The seven most common thieves of time and what to do about them
Often when we are under pressure we just react to situations. One of the great benefits of choosing to become proactive in managing your use of time is that you can become proactive in all other areas of your life.
Let’s take a look at the top seven culprits of modern-day time theft.
1. YOUR EMAIL
Most people respond to email first thing in the morning and then keep on responding to email throughout the day. Think about the number of emails you receive each day and how long it takes you on average to respond to each – you could be spending more than half your productive day responding to email!
Have set times to respond to emails. Unless you have a very time sensitive business, try not to open your emails until you have spent at least one or two hours in the morning getting on and doing the work that you have identified as important and urgent.
Turn off your email notifications and only check your email at set times. Timothy Ferris in his book The 4-Hour Workweek suggests only checking and receiving emails twice a day at 10:00 and at 16:00. He actually recommends less.
When checking your email use the four D’s:
- Delete – if it’s a junk email, spam or something that you know you are never going to act on, delete it immediately. If it is a newsletter that you subscribed to and you no longer read, then unsubscribe from it.
- Delegate – who else can deal with the email? If you can, pass it on.
- Deal with – you have allocated time in your Default Diary to go through your emails, so if you have already read through the email, deal with it if it is going to take you less than five minutes.
- Defer – to an allocated time as dictated by your Default Diary or task allocation for the day.
2. YOUR MOBILE PHONE
Mobile phones have created convenience, security and the ability to be able to work away from the office and while on the move. They have also created an expectation for people to be able to reach you almost immediately, which has robbed you of your time during the day, evenings and even on weekends when you are not at work.
You need to have set times available to make and receive calls. Have a voicemail message that lets people know when to expect you to return their call.
3. YOUR OPEN DOOR POLICY
The easier it is for your staff and associates to interrupt you the more often they will. People often feel that it is important to have an open door policy to create clear communication channels, but in reality this policy can actually clog up the channels of communication and slow things down with people seeking immediate answers to non-urgent or non-important issues.
One of the ways to prevent this is to have well structured, regular meetings.
Another strategy that I have found works well – if your team or staff are “addicted” to having immediate access to you – is to create what I like to call the 15-Minute Rule. On the hour for 15 minutes you are available to answer questions, and once the clock strikes 16 minutes past the hour you are not available again until the next hour. So, for example, from 09:00 to 09:15 you are available, from 09:16 to 10:00 you are not available. This gives you a clear 45-minute window where you can put your head down and get some work done without interruptions. This is repeated every hour.
Unscheduled or even scheduled meetings that run overtime, off topic and don’t achieve anything can be a tremendous waste of time. How many times have you gone to unnecessary meetings or to meetings that have just ended up being a “talk fest”? Having regular scheduled meetings that run to a set format and agenda and result in clear actions that need to be taken are the types of meetings you want to have.
All meetings should have minutes taken. I like to keep this really simple by just having three columns: who, what and when. You can then track who has committed to doing what by when. Often an A4 piece of paper turned landscape with three columns is sufficient, and then there is no need to type up minutes after the meeting. Just make copies and either hand out to staff or put it in a place where everyone can see it. You and your staff can then keep track of what they and others need to be doing.
A business owner, who I coached, embraced the idea of short, effective meetings. Prior to coaching, every meeting took over an hour and people were always late. The first thing he did was take all the chairs out of the boardroom, so everyone had to stand. He then sent out a memo advising everyone that the meeting would start and end on time. Everyone was expected to attend, and nobody would be allowed in once the meeting had started. The first meeting was a little tense to say the least, when one of the managers who happened to be a business partner was locked out. However, this sent a very clear message. Secondly, with everyone standing, nobody wanted to waffle. The meeting stuck to the format and agenda and was over in less than 45 minutes. To this day most weekly meetings are less than 15 minutes long. Chairs have been re-introduced into the boardroom on the understanding that if two meetings in consecutive weeks go over 30 minutes then the next meeting will be standing. These meetings are super-productive and have freed up everyone’s time.
Another common mistake I see companies make is that they start to have regular meetings and then everything starts to run smoothly, so they decide to cut back on the frequency of the meetings. I disagree with this strategy because it doesn’t take long for things to slide back into chaos again. Keep the frequency of the meetings – just make them shorter.
Miscommunication can cripple any business, including yours. You need to make sure that you set clear expectations around things such as taking notes, task assignments and phone messages. It is important that everyone on your team understands the importance of clear and accurate communication.
