong desire to be right. It is always nice to have complete information before deciding, but in practice that is seldom the case. You should make the decision when you reach the point where additional information is not likely to make a significant improvement in your decision. This point is not always easy to identify. But if you habitually delay decisions until you have every bit of information, you are undoubtedly going too far. Occasionally you can benefit from “sleeping on” a decision, but if you overdo it you will only have nightmares.

Suggestion: For every decision there is a deciding point. Try shortening the time for some of your decisions. Do not become a hasty decision-maker, but do not drag decisions out too long either. A little experimentation will help you determine the proper timing for various decisions.

5 Managing time better is essentially a matter of reducing the time spent in various activities. FALSE.

Managing time better involves spending the appropriate amount of time on every activity. For some tasks, this means cutting down on the time involved. For other tasks, it means increasing your time commitment. You will probably try to cut down on the time you spend in meetings and casual conversations, in handling reports and correspondence, and similar activities. You will probably try to increase the time you spend in planning, thinking, development and other important activities. The key is that you must subtract before you can add.

Suggestion: Look at all your activities – analyse these based on the following:

How important is each one in terms of what you are trying to accomplish?

Where could you reduce your time commitment?

Where should you increase your time commitment?

Are there things you are not doing at all that should be added?

6 Your job deals with people, and since all people are important you cannot establish priorities. FALSE.

All people may be important, but all the events people wish to involve you in are not equally important. In fact, in terms of your job, all people are not equally important. Are there some people within your organisation who have more influence than others? Do you really treat everyone equally? All people are important as human beings, however, the activities, demands, pressures and problems presented by various people are not equally important.

Suggestion: Learn to separate the person from the issue. Be patient, but persistent, polite but tactful, diplomatic but firm. Managing your time to accomplish important objectives sometimes requires making hard decisions about how to respond to particular people.

7 Delegating will probably free a great deal of your time and relieve you of some responsibility. FALSE.

In the long run, delegation may provide you with more time, but delegation never relieves you of any responsibility. In fact, delegation creates more total responsibility. After delegating a task, you are still responsible, or accountable, to your superior – but now the person you delegate the task to is also responsible to you. If you are not delegating adequately now, learning to do so will take some time. You will have to train others to properly accomplish the delegated tasks. In the short run, this may be more time consuming than doing the tasks yourself. Failing to delegate, however, is disastrous. Not only do you cheat others but you wind up buried under a mountain of detail.

Suggestion: Look at all your activities. Eliminate those that simply do not have to be done. Of the remainder, decide which ones really must be done by you. Then make plans to delegate the balance. This may mean taking the time to train and develop others. It may mean learning to think about yourself and your job in new ways. But, ultimately, everyone will benefit. Delegation is a case of investing time now to gain time later. Take the time to train and begin to systematically delegate greater authority to others.

8 Finding “quiet time” is usually impossible, especially in small offices. FALSE.

Almost anyone can find a quiet hour” – an uninterrupted block of time used for concentrating on important things. Why don’t more people utilise the “quiet time” concept? Many people simply do not believe it will work in their situation. They believe that they should always be available to others or that others will resent their “quiet time”.

Consider the consequences of not finding a “quiet time” for yourself. Jobs that might be done quickly take much longer with all the interruptions. Your train of thought is broken and your creativity is decreased. “Quiet time” allows you to reprioritise your day, it allow for changes in planning or just the time to “find yourself” in the hectic day-to-day happenings.

Suggestion: If your job could benefit from “quiet time” now and then, think how to make it happen. Pick the most appropriate time of day. Discuss with others what you are doing and why. Enlist their cooperation and help them find “quiet time” when needed.

Pick the most appropriate time of day to schedule your “quiet hour”. Schedule it now in your diary.

9 Most people can solve their time problems by working harder. FALSE.

Could you work any harder? I did not think so! So working smarter always beats working harder. This assumption starts early in life. From childhood you are admonished to keep trying, to try just a little bit harder, to remember that working hard leads to pleasant rewards. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” The problem, of course, is not so simple. Sometimes working harder is the best way.

However, many people never respond any other way. They do not consider that there might be a way to shorten the task, eliminate some steps, combine some parts, and actually work easier while getting more done. Doing the wrong thing harder does not help. The people who believe that the way to get more done is simply to work harder are the ones who work extra long hours, take work home every night, suffer from stress and tension, punish their bodies needlessly, and still do not obtain results.

Suggestion: Work smarter, not harder. Try finding ways to reduce the number of tasks. Make the job easier or quicker. Analyse the workflow periodically to keep things running smoothly.

