Time and Task

Why they continue to be distant relatives instead of the best of friends.

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When people talk of managing their time they seldom refer to the tasks they are required to complete in the time they are trying to manage. When people talk about managing their workload they talk about prioritising work with little reference to the time it takes to complete tasks regardless of its priority.

As Association executives you are managers. You manage clients, communication, rostering, finance, technical programming, facilities, logistics, standards and, more often than not, you do this autonomously – all by yourself. You can not be an effective manager without creating a personal system for managing tasks in the direct context of time.

Task Management

I do not like ‘To Do’ Lists. I do everything in my power to discourage the use of ‘to do’ lists and I cringe at employees who come to me with their list as solution to getting everything done they need to in order to impress me as an employer. A ‘to do’ list, even a prioritised one, gives neither the user nor me an indication of how long it is going to take to complete the list.

A ‘to do’ list creates more questions than answers. Where do you put all the new things that happen while you are working through your list? Which items on the list relate to one another? Are they prioritised in respect of other interdependent items on the list? Are the most important ones going to take the most time? Are the least time consuming, and lower priority tasks, actually more important to the business because, as the saying goes – “we have to get the small things right”.

I am an advocate of David Allen’s theory in his bestselling book Getting Things Done1. It is his notion of “Next Action” that has given me the power to work more effectively and efficiently than ever before – and I am only in the introductory stages of being able to apply the theory appropriately to all facets of my personal and professional life.

A Next Action is that task which can be completed with no dependencies. So rather than prioritise tasks on the basis of some perceived importance, you break down work into Next Actions so that you can easily ‘process’ Next Actions without having to wait for someone else to do something first; or do something else which may or may not have been on your list. Once you have completed the Next Action that should lead you on to the next ‘Next Action’ which can now be completed also.

Let me provide an example.

You need to book a venue to hold a meeting. Sounds like a simple task and would be one that appears on many ‘To Do’ Lists in the industry I am sure. Take some time to think about all the possible actions required to successfully achieve that task.

They may include:

  1. Sit on computer and research possible venues – choose 3 preferences
  2. Talk to staff and volunteers about possible dates – choose two preferences
  3. Find phone numbers for the right contact person at the venue
  4. Call potential venues
  5. Wait for venue contact to call you back
  6. Get quotes
  7. Consult with people over quotes
  8. Negotiate price and product with venues
  9. Check industry calendar to avoid clash with other major events
  10. Confirm venue.

Just in one quick thought process there are at least 10 different ‘actions’ that would need to be considered when trying to book a venue for a meeting. With more time each of these will also have ‘Next Actions’ inherent in them that you have to complete before you can even complete this list.

The critical point about this is that all of this stuff takes time – your time. Time you are not earning an income. If you had to schedule time to book a venue for this meeting how much time would you have left to address the other things you manage as a successful association manager?

If you do not know the answer to that question you are doing you and your organisation a disservice.

Time Management

The most lasting legacy of a period of mentoring I received early in my career has been the most significant advice I have ever received and has given me back my life. I learned to decide “when to do things” not “when to do things by”.

 

Think about it for a minute and say it with me again – “Decide when to do things NOT when to do things by”.

It is too easy to say ‘I need to book a meeting venue by the end of the month’. That is when you want it done by. What happens if you go days without having heard back from venues? What happens if you spend days waiting for people to confirm other events which clash with the dates you have chosen? What happens if you can’t find a venue where you want it on the date you want it? All of this takes time and may not fit with your self imposed deadline. What happens to all the other stuff you are trying to do while you are waiting for calls to be returned?

 

However if you systematically make appointments in your schedule to take action (read: Next Actions) you will have a far greater probability of success in getting stuff done and will find you precede your expected deadline and save yourself some – you guessed it – time.

Our time is one of the only things we own and can control ourselves. It is the one thing we can make decisions about how we spend and what we spend it on. It is the same with our money hence the relationship between “time and money.”

Take a look at one full week on a calendar page (easy in MSOutlook if you have it) and think about how many waking hours are available to you to get stuff done. In fact, start by deciding how many hours of sleep you want each night, from when to when, and then plot it in your calendar. You have just made a commitment to yourself – an appointment that should not be broken – for if you cannot keep an appointment with yourself you will struggle to make the commitment to others. Then think about what you would like to be doing immediately before you go to bed each night. I like 30 minutes of reading so I have an appointment with myself to read from 10pm to 10.30pm each weeknight. Locked in.

If you have a waking time of say 6.30am then you can easily work out in any week how many waking hours you have to do stuff. From this you can decide what is your core business and personal objectives. If you work for yourself (a.k.a solopreneur – see flyingsolo.com.au) often these objectives will be one and the same.

For simplicity sake let’s say your primary objective and income is derived from dance classes. How many dance classes do you want to run each week? For what duration? Most importantly, when do you want to run them?

Book them in.

Right here, let me give you another awesome tip. Work out how long it will take you to travel to the regular meetings or where you work. Make this an appointment immediately before and then another immediately after the meeting to get home or wherever you need to go. Particularly in capital cities, you will love knowing you have given yourself enough time in your diary to travel where you have to go and can not book another appointment over the top of it. Apply the ‘Travel Time Tip” to all your appointments where travel is required.

If you keep working through the stuff you would like to do each week that form the basis for your management career soon your diary will look something like this (if you use Outlook):

In one picture I can now see how much spare time I have (white space) as well as being able to see how much time I have committed to getting stuff done. I have also colour-coded particular things like travel (light blue) so over time I have learned this and can recognise it as time when I am going to be in the car or on the train – which by the way also proves to be some quality quiet time or music listening time too!

This is a practical example of how I decide when I am going to do things; and, how much time I am going to allocate to doing that thing. Coupled with a picture of how much time I have left in a day/week/month I am significantly less stressed about the things I am NOT doing. Why? Well, I need only look at my diary and find some time to make an appointment with myself or someone else to get it done.

A Time for Tasks

If you read nothing else in this article consider the following tips:

  1. Work out how much of your time you want to commit each week to work, rest and play.
  2. Think about when you are going to do things; not when you are going to do them by.
  3. Take the time each week to tackle your tasks.

It is very important that you make an appointment with yourself each week to sit down and plan the things you need to work on and the Next Actions associated with those things. I challenge you to make this weekly appointment for one hour and go three weeks without breaking that appointment with yourself. If you can meet that challenge you are well on the way to significantly enhancing your commitment to all the people you work with and for.

Time and task management continues to be an area where all managers look for solutions and noone should feel alone in the world of being overwhelmed from time to time. With these few basic tips and the confidence that this system will deliver you it will not be long before you will be on top of all the work you choose to be on top of. Plus, you may even find yourself having an extra sleep-in from time to time.

Robert Barnes has postgraduate degrees in communications and an MBA. He is Director of Dangerous Minds Consulting; CEO of the NSW Fitness Industry Association; and, Honorary Secretary of his beloved North Cronulla Surf Life Saving Club.

For advice, support and more practical assistance email: robert.barnes@dangerousminds.com.au

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