Time Management

Rory Bowman of MacRory.com

One of the most heretical things I do as a consultant is to tell people not to use a computer. I firmly believe that for many things a computer is absolutely NOT the best tool, and that most business problems don’t have a technological solution in the popular sense. The solution is technique, but usually in the sense of a clear procedure and NOT another gadget or gizmo. Time management is one of those areas, where sometimes technology can help, but not necessarily.

To illustrate how computers can get in the way, I offer two examples: one for inventory management and a second for information. On inventory, I once had a client who ran a small retail shop and wanted a computerized cash register. It was just her and one other part-time person, and a good day for them was $300 in gross sales. With fewer than a thousand inventory items and relatively low turnover, I suggested she save herself $1500 and instead proposed a simpler, card-based system, for which I charged her not a dime. On data: I had a long-term client who wanted some sort of computerized database for tracking phone messages, which were being lost and costing sales. After looking at the problem, we both agreed that they didn’t need a new computer system but rather an established procedure for taking phone messages, which turned out to be a stack of NCR pads from a stationery store and an agreed-upon procedure that everyone followed. Sometimes the best solutions don’t involve a computer, and frequently that is the case with time management.

Modern people have a lot of things to keep track of: contacts, appointments, email, phone messages, notes and tasks and reminders and more. Frequently these seem to become a blizzard of data smog, as we are buried in post-it notes, tripping over all the balls we have dropped. Computer programs such as Palm Desktop or Entourage or Outlook promise to solve the problem for us, but the problem is not a lack of technology but a lack of perspective and a simple, workable plan.

One of my favorite time management parables comes from the 1994 book First Things First by Merrill, Merrill and Covey. In it Stephen Covey has a glass jar on a table next to a pile of rocks. He puts in a few rocks and asks the audience if there is room for any more. They agree there is not, so he produces a bowl of stones, which he then puts in the jar, filling the space between the rocks. He asks again if there is more room, and the audience again says no, whereupon he produces a bowl of gravel, then of sand, before finally finishing the demonstration off by producing a pitcher of water, which completely fills the jar. When asked for the moral of the story, Covey asserts that the secret is to “put in the big rocks first.” By deciding what is important and clarifying what is urgent, Covey encourages us all to put first things first.

In distinguishing between importance and urgency, Covey divides the things that happen to us into four quadrants. One axis indicates things that are important (such as our long-term health) and another things that are urgent (such as a ringing phone). He then proposes plotting out the entire week and scheduling in important things such as maintenance tasks and health activities so that the important things are not crowded out by the merely urgent. Clarifying and documenting these things is central to the popular, commercial Franklin-Covey system of paper planners and stationery which has three basic rules.

  1. Eliminate floating pieces of data or paper
  2. Have one clear system for each type of information
  3. Have quick access to your system at any given time

The Franklin-Covey system makes its main profit from trainings and paper, so his system focuses primarily on paper, and has not successfully made the transition to electronics. Indeed, I don’t think it ever will, because paper is good for some things and electronics are good for some things, and no one technical gizmo is going to be perfect for everyone. People are different and needs change over time, meaning that “one size fits none.” Almost everyone, though, will benefit from clarifying and following their own private system in an organized way.

There are literally dozens of possibilities out there, and different fads in time management will always come and go. Almost all people, though, need some system for tracking a few simple things

  • Contacts, people and places we need to see or be
  • Appointments, specific coordinates in space and time
  • Tasks, things we need to do at some point, varying in urgency
  • Notes, reference materials of all kinds

In the computer age some of these will be electronic and some of them will be paper, and which they are doesn’t really matter, SO LONG AS YOU HAVE A PLAN and the plan works for you. For most people a paper system is really best, with a computer backup and a computer version which can be printed and converted back to paper as need be. Computers are terrific for storing and retrieving information quickly, or re-using the same information over and over. Nothing beats paper for durability and accessibility, though, if you can find it and keep track of it. For most people this means having some sort of day-planner or calendar, in which they record things which are then entered into their backup computer system, for later manipulation. A checkbook is a good example. Most people have ONE check register which they use, to minimize confusion. They write individual paper checks which they then record in the register and also in a program such as Quicken. At the end of the month they can reconcile their computer records with the bank statement and at the end of the year they can easily search or print out their transactions in a variety of ways, or re-use that data to quickly prepare their taxes. Extending that model in a way which works for you is key to successful time management.

Where do you keep your permanent record of appoinments? Your phone messages? Your email? Your addresses and paper files? So long as there is a single clear answer, you are probably okay. It is when you have no answer or several conflicting answers that you run into trouble. Historically a lot of people have used forty-three folders (twelve for the months of the year and thirty-one for next several calendar days) but a rolodex file or a big refrigerator will do if that works for you. The trick is to have a plan and stick to it.

Below is a list of links to useful time management resources which I frequently recommend or suggest to my clients. To schedule an appointment and come up with a system that works well for you, your needs and your preferred technology, please phone Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.


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3 Responses to Time Management

  1. Lifehacker says:

    Time management on paper

    Time management expert Mac Rory – whose web site tagline reads “Every hour in front of a computer is an hour away from your life” – says that a paper calendar is a good enough system for a lot of…

  2. Thanks for the great article, Rory. I really appreciate keeping tools as simple as possible. This is esp. difficult these days when we’re both inundated with inputs, and at the same time promised (through advertising) that gadgets (complex and expensive) will help. Of course what matters most is the methodology – how we *use* the tools – when trying to make progress on the things that matter to us.

  3. Frank Hughes says:

    Great article re: Covey & Franklin-Covey.
    You don’t hear as much as you used to about Covey’s techniques and the 7 Habits are now reserved for parody bits.

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