One of the most heretical things I do as a consultant is to tell people not to use a computer. I firmly believe that for many things a computer is absolutely NOT the best tool, and that most business problems don't have a technological solution in the popular sense. The solution is technique, but usually in the sense of a clear procedure and NOT another gadget or gizmo. Time management is one of those areas, where sometimes technology can help, but not necessarily.
To illustrate how computers can get in the way, I offer two examples: one for inventory management and a second for information. On inventory, I once had a client who ran a small retail shop and wanted a computerized cash register. It was just her and one other part-time person, and a good day for them was $300 in gross sales. With fewer than a thousand inventory items and relatively low turnover, I suggested she save herself $1500 and instead proposed a simpler, card-based system, for which I charged her not a dime. On data: I had a long-term client who wanted some sort of computerized database for tracking phone messages, which were being lost and costing sales. After looking at the problem, we both agreed that they didn't need a new computer system but rather an established procedure for taking phone messages, which turned out to be a stack of NCR pads from a stationery store and an agreed-upon procedure that everyone followed. Sometimes the best solutions don't involve a computer, and frequently that is the case with time management.
Modern people have a lot of things to keep track of: contacts, appointments, email, phone messages, notes and tasks and reminders and more. Frequently these seem to become a blizzard of data smog, as we are buried in post-it notes, tripping over all the balls we have dropped. Computer programs such as Palm Desktop or Entourage or Outlook promise to solve the problem for us, but the problem is not a lack of technology but a lack of perspective and a simple, workable plan.
One of my favorite time management parables comes from the 1994 book First Things First by Merrill, Merrill and Covey. In it Stephen Covey has a glass jar on a table next to a pile of rocks. He puts in a few rocks and asks the audience if there is room for any more. They agree there is not, so he produces a bowl of stones, which he then puts in the jar, filling the space between the rocks. He asks again if there is more room, and the audience again says no, whereupon he produces a bowl of gravel, then of sand, before finally finishing the demonstration off by producing a pitcher of water, which completely fills the jar. When asked for the moral of the story, Covey asserts that the secret is to "put in the big rocks first." By deciding what is important and clarifying what is urgent, Covey encourages us all to put first things first.
In distinguishing between importance and urgency, Covey divides the things that happen to us into four quadrants. One axis indicates things that are important (such as our long-term health) and another things that are urgent (such as a ringing phone). He then proposes plotting out the entire week and scheduling in important things such as maintenance tasks and health activities so that the important things are not crowded out by the merely urgent. Clarifying and documenting these things is central to the popular, commercial Franklin-Covey system of paper planners and stationery which has three basic rules.
- Eliminate floating pieces of data or paper
- Have one clear system for each type of information
- Have quick access to your system at any given time
There are literally dozens of possibilities out there, and different fads in time management will always come and go. Almost all people, though, need some system for tracking a few simple things
- Contacts, people and places we need to see or be
- Appointments, specific coordinates in space and time
- Tasks, things we need to do at some point, varying in urgency
- Notes, reference materials of all kinds
Where do you keep your permanent record of appoinments? Your phone messages? Your email? Your addresses and paper files? So long as there is a single clear answer, you are probably okay. It is when you have no answer or several conflicting answers that you run into trouble. Historically a lot of people have used forty-three folders (twelve for the months of the year and thirty-one for next several calendar days) but a rolodex file or a big refrigerator will do if that works for you. The trick is to have a plan and stick to it.
Below is a list of links to useful time management resources which I frequently recommend or suggest to my clients. To schedule an appointment and come up with a system that works well for you, your needs and your preferred technology, please phone Mac Rory at (360) 695-6929.
- Julie Morgenstern's book Organizing from the Inside Out
- 43 Folders, a popular Macintosh time-management site
- DIYPlanner.com, musings and forms