In other parts of this blog, I have mentioned that every single professional is using a time management system of their own making.
This is not a problem.
The issue arises when they don’t realize that they are doing so, and the number of time demands rises to a level that overwhelms their system. Then, they don’t know what to do to return to the peace of mind and sense of productivity they had before.
Going on vacation doesn’t help. Neither does working harder, or spending longer hours at the office.
Some will change jobs, or companies, in the hope that they can find a position with fewer time demands that their time management system can handle.
However, professionals who take responsibility for their time management systems have another option — they can re-design their systems, and accept that they have to manage how well it runs.
Here are some design criteria that can be used to tell whether or not there is a good match between the volume of time demands, and a user’s time management system.
The first requirement for a good time management system is that the user employ practices that are scalable. In time management terms, this means that the practice can still be used even if when the number of time demands increases.
For example, the practice of using bits and pieces of paper as capture points does not scale well, as it quickly becomes a problem when the number of time demands to be captured increases in importance or in number.
Another practice that does not scale well is the act of putting paper on your desk to be reminded to work on it in the future.
Both of these practices might work well for a high school student who has homework to remember to do and little else.
However, ten years later, when the student becomes a professional who is managing 5 people, the practice no longer works. The tremendous number of paper that must be managed on a weekly basis means that paper might mean that neither practice works well.
Another similar practice that worked well when email was a rarity, was the have the computer announce “You’ve got mail” when a new piece of email enters the inbox. AOL used to use a perky voice to advice a user that something good had just happened, and email had arrived.
In today’s environment, with hundreds of messages being received each day, that practice of announcing the arrival of each email would be enough to drive any professional crazy.
As a time management system is being built, a user must ensure that the practices being put in place can grow with the increase in time demands. This might take little imagination, as changes in technology that are happening everyday are likely to disrupt even the best laid plans. Nevertheless, the principle is still a sound one, even if it can’t be implemented perfectly.
A time management system must have the capacity to do the same thing over and over again. A hit or miss system that works now and again is sometimes worse than no system at all.
For example, a system that is built on the use of personal memory is one that likely to be unreliable, as our ability to remember is subject to fatigue, motivation, stress, the pressure of deadlines, the time of day it’s encountered, our emotional state, and numerous other factors.
While the practice of trying to remember to do things later might be popular, it’s hardly reliable and shouldn’t be a regular part of any professional’s time management system.
The rule of thumb is, the less a system relies on personal memory and the more it relies on electronics or paper, the more reliable it is likely to be.
A time management system that works well is one that enables a user to execute time demands precisely. It allows a user to keep enough detail regarding time demands to prevent conflicts, disappearing promises, overflowing email inboxes, etc.
For example, the system would help the user to start meetings, appointments and activities on time, helping the user to never be late.
A system that has only a rudimentary calendar with no spaces for specific time-slots is probably going to be a obstacle to a user that has multiple meetings in a given day, all of which are important.
All in all, a time management system should be designed with these goals in mind, and as new practices are introduced or replaced, they need to be implemented in a way that gives the peace of mind of knowing that they scalable, reliable and precise, and therefore unlikely to fail.
It would give users ways to live their daily lives without the failures that most people take for granted.