Chapter 3 - Time management


This section introduces the concept of time management and identifies areas where busy business owners can better balance the demands placed upon them.

There are two classic books relating to the area of time management. They are The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker (Butterworth & Heineman 1967), and The Time Trap (Alec Mackenzie, American Management Association 1990). Both books are recommended reading. They underpin all later writings on time management.



In part 2 of The Time Trap, Mackenzie identifies the twenty biggest time wasters, along with suggestions on how to respond to them. The following extracts follow this format, with some additional comments and concerns added.


Surveys indicate that up to half the time spent in meetings can be wasted. In reality it is probably more: as some of the respondents to these surveys simply may not want to admit they waste more than half their time. Some meetings go too long. Some meetings should never be held.

Before calling or attending a meeting, the following questions should be considered:

  • does there need to be a meeting? Perhaps others can simply set out proposed solutions, and ask others involved if they are agreeable

  • can the meeting be deferred? Why are so many meetings held on a monthly basis? Can schedules be altered to every second, or even third month, rather than a monthly meeting

  • do all participants need to attend?

  • if not, who does need to attend? People should not be invited out of courtesy. Unnecessary attendees will participate, regardless of whether it is appropriate

  • can the agenda with time allocations be prepared and circulated ahead of time? If so, then participants should strictly follow the agenda and the time allocations


Staff meetings and meetings with co-owners should be distinguished from a social catch up. Always bear in mind the opportunity cost sacrificed to attend the meeting, and ensure that all information is ascertained in the most time effective manner.


Travel can be a big time waster. For the owner running their own business, it makes sense to live near the business. Driving an additional 30 minutes each way, each day, adds up to four extra weeks over a year.

You should avoid other forms of travel when possible. The use of couriers, phones, e-mail or faxes, teleconferencing, and online video conferencing can help minimise travel. If travel is required for a conference or a meeting, check any alternative or quicker options. If you are required to attend a meeting which requires extensive travelling, consider using a teleconference or Skype instead.

An example:

Skype is free of charge, as long as both parties to the conference are online at the same time. Computers and monitors typically have an inbuilt video camera which makes this option even easier. Once Skype is installed, and owners are comfortable using it, a video conference meeting can be held, even with people who are only 20 minutes away, avoiding the need to travel in traffic or search for parking.



The telephone can be a big time saver, or a big time waster. Properly handled it is a powerful tool that generates significant savings and efficiencies, and is an integral telecommunication tool in the day-to-day operation of the business. The most important telephone rule is to have an effective screening mechanism. Calls must be filtered, so only urgent calls are taken straight away and other important calls are deferred until it suits. A junior staff member should handle less important calls. Staff should be encouraged to tell an unwanted caller (for example a salesperson), in a professional manner, that their call is unsolicited, and not to call back. This is the best way of making sure no more time is wasted.

The other potential problem is spending too much time on a call. Politeness is essential, but digression from the purpose of the call should be skilfully managed. Use verbal cues to direct incoming calls to business issues, and exclude non-business issues: commencing with “what can I do for you” is brilliant. It smacks of service, is an offer of help and focuses on the issues at hand. Practised lines for ending the call are also needed. To close politely, say something like “well, we will see you next Tuesday at 9.00am.” These, or similar words, let the other person know the call is closing. And then you can close it. If other party is not finished and something else needs to be discussed, this is a very quick way of prompting it.




Clear communication can save a significant amount of time. This involves listening, reading carefully, and speaking and writing meticulously, to clearly understand what information is being conveyed. A staff member coming back for a further explanation of a task costs time for everyone involved. There is also the time spent by the staff member inefficiently  trying to understand what has been said before deciding they need to revisit the issue with you.

When instructing someone, test for receptivity. It is important to ask questions and invite feedback to gauge understanding.

Clearly and succinctly explaining instructions initially saves time in the long term.




Delegation is an art. It is also an essential feature of all good businesses. The most effective concept is to employ qualified staff, train and induct them thoroughly, and to empower them to undertake their roles. Comprehensive position descriptions and otherwise clearly outlining responsibilities are very important. Communication is also important to ensure all team members are aware of the ‘big picture’, or mission of the organisation, and the part they play in it.

Time is a scarce commodity. It makes sense to ration it. Delegating all appropriate tasks to responsible people, allowing the owner or principal to concentrate concentrating on client service delivery, is the key to running a successful business – and getting home before dinner each night.

Some practical guidelines for effective delegation include:

  • small mistakes should be expected; they are rarely fatal, and staff will learn from them. When a mistake occurs, look at the system not the incident. If an adequate system is in place the incidents will stop

  • perfection should not be expected. In some cases “adequate is enough.” Adequate costs less and takes a lot less time

  • results should be examined, rather than the process. It is the end result that matters: if the desired result is achieved by someone else using a different method, (within reason) it does not matter; and

  • staff should be loyal and reliable. If they are not, consider whether they are helping or hindering your business. (See below)




The problem with paperwork is that it takes time to create, read, and store. Introducing efficient paper handling procedures saves time. Some good ground rules are:

  • paper should be handled only once. Decisions should be made quickly: more than 80% of matters can be handled at the first contact

  • the waste paper bin should be used. If it is not required to be kept, then bin it, don‘t store it

  • scanners are great. If you do need to store it, can you store a digital copy and shred the original? and

  • paper work can be reduced and simplified by developing systems, including standardised forms and common filing systems




Selecting appropriate staff, and then developing their skills further, both in an on-the-job setting and, if suitable, a more formal external setting, is essential. External training should emphasise people skills and routine management skills, including personal organisation, and time management skills.

