Time Management for Project Leaders
The frequent project manager's lamentation is still "Too much work, not enough time". This is surprising, given that we have the same 24 hours in every day as we used to have before the invention of personal computers, email and instant messaging. Now that we have enormous computing power on our desk and the ability to communicate with people all over the world via instant messaging, how is it that we don't have enough time to get everything done? Everything is now faster than ever before and we have more information available than we ever had before.
The answer is that we are distracted more easily. We have more interruptions and more noise in our lives than ever before. My phone seldom rings anymore - because everyone uses instant messaging and emails to communicate. The noise is not always audible anymore yet the effect is the same. You don't get done what you set out to do when you walked into the your office or cube this morning.
The root of good time management begins within the project manager. Although it may seem like everyone else is controlling your time, the fact is that you manage your time. We all have the same 24 hours in every day. You have these 24 hours, your board of directors, the president of the United States and Bill Gates. However, we spend our time differently.
You can't make more time. You can only use your time better. What is "better" or "worse" use of your time? I assume that your definition of "better" or "worse" use of time depends on the goals you are currently trying to achieve. If you want to get more work done on your project, then a "better" use of your time is to eliminate things that prevent you from getting work done on your project. If your goal is to spend more time with your family, then getting work done on your project is "worse" use of your time.
Therefore, time management is relative to the goals you want to reach. You are the person who must choose the relativity of you time usage and measure yourself against your scale, because if I choose to spend time writing, it might be the "best" use of time for me and the worst use of time for you.
Here are shortcuts to help you manage your time. (You won't find this value in the study guide for your project management exam. You will experience it if you work with me or attend one of my workshops.)
1. Realize that you have less time than you think. The next 24 hours will be gone before you know it. If you want to get a lot of things accomplished today and this week, then you must realize that time flies and you need to plan ahead.
2. Things take twice as long as you think they will take. If you want to avoid stress, then don't overplan your time. Back to back meetings and an unachievably long list of tasks that never gets finished, is demoralizing. You are better off to plan for about half the work you think you will accomplish today and this week, and then finish the tasks, than to overplan and be frustrated when your plan fails due to a small delay. If you finish your "to-do" list and find that you have time left over, you can always take on more work.
3. Good time managers have high self-esteem, discipline to stay focused on their tasks in the allotted time, and the ability to say "no" to requests to other people. How high is your self-esteem? I observe that the number one problem with people who are overworked is the inability to say "no" to burdensome requests on their time. Guard your time zealously, so that you can spend time in ways that help you to reach your goals, not someone else's goals. Remember, you have less time on the planet than you think you have.
4. Time management is simply choosing to do X instead of Y. The only way to create time to work on project X, is to choose project X instead of Project Y. If you say that you don't have time for your family, or your hobby, then it is because you are choosing to do something else instead. You have time for either project and are choosing one over the other one.
5. Email overload is a common problem for project managers. We get too many emails and some of them require indepth analysis to understand before you can respond. Therefore, it is valuable for you to use rules to sort your emails, especially the emails that you don't need to receive, but can't get out of. For example, if you work in a large organization, you are forced to receive emails about the cafeteria menu choices for the month and the many email newsletters from other departments. You can't opt-out of these emails, so your only option is to setup rules to delete them without your intervention. Unsubscribe from as many mailing lists and group emails as you can at the office. Cut off as many emails as you can, at the source. Use rules to sort through the rest.
6. Aim to keep your email inbox clean, with no open items. This should be your target, and keep on finding ways to work towards a target of zero emails in your inbox. You can't work effectively with clutter.
7. Have you noticed the correlation between bureaucracy, bureaucrats, and the lack of time? Leaders have enough time, yet bureaucrats don't. What are you choosing to spend your time on?
8. Are you running out of time because you are investing too much time in checking and reviewing the work of professionals on your team, just like the old-time managers who would review and mark memos in a red pen before the memo was perfect to distribute to his team of 3 people?
9. Educate people around you, if they are consuming your time. Tell people to not "Reply all" at the top of your emails. Most people are as overwhelmed as you are with email, and appreciate the nudge to not "Reply all" with simple messages like "Thanks". Put a disclaimer at the top of your email that says "Don't say thank you". This will reduce the amount of email that you get.
