Can anyone really manage time?

We all get allocated exactly the same amount, just 24 hours per day, and yet some people never seem to have enough time and always have a growing mountain of undone tasks, and others seem to be able to do an incredible amount in the same period, and rarely fall behind.

I believe that it is obvious that we can’t actually manage time per se, but we can all definitely manage the events that take up our time..

We have always been taught that to be successful, one of the first things that we should do regularly is to take our “To Do List” and categorize it by importance into A,B,C tasks, and that we should not do the Bs until all the As have been done and so on. I believe that in managing how to effectively use our time, this is definitely not the starting point.

The critical starting point is to look at whether the task should be on the “do list” in the first place and, particularly for those in management roles, whether it should be allocated to someone else or whether it should be done at all.

For example, over most of my working life, I had a basket on my desk marked “PRORITY” in very large letters.

Whenever I got a request from above or from a peer requiring significant work by me or my people, usually having to provide some mountain of statistics on my part of the organisation to someone in some vague part of the matrix, I would always ask myself whether, by completing this task, I would be adding serious value to the organisation. Would this task somehow enhance critical elements such as revenues, profits, competitiveness, customer or staff satisfaction? If the answer was a resounding “no” to all of them, I would place it in this priority basket strategically placed in a prominent position on my desk. If the requestor then stuck his head in my office to ask me where I was with his request, I would show him that it was in my priority pile and that I would get to it as soon as I could get out from under the mountain of other tasks that had even more priority. This would normally satisfy him long enough for his departure, usually pleased with the fact that his request was considered critical.

Metal tray filled in documents

I would then ask myself the same questions as I had originally, as to what would be the value to the organisation if I now spent the time to complete this task. If the answer was still “none at all”, it would go back in the priority basket. If the request had come from my direct supervisor, or above, after about three requests or a serious demand, I would actually allocate the time to do it. However, most of the time, it simply just went away.

I am not advocating open anarchy in the corporate environment, but am just illustrating an example of what I mean about our ability and responsibility to “manage events”. I have found over the years, and particularly in a matrix-obsessed structure, that there are many people who justify their existence simply by asking others to provide multiple variations of metrics in the organisation. These can create an incredible amount of work for many, but do very little to actually deliver any benefit to anyone except for helping build the perceived importance of the requestor. I have found that many times these requests are just based on an incompetent’s need for some visible activity, and like a bad case of wind, will just pass with time.

The skill in effectively managing ones use of available time is in allocating priorities, but only after deciding whether the tasks should be done at all, and if so, then by whom.
Too many managers, particularly if vocationally brilliant, will pick up difficult tasks or problems from their subordinates, just to show the world that they still have the vocational skills.
This then creates a situation where the subordinate can now take management control by being able to ask his manager for progress reports, removes an important learning opportunity for the subordinate, and takes up time that the manager should be using to run his business. I once worked with a senior head of development, with responsibility for about 5000 people, who often took on the task of debugging a piece of software that one of the programmers had been struggling with, and he considered this as being a reasonable way to spend his time.

The best (and most amusing) book I have read on this subject was “Managing Management Time” written in about 1960 by William Oncken, Jr (1912-1988), and I have always recommended this book as one of the most illuminating on this subject. Even after 50 years, I still consider this book a must read for anyone in a management role.

The ultimate way to succeed is to do the critical things that focus on the business of effectively fulfilling the role and responsibilities of the position to which you have been appointed. This is very different from focussing on the busyness of completing a myriad of tasks, particularly if you should not be doing them anyway.



  1. Sunil Geness says:

    Hello Les, this made fascinating reading.
    Best regards
    Sunil Geness

  2. Bruce Rankin says:

    Hi Les,

    Good post…. reminds me that I attended Stig Enbohm’s 2 day Time Manager training course in Sydney in early 1981 – nearly 30 years ago!! And, if I recall correctly, that he’d asked you to run them for or with him as well??

    One of Stig’s hints in managing the “To Do List” – deciding whether to do the task at all – was to apply the 4 D’s principle to each task: Do, Delegate, Delay or Defer and Drop. I’ve found applying this principle very helpful over the years since.

    Re books on the subject – 4 years later I organised Time Management training for systems engineers across Fujitsu Australia – and the book we distributed was Alan Lakein’s “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life”. It was excellent as it covered life style management as well as just time management.
    I still have a couple of copies stored somewhere in the basement!

    Enjoy reading all your posts…..

    Best wishes, Bruce

  3. leshayman says:

    HI bruce,
    Stig was my inspiration to try and understand the whole issue of how to take control of my time … he created in me a lifelong obsession with the idea that if you didn’t take control everyone else would just use up all available time there was.

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