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Managing Your Time is Managing Your Life

by: Dr. Norman F. Foy, CMA, CFM

Someone once said that time is money. But in fact, time is more than money. If we lose all our money we can pick a great stock and make it all back. However, once time is gone it is gone forever. Today you will make an investment of the time to read this article and then later, hopefully, you will invest another two hours or so to perform some activities that will improve the way you manage your time. The return on this investment? Well, quantitatively you will save a lot of time that you can use for other higher priority items, and qualitatively you will be spending your time on the activities that are the most important to you.
So…What's the Problem?


When I ask my corporate training classes to describe how they feel about the amount of time they have available, the answers include:

  • There isn't enough time to do everything
  • I lose track of time and then I'm rushed
  • I keep forgetting to do things.


I can never remember anyone answering that they have plenty of time or that they have too much time! In fact, they tell me that some of the things that are supposed to help them "get more time" like cell phones, fax machines, and email, actually seem to make things worse.

Before you think that this article will give you extra time, like a 26-hour day, I have some bad news. To my knowledge (except for leap years) before you read this article there will be 365 days in a year and 24 hours in a day, which comes out to 8,760 hours in a year. After you finish reading the article you will find that there are still 8,760 hours in a year! What I will promise you is that by following the tips in this article you will use those hours more productively.

The Solution

The solution to the problem of not having enough time is to learn and use a time management process. The process we will use has the following steps:

  • Put Key Information in One Place
  • Set Key Objectives
  • Prepare an Activity Log
  • Compare Key Objectives to Activities
  • Develop Task Lists

Okay, I know you don't have a lot of time, so let's get moving.

Put Key Information in One Place

One of the biggest problems of managing time is not having the information you need when you need it. For example, some people keep lists of "To Do's," but these get lost and frequently mix up short and long term goals. We can do better. Start by putting together your Master Book. It can be any three hole notebook with some tabs. The minimum sections will be:

  • Key Objectives
  • Monthly/Daily Task Lists
  • Planning Calendar
  • Address/Telephone List

The planning calendar helps you schedule meetings and other events. You can buy these monthly calendars or you can print them from programs found in Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Organizer, or other packages. The calendars don't have to be fancy….I have been using one for the last 15 years and don't see the need to upgrade.
I suggest putting in one tab for each month of the year so that you can put in lists of things that need to be done in those months. We will discuss Monthly and Daily task lists shortly. I know people who put grocery lists in the book, while others have handy reference lists with library hours and other useful information. Whatever you use for your master book, it should fit your needs. Some people like to buy one that has a zipper so that they can put things in it that won't fall out. Stationery stores and time management companies, have all sorts of fancy accessories that can be useful. Many people prefer to buy complete time management books from Franklin-Covey or DayTimer, or use a Personal Organizer, but that's up to you. Just remember, all you really need is a basic three-hole notebook. In it you will have everything to keep you organized and save you time. For those of you worried about losing or leaving your master book behind, well it may happen once or twice when you first use it, but that won't last. You will treat this book as an extension of yourself; you will just automatically be sure you have it before you go anywhere. I can't remember the last time I forgot and left my master book behind. It's just too important.

Set Key Objectives

To me the most important step in time management is to determine your key objectives. In order for you to be able to prioritize activities into the time available for them you must know what things are most important to you. Your objectives should be relatively long term, (certainly outside a one year period) be important to you, and be limited in number. Twenty is probably the outside limit, but personally I can't really manage many more than ten. You may want to categorize your objectives into Personal (PE), CO (Community), and Professional (PR). That approach helps you see at a glance if you are devoting all your objectives to one area, such as professional, and not providing enough balance in your life. Here are some examples of objectives from people I have worked with:

  • Develop a stronger relationship with my two children (PE).
  • I've always loved reading…I want to read more (PE).
  • Pass the CPA exam and get licensed (PR).
  • Obtain a promotion to management (PR).
  • Make my town a more beautiful place (CO).

Write your objectives down on a piece of paper and then look at them again every few days over the upcoming weeks. You'll find yourself making changes to them, maybe dropping some, and adding some new objectives. These are your own objectives and it isn't necessary to get anyone else to approve them, nor do they have to be shared with other people unless you want to do so.

