Time management is a core knowledge area in the discipline of project management as it is closely knit to scope and cost. The most talented project managers are usually highly skilled at managing their own time and helping project team members to sharpen their own time management skills through task prioritization and other time management techniques.
The Time Management Matrix
In the modern world of electronic devices it is common to have multiple overlapping commitments that all require immediate attention. Time stressors are some of the most pervasive sources of pressure in the workplace, and they happen as a result of having too much to do, in too little time. In a 1954 speech, former President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This became known as the Eisenhower principle and was later expanded upon by Steven R. Covey in his highly acclaimed book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” as the Time Management Matrix as shown below:
- Important activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving our goals, whether these are professional or personal.
- Urgent activities demand immediate attention, and are usually associated with achieving someone else’s goals. They are often the ones we concentrate on and they demand attention because the consequences of not dealing with them are immediate.
Take a moment and think about your typical day. In which quadrant do you spend most of your time?
- If you have a lot of urgent and important activities, identify which of these you could have foreseen, and think about how you could schedule similar activities ahead of time, so that they don’t become urgent.
- Important but not urgent activities are those that help you achieve your personal and professional goals. These are at the heart of effective time management and should make up the majority of your time. Make sure you allocate plenty of time for this work so these tasks do not migrate over to urgent.
- Not important but urgent tasks are things that prevent you from achieving your goals. Can you delegate some of these tasks or reschedule?
- If you have not important and not urgent activities, avoid them if possible – these activities are just a distraction.
Helpful techniques to master personal time management:
- Prioritize your workload and complete the most important tasks first. Each day, identify the two or three tasks that are most important (hint: use the Time Management Matrix to figure it out), and do those first.
- Limit your “work in progress” to one task at a time. Concentrate on finishing one task before starting another. While we have been fooled into believing we are good multi-taskers, science indicates this just simply isn’t the case. Shifting mental focus between tasks is known as context switching. A BBC study, carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry, found excessive use of technology reduced workers’ intelligence. Those distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ – more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana. Whenever possible, avoid interruptions and avoid working on more than one project at the same time.
- Schedule time for yourself. Everyone should have a calendar by now, but what’s on your calendar? Meetings and appointments are the easy part. You should also schedule time for the following: (1) work time to complete your tasks and projects; (2) administrative time to organize your work and conduct planning (this is the time you will use to re-evaluate your time management matrix); and (3) thinking time to develop long-term strategies and goals. Most importantly, protect this time! All too often this time is sacrificed when meetings need to be scheduled or other tasks come up. You would not skip an important meeting with your boss if it were on your schedule, so treat yourself with the same respect and keep your appointments with yourself and your to-do list.
- Schedule time to answer email and return phone calls. Practice not answering the phone just because it is ringing and emails just because they show up. Turn off your pop-up alert for new emails. Just seeing the alert wastes precious time and mental resources as your brain must process the alert and make a decision. If you have already decided in advance that emails will be returned at a certain time, then you save yourself these countless decision points. If there is someone in your address book you know can’t wait, then use your mailbox settings to only allow emails from that individual to appear as a pop-up alert.
- Schedule time for interruptions. You are already handling your email and phone call interruptions so now apply a similar approach for other interruptions. Set aside “office hours” for colleagues to bring their questions. When people know you have time devoted to things that come up each day, they will be less likely to interrupt throughout the day. The key is to provide predictable availability.
- Remember the 20/80 rule. Focus your energy on the 20 percent of your work that is likely to produce 80 percent benefit. Since you can’t do everything, learn to prioritize the important and let go of the rest.
Projects teams are comprised of individual team members and the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of any one member can make or break the successful completion on-time and within budget.