Time is defined as the indefinite continued progress of existence and events in the past, present, and future regarded as a whole. Time holds monumental importance to us. We refer to moments in time as cornerstone events in our lives. We derive a sense of fulfillment from “time well spent” and dread the idea that we may have not used our time wisely. The same applies to our professional lives and workplace effectiveness. Given how much we intrinsically value time, the most frustrating thing is that we are terrible at managing it.
How do we improve our time management abilities in the workplace? There are countless ideas, but we’re going to focus on two pieces of advice that, like fine wine, get better as time passes.
The Eisenhower Matrix
How can we honestly determine whether we’re using our time wisely? One perspective, according to former U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, is understanding the crucial difference between “urgent” and “important” matters. This idea is called “The Eisenhower Matrix.” While the importance or urgency of our tasks may not weigh as heavily as those of the High Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II, this principle is still effective in deciding how we allocate our time in the workplace.
So what exactly is The Eisenhower Matrix? Let's break it down.
Urgent activities require us to address them immediately. The consequences of not taking care of urgent tasks are, in turn, immediate.
Important activities help us achieve our goals in the long run, but do not have the same immediate impacts if they are delayed.
With that in mind, The Eisenhower Matrix puts tasks into quadrants:
1. Do First: These tasks are both urgent and important. Do them now.
2. Schedule: Tasks that are important but are not urgent can and should be scheduled for later.
3. Delegate: If you can, delegate tasks that are urgent but not important.
4. Don’t Do: Finally, don’t bother doing tasks that are neither urgent nor important. At the end of the day, these are ultimately distractions.
We want to be sure that our energy output is useful. If our days are filled with tasks that fit into the “Delegate” or “Don’t Do” quadrants, then we’re spinning our wheels. There is a difference between getting “a lot of stuff” done and getting “the right things” done.
Know Thy Time
Peter Drucker, a well-known executive management consultant, wrote extensively about optimizing time, most notably in his renowned book The Effective Executive. In the second chapter, “Know Thy Time,” Drucker writes that “Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes.” He continues, “Then they attempt to manage their time and cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units.”
Most of us aren’t high-ranking corporate executives, but that doesn’t matter. Here, Drucker prescribes an actionable three-step process to optimize our use of time. Drucker believes this process is the foundation for our effectiveness.
The process goes as follows:
- Record time: This part of the process is exactly what you would imagine: take a record of your day. Write down how you are using your time so you can paint an objective picture. Your memory alone is not sufficient nor reliable.
- Manage time: “To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours,” says Drucker. In terms more suitable for 2021: put your phone away, log out of social media, and commit to the task at hand. Work uninterrupted.
- Consolidate time: Eliminate the things that are wasting your time. When you have a concrete understanding of where your time is going, you are better able to find the unnecessary additives that are moving neither your personal or professional life forward.
Time management is something we can (and should) all work on. There are more distractions now than ever: Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube, iMessage, WhatsApp, the list never ends. The Technical University of Denmark recently found that we are so overwhelmed with a bottomless pit of information that we managed to shorten our collective attention span. It takes an actively mindful effort to focus and make the most of our time. By incorporating the age-old wisdom of former President Eisenhower and Peter Drucker, we can not only make a realistic and sober assessment of what occupies our time and what we ought to let go of, but we can advance personally and professionally.