We all need to get better at time management

Managers may be busier than ever, but with some simple techniques the flood of information doesn’t have to make life hectic, says Stefan Stern.

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Nov 26, 2018
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In 1971, management thinker Henry Mintzberg observed that managers work at an unrelenting pace, always on, frequently interrupted and consumed by random, trivial tasks. Add into the mix smartphones and social media, and today’s business leaders must surely be in a state of frenzy.

Few would doubt that it is hard to manage time effectively. A 2011 McKinsey survey of 1,500 global executives found that only 9 per cent were “very satisfied” with their time management. One third were “actively dissatisfied” and only half believed that how they spent their time matched their organisation’s strategic priorities.

To combat the epidemic of distractions, business leaders need to fight information (and task) overload in a systematic way. This can happen at both individual and company level. French insurer Axa, for example, allows employees to ignore after-hours emails until the next day, while Volkswagen blocks them outright. 

Julia Hobsbawm, a proponent of “social health”, suggests a “techno shabbat” (sabbath) to mark the start of the weekend. Company phones must be turned off, allowing executives to reconnect with real people and have real conversations.

During office hours, however, harried managers can take matters into their own hands. Simple solutions, such as David Allen’s “two-minute rule” – by which any task that can be completed within two minutes should be done immediately – can work, helping to keep the daily ‘to do’ list down to a recommended five tasks.

Caroline Webb takes a different view. In her book How To Have A Good Day, she argues that managers should be “focusing on the right things, and organising your time to give those priorities your best attention.” Multitasking is a big mistake, she says: “We’re far more productive if we ‘single task’, especially when carrying out ‘deep work’ – focused, sustained activity that demands undivided attention.” 

US General Eisenhower achieved this by making a crucial distinction between the ‘urgent’ and the ‘important.’ His two-by-two matrix can be a quick and simple way to order your day. If you find that too many tasks fall into the ‘urgent and important’ quadrant, you may be in permanent, and unsustainable, crisis-management mode. A saner existence inhabits the ‘important but not urgent’ quadrant. 

Of course, not everyone wants just to manage time efficiently. Some are driven by a deeper desire to grab everything that life can offer. In her book, Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes, a US TV executive and writer, makes a point of saying ‘yes’ to more meetings, ‘yes’ to public engagements and ‘yes’ to more time with her children. 

Your diary will reveal much about your true intentions and way of working. As management writer Tom Peters puts it: “You are your calendar.” 

Indeed, your diary will also reveal the quality of interactions as much as the quantity. The 9 per cent of “very satisfied” executives in the McKinsey survey spent 70 per cent of their interactions with colleagues face to face, on the phone or in live messaging or video calls. Talio, an Australian facilities management business, bans internal emails, and employees respond to client emails with a phone call, which has significantly boosted sales and productivity.

To be sure, there are no hard and fast time management rules and techniques that work for everyone. We all have our own preferred working styles and attention spans. We should choose the techniques that work for us personally, as well as reflecting the ethos of the company. Whatever these may be, few of us can escape that daily dilemma of business life: do I take that call or promise to phone back later?

A version of this article first appeared in People Management.


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Stefan Stern

Visiting Professor, Cass Business School

Stefan Stern is visiting professor of management practice at Cass Business School, a business journalist and former FT management columnist. He is co-author of Myths of Management.