When recruiting staff, time should be spent getting to know the candidates. Although instincts should be trusted, time should always be taken to personally check references. Regardless of how impressive a new recruit may appear, it wise always to implement 3 months probation as standard. Doing this allows many decisions that may have seemed like a good idea at the time to be reversed.

Do not set too high a benchmark for yourself here. You will, at least sometimes, employ the wrong person for your business. Identify that early and be prepared to act. If they do not suit you, you probably do not suit them.

Investing time and effort in your staff has the benefit of a better-trained and more knowledgeable team, with a correlating high productivity. It also sends the message that the business values its staff. This in itself can help produce excellent results through the actions of a much-better motivated team.




Vigilance and a regular return to basics helps maintain high standards of self-discipline that convert to better time management and personal productivity.

Self-discipline can be improved fundamentally by setting goals. These should be for the long term, the short term and the immediate. The degree of precision and detail is greater with a shorter time period. Committing goals to paper and constantly refreshing your memory and consciousness of them creates focus and facilitates achievement. This process should be systemised. The system should range from the informal – a few minutes planning each morning and a brief review each evening – to a more formal process for setting and pursuing longer term goals.

It is difficult to achieve goals if the goals have not been identified. The title of Wayne Dyer‘s book “You Will see it When you Believe it” speaks volumes: the mere act of putting pen to paper can facilitate achievement by drawing attention to the tasks that most require it.

This task could be as simple as writing a to-do list or as complex as a large scale business plan. Goals should reflect priorities, and should distinguish between important tasks and urgent tasks. The important things should be time defined. If something must be omitted, ensure it is not important.

You should also use goals, budgets, and checklists, to ensure you are performing to the best of your abilities. For many of these goals, this should be done publicly: keep in mind that support staff will observe your behaviours. They will identify expected work ethics and the organisational culture from your example.




High calibre executives manage to perform their roles effectively by prioritising their time well. Confidence is required to decide: which tasks can be performed at a later stage; which tasks require more time and attention; and which tasks can be performed by someone else. Successful leaders are not the ones who manage to do everything, but the ones who manage to get everything done.

Many people fall into the trap of performing many tasks at the same time. This is likely to compromise the quality of the performance – and increase stress levels. Prioritise so that you do the most important things first. Then do things, and do them well, one at a time.




Urgent tasks are the wild card. By ‘urgent’ we mean in the sense of time, not importance. There is a big difference. Techniques need to be developed to handle the urgent, unimportant tasks routinely: for example, setting aside an hour a day for returning low level calls and correspondence (or, even better, assigning someone else handle these).

It is a good idea to set aside time on the weekly planner for the (expected) unexpected urgent tasks. A blank hour scheduled can make all the difference. For example, you may decide not to schedule any meetings or routine work between, say, 1.00pm and 3.00pm each day. This leaves this time free for routine important matters.




Self assessment is a useful tool. Tasks need to be completed in a timely and competent fashion. The same applies with goals: progress needs to be monitored, and self-correction enlisted if there has been a deviation from the course.

Healthy competition is a powerful motivator. Setting budgets and standards that need to be achieved can increase productivity and enhance self-motivation. Achieving measurable, achievable goals can be highly satisfying and increase motivation.




These days, businesses have the benefit of superior technology that was unavailable twenty years ago. This can vastly improve efficiencies in many areas. Personal computers, automated business systems (including client recording systems ), and everyday IT such as the internet and internal and external e-mail systems, support productivity and profitability. The cost of these technologies is typically minimal compared to the benefits.

Recent developments in technology include phones with internet access and video conferencing.




This is often an area where big time savings are possible. At work, social time should be pruned to the minimum. Learning how to politely discontinue non-essential discussions and re-focusing thoughts on the matters at hand will minimise wasted time in a busy schedule. The “minimum” is, of course, a personal thing. Taking this concept too far can lead to loneliness and isolation and be interpreted as aloofness.

Socialisation is a work-place lubricant that maintains good relationships with peers, staff and clients. In finding the right balance it is relevant to bear in mind that studies have shown more than a third of an executive‘s time can be spent on non-business interactions. Where time means money, or where time is scarce, this sort of pattern can be problematic and lead to sub-optimal performance.

Avoid employing overly social people, (aka ‘timewasters’): actually ask about this when checking references. Whilst it is critical for staff to have good communication skills, and it is commendable for them to have the ability to socialise well with other staff, a balance is necessary in order for the business to run efficiently.



You can read more tips for managing time by the good people of New York University and Psychology Today by following these links.