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Putting a priority on your time


Where does all the time go? Long hours. Late nights. Snatched lunches. Some people boast about their overwhelming work schedule as if it's a badge of honor: "I start work at 7:00 a.m. and work right though until 8:00 p.m." Often their Herculean claims border on the absurd. "Last night I went to bed at three a.m. and had to get up two hours earlier to finish a report." Or, "I used to eat lunch at my desk. But I need to save more time, so I'm giving up eating..."

The problem is NOT that there isn't enough time. Time doesn't expand. The problem is that people burden themselves with too many activities. The key to success is how you allocate your time to the important ones. In research we've conducted for clients, average employees spend about 50% of their time on A and B priorities. But among the top performers, time spent on A and B priorities approaches 60%. That's an increase of 5 hours per week that can make all the difference.


Here's how to think about setting priorities. "A" activities are those that influence long term results. If you had nothing else to do tomorrow, what would you do to affect your results one month from now? Those are your "A" activities. For sales people, this means selling, which usually only amounts to 23% of their time. For managers this means supervising people, (18% of their time) and planning (7%). What should you be doing? Your top priority items should take up 15-30% of your time.

"B" priorities are the activities in your job description that must get done today. These are the things that keep you busy. Depending on your job, they might include providing customer service, running monthly meetings, preparing reports, designing products, inputting data, supervising staff or shipping products. For most people, "B" priorities represent 30-50% of their time.

"C" priorities are those unplanned or unwritten aspects of your job that have to be done. Where "A" activities are planned by you, "C" activities are often planned for you. They include department meetings, routine requests from your subordinates and inquiries from other departments. They also include administrative activities such as filling out expense reports, reading reports, filing and sorting through e-mail. Our research indicates that administrative tasks take up 20-25% of the time. Within this, paperwork alone can take 5 hours per week. If you're spending more than that, the system is bogging you down.

Travel is also a "C" priority. It has to be done, but isn't a key factor in the success of your job. And, let's not forget lunches and breaks. It's ironic how people will plan a lunch meeting or coffee break to the minute. Yet they never get around to planning their major projects. Breaks are necessary, and incubation time away from work can help you solve problems better. But breaks are still just "C" priorities.

Finally there are "D" activities. This means delete, delay, delegate or drop. Get rid of them. They include reading the paper, handling tasks that should be delegated, and excessive Internet surfing. Some of them are technological time hogs; fixing a photocopier paper jam, waiting for a computer to boot up or recording a new voice mail message every day. Beware of them. Miscellaneous time can be as much as 5% of the week.

A profile for a typical manager might look like this:

A Priorities - 20%
B Priorities - 33%
Adminstration (c) - 20%
Travel (c) - 10%
Planning - 5%
Lunch/Breaks (c) - 7%
Miscellaneous (d) - 5%


So how do you spend more time on for your high priorities? First, take the time to plan for them:

Create a list of activities each day. Make a list of things to do with A, B and C priorities written beside each. Write your list in your time planner, on a Palm Pilot or even on a Post-It note. But don't just write, "Work on monthly report." This is too vague. Instead, be more specific with "Prepare tables for monthly sales summary." At the end of the day, check off the items you've completed.

Block your time. Schedule time for your "A" activities first. Plan to do them when you're at your peak and when interruptions are least likely to occur. Make an appointment in your planner, and allocate that time for high priority activities. Then, if someone asks you to meet during that time, say "Sorry, I have an appointment." No one will ask whom it's with. It's an appointment with yourself.

Delegate the things that only you can do. If you think you're the only person who knows how to do something, you're probably mistaken and need to delegate more. And if you're worried that someone isn't quite ready for a new task, just remind yourself; they're ready! Delegate the objective, the standards to be met and then ask the person what they need to get started. If they need help, they'll let you know. Then watch them wow you with results.


Even when you plan your priorities well, time wasters will inevitably occur. Avoid them with the following tips:

Put a value on your time. People say, "time is money", but for many of them it isn't. They spend time to save money. They'll drive across town just to save a dollar on a tank of gas. Or, they'll spend hours doing unpleasant tasks that they could easily delegate. On the other hand, successful people spend money to save time. They'll hire others to do the things they don't like doing or aren't good at. They don't worry about spending a dollar if it will save them an hour.

Stop messing with the mail. Do your important work before looking at the mail. Even if you have just a few minutes, there's always something you can do on your top priorities. When you have to handle your mail, don't keep putting in different piles, Instead, FLAG it. That means File it, Let someone else handle it, take Action on it or throw it in the Garbage. The same goes for both traditional mail and e-mail.

Don't spend time on trivia. Do you really need to spend time recording a new voice mail message every day? Some people leave the same message for months with no detrimental effects. And don't spend hours preparing a high tech presentation when a good conversation will suffice. Finally, stop fussing over routine administrative tasks. Delegate or automate them.
Always start meetings on time. Don't punish those who show up on time and reward those who are late. At the appointed time, do something however minor, but get started. Even if someone else is running the meeting, anyone who attends can take responsibility for the meeting dynamics. No one will ever criticize you for saying, "We seem to be off topic. Should we get back to the agenda?" Don't let others waste your time. Remember, your time is worth it.

Mark Ellwood is a productivity consultant dedicated to improving people and processes through consulting, training and facilitation. Reach him at mark@GetMoreDone.com or www.getmoredone.com.

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