Prepare an Activity Log

Now you know what the most important things are in your life. The next step is to find out how you are actually spending your time. An activity log is a one-week detailed record of how you spend your time. You should try and pick a seven-day period that is fairly representative of your life. Don't, for example, pick a time when you're on vacation or a really "crunch time" at work. You don't have to use any particular means to record how you spend your time. Some people use a lined pad, while others prefer to print out Excel or Lotus 1-2-3 worksheets with half-hour time slots in the rows for the first column, and a column for each day of the week.

Before starting the activity log think of how you will categorize activities. When you are done you will need to prepare a summary. Some categories might include:

  • Exercise
  • Chores (Clothes Washing, House Cleaning, etc.)
  • Family Activities
  • Professional Work
  • Work Meetings

Make sure that some of your categories relate directly to your key objectives. To simplify things, you may want to come up with some shorthand, such as "EX" for exercise" or "FA" for family activities.
Okay, once you've kept your activity log for a week, then summarize the results. Some people like to express the results as percentages, but I prefer working with the actual number of hours. At this point you have done most of the "grunt work" and from now on each piece of work should also bring with it some positive results. Or, in words we financial folks understand, we have done most of the investing and will now start to see some returns on our investment.


Compare Key Objectives to Activities

Now it is time to make a quick comparison of each life objective to the time you are devoting to that activity. If you are like most people you are in for a shock! You may not be spending enough time doing the things you really want to do and that you have listed as key objectives. You must now work to fix the situation. Don't be like the cartoon of a man talking on the phone who says, "I love you, I need you, I can't live without you, Cynthia…let me put you on hold." This man may be letting his activities have priority over what is important, or Cynthia really isn't as important as he says she is. Okay, don't panic, there is a way to improve the situation…remember, we are now going to see the return on investment for the work you have already done.

A good approach is to look for big blocks of time that you are spending on low importance activities. Then, try to think of ways to consolidate them, eliminate some or all of them, or find someone else to do them. Let me give you a mundane example. I know a person who looked at his activities and found that he was spending three hours per week shopping for food. While eating is certainly important for survival, shopping for food wasn't one of this person's key objectives. He found that the three hours was really four separate trips, each involving 20 minutes of roundtrip travel, 15 minutes for shopping, and 10 minutes standing in line. When he thought about it he realized that the number of trips was caused by the lack of any plan as to what he would eat each night. In effect, he came home, found that a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich was not what he wanted to eat, and then went out to buy whatever was necessary. The solution was simple. He took a few minutes each Wednesday to outline his dinner menus for the coming week. Then, he determined what additional food items he would need, then went to the food store once each week on Thursday after work. Since he went from work he saved some travel time, so the whole trip took him 10 minutes for travel, 25 minutes for shopping and 10 minutes in line. The total time saving each week was 2 hours and 15 minutes. Suddenly, he had extra time to devote to the important things on his key objectives list. Look at your activities list--what can you eliminate, consolidate, or give to someone else to do?

Now, some of you are saying, wait, one of the items that eats up my life is a four-hour worthless work meeting that I have to go to once every week. If I could save some of that time I could do other work and cut down my overtime…but, I must go to the meeting, it is part of my job. Well, assuming that the meeting really has very little value, there are some approaches you might take. Don't necessarily do them in the order I have listed…you know the specific situation better than I do. Here are some things to consider:

  • Get the meeting eliminated or held as a conference call.
  • Reduce the length of the meeting.
  • Don't stay for the entire meeting.
  • Get to the meeting on time and leave when the meeting is scheduled to end.
  • Get someone else to go or rotate attendance among your peers.
  • Miss a meeting now and then.

I've probably missed a few strategies, but you get the idea.
Other useful tactics include paying all your bills together once or twice during the month or using time slots for multiple purposes. Lunch is a good example….let's say you have an hour. In addition to eating you could be doing some other things at the same time:

  • Schedule working lunches that will cut down on overtime.
  • Do some chores at lunch, like buying things you need or going to the dry cleaners.
  • If exercise is a high importance item that you haven't been doing, then eating a salad, followed by a brisk 45 minute walk should improve matters.
  • If you are preparing for a certification exam or taking graduate classes, you can use the time to study.

