Time Management – Directing the One Resource You Can Control

by Kym Conis

In an industry where customers demand quick turnarounds on jobs that would normally take two weeks; where 24-hour or same-day quotes are not only standard, but expected; and continual advances in technology demand an ever-increasing pace, it’s hard not to get caught up in the race against time. And whether procrastination (or the opposite – trying to do too much) is your poison or some other unproductive work habit, most of us are in need of some time management consulting.

“Time is a non-renewable resource consumed at a constant and relentless rate. Once an hour is gone, it’s gone forever, you can never get it back,” states Robert Bly, director of the Center for Technical Communication. And as much as we’d like, there aren’t enough hours in the day to create a fourth shift! Yet according to Bly, most time-related problems can be solved by increasing the productivity of the one resource we actually can control – ourselves. Bly continues, “You are a resource. You have output. To succeed today, you need to increase your output to the next level without making the resource sick, tired, dissatisfied, or unhappy.”

Setting Your Daily Schedule
“Productive workers have schedules and stick with them. Yet more than 50 percent of workers don’t schedule their daily activities,” states Bly. Starting the day with a schedule, a plan of attack, will help you stay organized and keep track of deadlines. Sure, your schedule might change throughout the day as jobs come in without notice or customers drop by unexpectedly, but it is important to change your schedule in writing and post it in a place where it easily can be consulted. In addition, Bly points out that in order to be successful in business, his number one rule is “first things first,” which means setting priorities and meeting deadlines.

To-do Lists
A simple, yet powerful tool, to-do lists are a key component to personal time management. Bly sets out three types of lists every worker should keep: Daily to-do lists, Project to-do lists, and Long-term to-do lists. Daily to-do lists should be comprised of the items you have to do that day. This list usually is revised several times throughout the day and should set out your hour-to-hour schedule. This list can help you stay on track and meet your deadlines, and should be consulted throughout the day.

Project to-do lists are a culmination of all the projects currently underway, along with deadlines for each. This list should be revisited several times a week, in order to ensure you are not missing any deadlines and that you are doing what is necessary to accomplish your goals. Finally, Long-term to-do lists are projects that are on your future “hit list,” but are not currently underway. These projects have no assigned deadlines, but the list still should be reviewed once a week to add new ideas or expound on existing ones.

Bly warns that we should not be turned away by this tool’s “ease of implementation” and agrees with the quote, “As soon as you start to introduce complexity, whether it’s into an organization or a set of responsibilities, the more difficult it is to operate.”

Working Better and Faster
The following are several steps that will help you become more productive:

Computer technology. As is commonly known, computer technology can increase your output tremendously. From personal productivity to estimating systems, job specifications and scheduling, computers and electronic technology are an essential part of the industry and therefore, must be continually updated.

Become a specialist. Bly explains, “When you specialize, the specialized knowledge you amass, the skills you master, and the expertise you build can be used over and over again on many projects related to your specialty. This allows you to ‘amortize’ your investment in research, education, and training – over many tasks (or jobs).” Likewise, creating a niche in the industry allows you to carve your area of expertise into the marketplace and offer services to your customers that they can’t readily find elsewhere.

Go after repeat business. According to marketing professionals, making a sale to a new customer versus making a sale to a current customer can be five times as costly. When you take into account the extra time and effort necessary to cultivate a new account, set that account up in your system and check credit references, etc., keeping current customers satisfied, thereby insuring repeat business, is one of the best ways to guarantee sales. This is not to undermine the importance of building a continual new customer base; however, satisfying current customers should never be sacrificed for going after new accounts. Remember, loyalty is earned by a trusted and established relationship – neither of which is applicable to a first-time customer.

Don’t be a perfectionist. In an industry where the customer has the final approval, this may be a hard bit of advice to swallow. However, in any job, there comes a time when you have done the best you can and extra hours spent fiddling or tweaking in the makeready process, for instance, may not justify the end product. Bly cautions, “Be a careful worker, but don’t agonize over your work beyond the point where the extra effort no longer produces a proportionately worthwhile improvement in your final product.”

Quality equipment attracts quality press operators. Talented press operators want to work on state-of-the-art equipment and if you have it, bringing quality operators on-board is much easier. Quality, experienced operators are able to make decisions on the best way to run a job and often, may come up with ideas and solutions that might actually improve processes.

Do work you enjoy. According to a Harris poll, the average workweek is comprised of approximately 50 hours – that’s nearly one third of your week. To spend that time unhappy in what you do (that’s half of your waking hours), would be an injustice. Of course, you can’t always be thrilled with every task or job you do, but try to balance the unpleasant with the pleasurable tasks and your work week won’t seem so much like work.

Don’t waste time on assignments (or jobs) you don’t have. Providing samples, mock-ups and quotes to customers is an important, and often time-consuming part of the day-in and day-out operations. However, it is important to know your customer and the odds of the job going through. If the customer is notorious for monopolizing large amounts of your time, yet never places an order, you might want to think twice about exerting quite as much effort the next time around. Getting the job is important, so try to prioritize your time so that you have enough left for the accounts that do become jobs.

Eliminating Bad Habits that Waste Time
If you wish to eliminate bad habits from your daily routine, you must first identify that habit. Next, make a list of the habits you wish to avoid. Bly suggests “Phrase each item on your list in the imperative voice. For example, if your worst time-wasting habit is procrastination, this should read as ‘Don’t procrastinate’ on your list.” And last, but most important, post the list where you will be reminded of these habits frequently. After all, if you can’t see the list, you won’t constantly be reminded.

Don’t Procrastinate
Procrastinators are notorious for missing deadlines or completing tasks at the last minute, thereby creating unnecessary stress. In order to overcome procrastination, break the project or task down into manageable (and tolerable) segments throughout your day. Actually schedule the time you will work on the task and stick to the schedule, working at least 60 minutes a day until the task is completed. Give yourself an incentive for completing the task. Think about how relieved and stress-free your day will be when the task is completed. Finally, explore the possibility of outsourcing portions of the task that you find boring or distasteful. Bly concludes, “The more routine jobs you can delegate, the more time you’ll have for ‘high level’ work.”

Use the 80/20 Rule
This rule states that 80 percent of your accomplishments come from only 20 percent of your efforts. Therefore, the goal is to discover what makes that 20 percent so productive, then try to devote most of your time to those activities and less time to those that are unproductive. Lastly, search for solutions to your time wasting periods and try to devise ways in which you can be more productive during those periods.

If you’ve made it this far in the article, hopefully you have found a few time management tips that will help you become more productive. And, if you merely skimmed the article, extracting only those bits of information that were applicable to you – even better! You’re on your way to managing one facet of time management – information overload. According to Bly, the key is to filter and be selective in your information intake rather than comprehensive.

Managing your time is a discipline that should be applied throughout your entire day – at home and at work. By simply identifying your “time wasters,” and correcting them one at a time, you will begin to notice an increase in your personal productivity. Remember, the process starts with you – the one resource you can control.

Robert W. Bly is director of The Center for Technical Communication, a consulting firm providing on-site seminars in business and technical writing, marketing and selling, and personal productivity for corporate clients.