10. Touch each email only once. Deal with it when you touch it. Delegate, delete or take action. Try to stay focused on that email until it is complete and then move it out of your inbox. You have less time than you think you have, so don't plan to get to it "later". Why commit future time to an email that you should deal with now.
11. Keep a time log for a day. Every 15 minutes write down what you are working on. You will be surprised to find that you are answering emails and instant messages and generally reacting to other people, instead of focusing on doing your work. Watch where you spend your time, and see what you can eliminate altogether. If you had 6 months to live, would you be spending your time doing what you are doing now?
12. Block out chunks of time for you to do your work. Go offline for 30 minutes and stay focused on your tasks, then go back and catch up on your emails. Most of them will wait and some issues will have resolved themselves without your intervention.
13. Make time for yourself. Take your lunches and get some exercise instead of anxiously waiting by your computer for the next invasion of your privacy. You can't work if you are not taking care of yourself first. Your body will collapse. You aren't going to be answering emails from your hospital bed.
14. Stay prioritized. Yeah, this is an oldie but goodie. Keep on prioritizing your work so that you are working on the most important task all the time. Use your to-do list, your "must get done list" or write it on your sticky-notes. Do whatever it takes to stay on task working on the most important task all the time that you are working.
15. Become aware of distractions. Become aware of people who habitually interrupt you or thought patterns that distract you from your work. If you have an active mind like me, then you may want to keep a separate notepad of "great ideas that I want to work on one day" to keep them safe and out of your way while you stay focused. Change your environment - go to the public library to write or your favorite coffee shops. Do what it takes to become aware of your distractions and then take steps to become undistractable.
16. Learn to estimate. We all seem to take on more work than we can handle. You think we have 60 hours in every day and you plan accordingly. The result is that at the end of the day, you have 20 hours of work left and only 3 hours to get it done, if you don't sleep tonight. Write down how long it takes you to perform routine tasks. If it took you 5 hours today to create your weekly project status report, and 5 hours last week, then I am willing to bet that you should schedule 5 hours of your time for next week's status report. Block out 5 hours on your calendar and your weekly project status report will get done. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Lack of realistic estimates causes frustration for all concerned and leads to last minute overtime, missed deadlines and "honey, I won't be home for dinner again tonight. I am working late - don't wait up".
17. When the work is done, stop working. You can't work all the time. Schedule down time and breaks, if you want to be more productive. Take breaks during the day to get exercise and fresh air. Schedule and take your vacations. You will be more productive when you are working.
18. Try to not host or attend meetings. If you have to host or attend a meeting, then make it efficient by having an agenda, keeping on track, and encouraging people to take note of their own action items so that you don't have to babysit them. Don't volunteer to take on work that will add to your overload.
19. Know your own peak performance times. I am an early morning person and get more done before 10 AM than in the rest of the day. Schedule your day around this, as best you can, for maximum productivity.
20. Don't beat yourself up. Be guilt-free when you abandon tasks and projects that are draining your time. You can't get to everything and trying to do everything leads to despair. Live guilt free.
It is not just about you. Your time management skills helps or hinders your colleagues and project team. You all benefit when you manage your time superbly, because it helps them to manage their time better as well. Set the example for them using these tips, and their matured time management skills will in turn help you to have less crises, less stress and more time to pursue personal goals.
How many of these items do you implement in your daily life? If you use this list as an assessment, and check off each one, do you get a 100% score? I am not grading your assessment (unless you send me a check), but if you score yourself, then you might find an item or two that can help you to manage your time better.
Of course, I wish that I could claim that I am the perfect time manager. In the real world, none of us are perfect time managers. I am better and improving my time management skills by using the advice I offer above. In fact, the only perfect time manager is in the graveyard, with nothing to do. If you are a productive project manager then active time management is part of the job description.
The real key to time management is in your head, and it starts with high self-esteem, the ability to set goals and then say "no" to time demands that stand between you and your goal. Then to replan when your time management plan needs corrective action.