The easiest way to improve communication is to insist that everything gets written down. We all get busy, and it is easy to forget things which then usually results in problems and us wasting time later on.
Carry a notepad and jot down key points, notes, agreements, figures, deadlines. Do not assume that you will remember later. You will have hundreds of things to remember later – it’s not worth the angst of forgetting.
Some other simple strategies are:
- Respond to all communication promptly, including email, letters, faxes and phone calls within the times you have allocated in your diary.
When taking messages, a well-thought-out script can help the person taking the message get enough information, often saving you time.
Here is an example of a script:
“Thank you for your call, [your name] is currently with somebody [never “in a meeting”]. How can I help you?”
At this stage the caller will either specify why they are calling – and very often the person answering the call is able to help them – or they may not specify why they are calling. If they do this then the response is:
“I will get [your name] to call you back between X and Y time [this is dictated by your Default Diary] – would that be okay?”
“Excellent, just so [your name] can be best prepared for when they call you back, may I ask what it is in connection with?”
The caller at this stage will normally specify the purpose of their call. Again it is surprising how many times the person answering the call is still able to help them at this point, and if they can, they do. I must admit, if the person calling doesn’t specify the purpose of their call, they very often go to the end of the list of calls to return.
“May I just confirm who I am speaking to?”
“And your last name is … ?”
“And what would be the best number for [your name] to call you on between X and Y time? [Read back and confirm the number.]”
This way your assistant is able to give you the message with the relevant information, which means when you call the person back you have all the details available, often saving you having to speak to them first, find out what they wanted, go and get the information and then call them back later.
- Record appointments in your diary immediately.
Always record appointments and other important dates and times immediately. Make sure that if you use multiple devices they all sync with each other. Double check and confirm everything: addresses, phone numbers, meeting locations and times.
- Maintain accurate correspondence.
I received some really simple advice from a solicitor years ago. He simply said, whoever has the most paperwork wins! Now I am sure it was said in jest, however when you keep accurate correspondence it definitely makes your life easier.
I always take written notes at meetings or of business conversations. At the very least I try to record the name of the person I am speaking to, the date and sometimes the time, and a brief summary of what was discussed or agreed.
When you have made a commitment or someone else has committed to doing something, my suggestion is to back it up with an email. Depending on the situation you can either ask the other person to do this or you can do it. Most times I prefer to do it. It can take just a couple of minutes and save you hours of frustration later. This is the format I often use:
“Hi Bob, as we discussed I would like to confirm that we agreed to X, Y and Z. If this is correct, that is great, otherwise please let me know immediately.”
As with all of these points, make sure everyone knows of any changes to your policies and procedures manual immediately.
6. POORLY SET UP AND MESSY WORK ENVIRONMENT
An organised work environment enables you to be more productive and increases your ability to work effectively.
How much time do you waste looking for stuff and lost information? When you are organised you are able to find what you are looking for quicker, making you more effective. Again I laugh when people tell me they just don’t have time to do this, yet they lose literally hours every day looking for things.
Think of organising your work and home environment as about investing time – the time you spend reducing clutter will save you hundreds if not thousands of hours in the long term!
Here are a few simple tips to get you started:
- At the end of each day, tidy your desk; I would prefer to say clear your desk.
- Set up a series of folders where you can place loose papers.
- Dedicate one drawer in your desk for the stationery you use every day; for example, pens, post it notes, stapler, hole punch, highlighters and so on. When you use something, put it back straight away!
- The only files and documents you have on your desk should be the ones you are currently working on. The rest should be stored away in a cupboard or shelf. The floor is not a storage space!
- Where is your printer, scanner, fax machine (if you still use one)? How far do you have to walk to get to them?
- Invest in shelves and filing cabinets so that files are easy to find (label files and store them in alphabetical order).
- Invest time in setting up a filing system. Keep your paperwork and data organised, otherwise you will lose hundreds of hours looking for documents. How you do this will depend on your business.
We all have habits that sabotage our ability to work productively and efficiently. What are your distractions of choice? Is it surfing the internet, Facebook, reading email newsletters, having a chat?
You need to be able to focus on one thing at a time. Do not kid yourself that you can multi-task. Focus on one thing, complete it, and then move on. If time is of the essence then get a countdown timer and allocate 30 minutes or 45 minutes to focus single-mindedly on completing one task before moving onto the next.
When we are distracted we are not as productive, and quickly the lines between work time, family time and leisure time start to blur, which is not good for our businesses, families or lives.
Written by Sam Harrop