I'm reminded of what John Lennon is supposed to have said, "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans." Don't always look forward to what will happen "when you have the time." While we set objectives, we need to remember that our life is going by while we speak. If we aren't doing the important things with our time we will always talk about what might have been. You must work with your prioritization of today's time so that you get to do the things you want.


Develop Task Lists

At this point we should have saved some time and made our investment in tracking our activities worthwhile. Now we need to go a step further and develop task lists to make sure that, in the future, we do the important things. The first step is to take each key objective and break it down into smaller pieces that we can deal with. Put each objective on its own piece of paper and then set a specific annual goal. Next, break that goal down into smaller components with completion dates. An example might help make this approach clear. Let's say your doctor has told you, "You need to improve your health and physical condition or you won't need long term goals." So, you get the message and set a key objective of "Improve my health and physical condition." That's great, but it's a bit vague, and we need to set some specific annual goals. Let's say you decide to reduce your weight from 180 to 170, improve your running time for 3 miles from 32 minutes to 28 minutes, and reduce your blood pressure from 140/90 to 135/85. Those become your annual goals. Now let's take the last one and break it into components:

  • Research how to reduce blood pressure.
  • Eliminate caffeine gradually
  • Use salt substitute
  • Research and buy blood pressure monitor.

I suggest that you put some tentative dates by each of these. For items that can change gradually (like your weight) have a monthly goal. For example, you might choose to lose one pound per month which will get you to your goal at the end of the year, with two pounds as contingency! Since these key objective pages will be in your master book you can review them periodically. I look at mine monthly, but the exact frequency is up to you.


Now we move on to developing Periodic Task Lists. These can be monthly, weekly, or daily. You may elect not to do all of them. For example, I use only monthly and daily lists. You can make up a template and then make copies for your master book. On each page you should have a place for the date and whether it is a monthly, weekly, or daily task list. I suggest drawing two narrow columns down the left hand side of your task list page. The first column is for priority. I suggest first prioritizing by A, B, or C then breaking the highest priority A's into A1, A2, A3, etc. The second column is for status. In the status code column you can put an appropriate symbol. For example, I use a check when I complete an item, an X when I decide not to do it, and a forward arrow when I move an item to a future date. You can use the bottom portion of the page to list people you talk to, meeting notes, and other information for future reference.
What goes on these lists? First, move items from the key objective forms to the individual task lists. For example, if you use monthly sheets, you would note the weight you plan to achieve in the appropriate months. You would also decide when you would do some of the necessary activities, such as "Research and buy blood pressure monitor." You might also decide to take your blood pressure at specific times and you would put those down also. At the beginning of each month you would then put your key monthly items down on weekly and/or daily lists. Your monthly list would also include things you know you must do. For example, if your significant other has a birthday in March, you might want to note that in both March AND February so that you don't forget it. The task lists will include mundane items like, "wash car" and "buy groceries," but, unlike traditional "To Do" lists, you should also include fun things as tasks. If you don't include the fun things, then all your time will be spent on chores, leaving no time for the activities you enjoy.

Once a week sit down and review what you need to do in the coming week. You may see that there is no way you will accomplish everything that you have planned. So, you prioritize and move some items to the following weeks. If you don't get something done today you have many future task lists where you can re-schedule the event, not just write it on another list.

Conclusion

Two last hints. First, this short article cannot cover all time management techniques, so take a time management course if you ever get a chance. Second, as you mature as a professional you may find yourself traveling more or waiting for meetings or other events to begin. I have found that always having some reading material with me is a great time saver. The material could be work-related, such as your mail folder, it could be professional reading, or it could be just plain fun things. Just last week I arrived at my dentist's office to find that he had an emergency and would be 45 minutes late. Instead of fidgeting or reading a five-week old magazine, I was able to take meaningful work out of my briefcase and make the wait time a productive period.

Life as a professional accountant is busy and challenging. You will need to use all the productivity tools that you can find to be successful and to have time for the important things in your life. Get started on this approach now….time is passing.

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