At this point we need to take a pause as I have another important concept to share with you. We need to be very clear on the definition of the words below in order to prioritse correctly.

What is the definition of Efficient?

What is the definition of Effective?

Efficient is doing “the job right”. In other words you type a document in the correct format, using the correct stationary with no spelling or grammar errors. You were efficient.

Effective is doing ’the right job”. In other words it is about looking at what is the most appropriate use of your time with tasks. If I asked you to type my letter, and you stopped typing the Minutes of the Board Meeting to type my letter, we have to ask which activity was more important? To be effective we must always be doing activities that are the most important at that point.

Let’s add the next level.

In business all we hear is, “this is urgent please, I need this urgently please.” What does this mean?

What is the difference between Urgent and Important?

Urgent is it has to be done now.

Important is something that has a consequence as it is linked to a goal.

So which tasks carry more weight when we prioritise, Urgent tasks or Important tasks?

Everything in business today is urgent. How often do you drop what you are doing to help someone urgently and when you go to them with the desired outcome they say something like, “Thanks, pop it on my desk I will look at it later.” But it was urgent!

Now none of the concepts above will be of any use if you do not have a:


You need to know what you are working towards daily and monthly so that you can prioritise the tasks as urgent or important so that you can become more effective. You need to know what your department/company goals are so that you can align your activities (priorities) more effectively. That way when interruptions occur or someone asks you to do a task for them you can ask more questions to establish the priority and schedule it more effectively into your day, and not drop everything and go home feeling like you have done nothing for the day!

Let us return now to the assumptions.

10 Most of the ordinary day-to-day activities do not need to be planned, and most people could not plan for them anyway. FALSE.

The ordinary day-to-day activities are the ones that need planning the most if you want to control your time. Too many people maintain that their situation is unique (“others can plan their day, but it won’t work for me”). Too many people accept crises and confusion as part of their job description. Nonsense. Anything can be planned. Those random, hectic days follow some kind of pattern. Some patterns may be harder to discover than others, but they do exist. Discover the pattern and you have the key for anticipating future events, for scheduling and planning your time. Failing to plan day-to-day activities means settling for random direction. “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Whatever happens takes control of your time. To break the haphazard approach, you must plan.

Suggestion: Keep a daily time record to help identify the patterns involved in your job. Then use the information in planning and scheduling every day. Remember, though, to leave room in your schedule for the unexpected. In your planning, emphasise early actions. As the morning goes, so goes the day.

11 It is not always possible to work on the basis of priorities. FALSE.

Not only is it possible, it is essential. You will never gain control of your time unless you approach various tasks on the basis of priorities. Managing your time means spending it in the best way possible. Not everything is equally important. When you fail to establish and follow priorities, you literally guarantee that you will be spending some part of your time on less important activities at the expense of important ones.

Learning to work on a priority basis requires planning. It also requires constant attention and comparison. When you are tempted to deviate from your plan stop, and ask yourself, “Is what I am about to do more or less important than what I had planned to do?” If it is more important, go right ahead and deviate from your plan. You will still be on the right track. If it is less important, and this is usually the case, look for ways to avoid it, postpone it, reschedule it or delegate it.

Suggestion: Make priorities a work habit. Continually ask yourself: “What is the best use of my time? What is most important?” Importance is always based on the objectives you are trying to achieve.

12 Finding the problem is easy: it is finding the solution that is difficult. FALSE.

Failing to identify the problem properly is perhaps the greatest obstacle to solving it. The temptation to jump in with a remedy is very strong. The result is that you are busy treating symptoms while the problem remains untouched. To understand the nature of the problem, you will probably have to obtain data. For instance, do not just say that interruptions are a problem. Find out what kinds of interruptions they are – how often they occur, with whom, and for what purpose. With this approach you will find that many problems carry with them the seeds of their solution.

Suggestion: Do not confuse symptoms and problems. Collect data to understand the exact nature of the problem. Solutions then become much easier and are more likely to work well.

13 A good way to reduce wasted time is to look for shortcuts in functions. FALSE.

Many shortcuts ultimately cost a great deal of time. When constantly pressed for time, we try to shortcut some part of the job. Unfortunately, the things that get cut most often are the important things that only we can do – things like planning and organising. These and other important functions are often neglected in favour of less important tasks that appear to be urgent.

Whenever important tasks wait while urgent ones are attended to, problems arise. Urgent tasks must be done, of course, but not everything that appears to be urgent really is urgent. Nor must urgent tasks necessarily be done by you. Urgent tasks tend to have short-range consequences. Important tasks tend to have long-range consequences. If we try to shortcut important activities we often wind up with horrendous time problems.

