How to use our time most efficiently was the subject of a presentation to the CFA Society Chicago on May 14, 2020, by Tom Lemanski of Chicago Executive Coaching. The subject matter was especially “timely”, coming while many people are confined to home by the Covid-19 virus pandemic and juggling work, childcare, and education responsibilities. Since 2001, Lemanski has facilitated breakthroughs for leaders in over 60 industries. His experience as both an accomplished executive and business change agent formed the foundation for his coaching career.
Lemanski began his presentation by asking the participants three true or false questions:
- It’s best practice to prioritize tasks before us based on their importance.
- It’s best to focus first on the most important tasks.
- It’s best to plan how and when to address tasks to maintain control of our time.
A majority of respondents correctly answered “True” to all three. Lemanski followed this up with a request that participants score their time management on a scale of 1-10. About 50% rated themselves a 6 or 7 (above average but not exceptional). Only 3% gave themselves a 9 with none at all at 10. These results are common in Lemanski’s experience and he offered a long list of usual reasons including: short attention span, procrastination, distractions, interruptions from other people, and choosing to do easier tasks before important ones. He then went into the meat of his presentation which took the form of a series of short lists of rules and behaviors for improving time management. He began with the old adage of “Time is money”, commenting that time is the scarcer of the two because it constantly wastes away and can’t be replaced once lost. He encouraged thinking about earning a return on time, similar to a return on money, measured by what one can achieve in a given time. He offered three recommendations to improve one’s return on time:
- Take notes on what one needs to accomplish, when, and how.
- Keep an open mind about how to achieve one’s objectives (in other words, improve your mindset).
- Embrace change (or, improve your skillset)
A common obstacle to point #2 is the attitude of ‘I know that already’ which Lemanski labeled with the acronym IKTA. While it may be true that we possess the requisite knowledge, it’s more important that we apply that knowledge effectively to achieve goals.
Lemanski’s next concept was the distinction between possibility thinkers and necessity thinkers. The former are driven to pursue gains. The latter more commonly seek to avoid losses, or do only what they need to do. Surprisingly, 80-85% of populations are necessity thinkers. Lemanski seeks to train people to change themselves into possibility thinkers.
Lemanski next described a matrix he uses as a coaching tool. It labels tasks on both importance and urgency. He defined important tasks as those that enhance results and goals. Urgent tasks have a limited time for action. A matrix of these two qualities shows four quadrants as follows:
- Urgent, important tasks—Crisis is a typical example but generally any task or project considered pressing or with a deadline.
- Important but not urgent tasks—including planning, relationship building, recreation, and exercise (physical and mental).
- Unimportant urgent tasks—annoyances like interruptions and distractions.
- Unimportant non-urgent tasks—classic time wasters or busy work
Lemanski recommended a focus on quadrant two tasks because they offer the best return on time. Their benefits can last long into the future. Obviously, those in quadrant four offer no return at all and we should focus on eliminating these.
‘Whose agenda is it anyway’ was the next mini-topic addressed, an exercise in taking control of one’s time so others can’t co-opt it. Lemanski advised making a daily practice of listing our three most important personal goals and three most important professional goals. Then sort and rank them by priority. The six aren’t necessarily tasks to be completed each day. They may take longer to complete, but reviewing the list daily helps maintain focus on what is most important to us.
Managing energy was the next point Lemanski addressed with a helpful list of questions:
- When do I have the most mental energy?
- When do I have the most physical energy?
- When am I most creative?
- When am I most tired?
The answers to these form a plan to use in addressing the tasks before us, or in setting an agenda. He followed this up with his list of the three D’s:
- Do it.
- Delegate it.
- Drop it.
To help with #1, getting down to work on the important tasks, Lemanski suggested setting a “one on none” appointment–time set aside to work alone. Good delegating, point 2, may require adopting a new mindset to get over attitudes such as thinking no one else will care as much about a task, or won’t have the necessary skills to achieve it. A very common excuse is thinking that it will take too long to train someone else to handle a task. Effective time managers need to by-pass these obstacles. “Drop it” often requires being selfish or firm with others who make demands on our time. We must learn when to say “No” to secure our time for what’s most important to us. As an example of how to use the three D’s, Lemanski applied them to e-mail management. A message categorized as “Do it” requires a prompt answer and should be done now. He advised however that three paragraphs should be the limit. Anything requiring a longer response would be better handled in a conversation or is too complicated to address in a simple e-mail message. A message in the “Delegate it” category should be forwarded on to someone better positioned to address it. Any “Dump it” message should just be deleted.
Tasks of the “Do it” type should be managed on a “to do” list and Lemanski recommended applying the process of triage used in hospital emergency rooms to help. With this, such tasks would be subdivided further as “must do”, should do”, or “can do later”.
A Time Audit was another of Lemanski’s suggestions for improving one’s efficiency of time. This entails an annual audit of activities tracked over a week to determine how much time we devote to various activities such as e-mail management, meetings, networking, etc. (even including personal activities). It should lead to an “Ah ha” moment—the realization that we are spending too much time on at least one activity that could be better spent elsewhere.
Lemanski considers procrastination to be the enemy of efficient time management. Defeating it requires a focus on doing the things that are most important. Helpful hints he suggested included:
- Avoid making excuses that cause delays.
- Think on paper.
- Reduce tasks into component parts and address them sequentially.
- Reward yourself for completing steps.
- Visualize what completion will look like or feel like.
- Address smaller, easily achieved tasks first, or
- Start with the task that causes the most anxiety to remove that obstacle quickly.
He followed these suggestions with a list of self-limiting beliefs that interfere with good time management:
- There will be time to do this tomorrow so there’s no need to do it today.
- I’ll do this when the time feels right for it.
- This is too big a task to start now.
- There’s no need to take notes, I’ll remember the details.
- If I say no to this request the consequence will be_______ (fill in the blank with something negative).
Lemanski had one final recommendation for improving time management which he described with the phrase 3 + 3 + 3 = Positive Habits:
- Start doing three things you’re not doing now that you should be doing.
- Stop doing three things that you shouldn’t do (or don’t need to do).
- Identify three things you are doing that you should continue.
Before taking questions from participants Lemanski provided a link to the page on his company website where the resources and concepts he presented are posted:
In the Q & A session, Lemanski recommended having an “accountability coach” is a good idea, especially for necessity thinkers who have a difficult time holding themselves to task.
In response to several questions dealing with managing the work/life balance while working from home, he suggested:
- Use his agenda-setting steps (Whose agenda is it anyway?).
- Expect interruptions and build time into the agenda for them.
- Be understanding of others’ requests for your time, but ask for the same consideration in return.
- Find a quiet, secluded place to work.