Suggestion: Review all your activities. Which ones are most important in relation to your objectives? Which ones are least important? Look for shortcuts in the routine, trivial activities. Be sure to make sufficient time available for the really important tasks.

14 Most people know how they spend their time and can easily identify their biggest wasters. FALSE.

Few people really know how they spend their time. If you don’t believe this, try reconstructing the last week accurately. Like most people, you will probably be unable to remember many of the things you did. Why? Simply because so much of your behaviour is habitual. Habits are automatic behaviours. When you act out of habit, you are not concentrating on your activities. You follow set routines and patterns. Even if your job consists of unique tasks, you probably approach them in routine ways.

When you do not really know your time habits, you can easily spend time poorly. Your time patterns may become inconsistent with what you are trying to accomplish. And, of course, you wind up wasting time. Most people waste at least two hours every day.

Suggestion: Keep a time log on yourself. Record your time use for a week or two. Discover your time habits and patterns. Verify where your time is really being wasted. You will be surprised at what you find.

15 It is not necessary to write out your objectives. FALSE.

Writing out your objectives is important for three reasons.

First, it enables you to clarify them. If you only make a mental note of your objectives they will probably be vague and poorly defined. You may not remember them exactly the same way each time you think about them.

Second, you can keep the goal statement in front of you as a reminder of what you are trying to accomplish. In this way, no matter how hectic your days become, you can keep yourself on track.

Third, and perhaps most important, writing out your goals increases your commitment to them. The greater your commitment, the more likely you are to begin accomplishing them. Writing your goals is a valuable motivational technique.

Suggestion: Put your goals in writing, and keep the list in front of you. As you write down your goals keep the following criteria for good goal statement in mind. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-limited.

16 Most of the results you achieve are produced by a few critical activities. TRUE.

Vilfredo Pareto, a 19th-century Italian economist, first expounded this truth. It is more commonly called the 80-20 rule: “80% of the value lies in 20% of the elements, while the remaining 20% of the value lies in the remaining 80% of the elements”. This means that only a few activities are critical to your success. Can you identify your few high-value activities?

Suggestion: Recognise that some things are far more valuable than others in terms of accomplishing your objectives. Examine all your activities to discover which ones really are most important. Then begin to focus on these high-value activities.

Tips on “making” more time

  • You need to work on the basis of priority only. Before just accepting tasks ask as many questions as needed to establish importance, why the task was given to you, what is the desired outcome, by when etc.
  • When someone comes to you and asks for assistance on a task (their monkey) and you are busy with something more important, don’t let them leave the task on your desk. Make sure they take it with them and you can then meet at their desk to assist them. There are two reasons for this: a) If the task is on your desk it is now your responsibility to do it. In other words you have just taken “ownership of the monkey”. b) Meeting at their desk means that as soon as you have assisted them you can leave. As opposed to having them sit at your desk and you have to wait or ask them to leave!
  • If you keep having unwanted visitors at your desk who do not leave, remove all chairs so that they don’t feel invited to sit. You can always add a chair should you need one.
  • If someone is really persistent and won’t leave you can always get up from behind your desk, let them know that you need to go and get something and they are welcome to walk with you. It is easier to get them to return to their desk that way than to have to wait for them to leave your desk.
  • Stop through the day and ask yourself this question, “What is the best use of my time right now?” See what you catch yourself doing and then reprioritize.
  • Ask the following questions:
  • What went right today and why?
  • What went wrong today and why?
  • What time today did you start on your top priority task and why?
  • Could you have started earlier in the day?
  • Did you spend the first hour of your day well, doing important tasks?
  • What patterns and habits are you seeing in the use of your time?
  • What was the most productive period of your day and why?
  • What was the least productive period of your day and why?
  • What accounted for most of your interruptions and what were the reasons for the interruptions?
  • Which of these interruptions can be controlled, minimised or eliminated?
  • What did you do today that could have been eliminated?
  • What were your three biggest time wasters today?
  • How might you eliminate your three biggest time wasters?
  • What activities could you spend less time on and still obtain acceptable results?
  • What activities needed more time today?
  • What activities could be delegated and to whom?

Beginning tomorrow, what could you do to make better use of your time?

In my next article we will be looking more at our behaviour and how it affects the use of our time. We will also expand more on the concept of urgent vs important and I will be sharing various techniques that can be used in different areas to manage time.

Joanne Barnfather is the Managing Member of MindLeap, a training company in South Africa. She works in the private and public sector, focusing on skills that inspire people and organisations to want to be better.

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