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Poor time management

Porus Munshi

EVERY executive feels the pressures of time. It always seems as if there's too much to do and too little time to do it in. If you had more time, how much easier would your life be? How much more would you get done? How much more time would you spend in r ecreation?

The fact is that we can get extra time. Simply cut down all the time you've scheduled for all your projects by two-thirds.

This isn't quite as radical as it sounds. We always tend to pad project time -- sometimes by as much as 200 per cent. And yet, projects don't finish on time. Why is this? If you take a closer look at exactly when you started work on them, in most cases, you'll find that you've started at the last possible moment.

For instance, I often ask for a couple of weeks in order to submit a report, design a workshop, or write an article. But do I actually take a couple of weeks to do each of the above? I don't. In most cases, I finish off the job in the last three-odd days -- sometimes even on the last day. All the earlier 11-13 days have been spent in 'preparing' and 'planning'. In most cases, I spend a couple of days mulling over ideas for an article, another couple of days over the workshop structure and schedule, anot her two days over the pending report, and so on. A lot of time is spent, but nothing actually gets done. I find that I've escaped into an inactivity trap.

I decided to cut down on the time I give myself. While I still asked for two weeks, I decided to finish off the tasks in the first 3-4 days. And I did; and felt very good about it. But did I submit the tasks the moment I finished them? I did not. I held on to them waiting for inspiration to come along and make them even better. I thought I'd keep them for a week or so and then look at them again and see if I could improve on them. End result? Tasks dispatched between days 14-16.

What was happening here? Why was my time stretching like this? In most cases, we give ourselves more time than we actually need. Secondly, a due date takes on a life of its own. In many cases, we don't submit work early. We tend to hold it back to 'check ' for any errors. When I finally resolved to not only finish tasks in one-third the usual time but also to also dispatch them at once, I finally began getting much better control over my time.

Slash lead times

Pressure in the form of reduced lead time for tasks wonderfully focuses priorities. If you trim lead times to the extent where people are not sure any more that they can finish the task on time, in most cases, they don't dare procrastinate and you will b e surprised at how much actually gets done in the shortened lead time. If you reduce the time you give yourself for tasks, you find that you take on fewer tasks and these are often the vital few that you should be doing anyway. The trivial many fall by t he wayside. Not only does focus improve, you find you end up with much more time to pursue the really important things in life.

You can argue that slashing lead time means that you spend less time in analysis and planning and that this can cause further problems in the long run. I do agree that analysis and planning are crucial. But in many cases, too much time is spent in these two stages and this is counter-productive. It keeps us in the thinking mode rather than in the action mode. You may have found that projects in which you spent a lot of time thinking and analysing never really got off the ground properly and were plagued by hitches and setbacks. On the other hand, when you've spent a moderate amount of time on analysis and planning and then gone into action, things may have moved much faster.

Analysis is comfortable because it creates an illusion of progress. When we come into the office, spread out the paperwork on the desk, put up charts on the walls, we feel that we're actually doing something. But this is a feeling of false accomplishment and it's dangerous because it's really a substitute for action. The longer we spend in analysis, the further we fend off that frightening day when we actually have to do some something and face the consequences of those actions.

I'm not saying that analysis and planning aren't important. Of course they are. Only, all the PERT charts and Gantt diagrams in the world are not a substitute for action.

Buffers

Most people, most of the time, tend to work near the end of the time duration of their task, and get the bulk of their work completed then. About 70-80 per cent of work gets completed in the last 20-30 per cent of the time interval.

For instance, take exams; we're all familiar with last-minute burning-the-midnight-oil study. Take sales; how many sales people really try to achieve targets in the beginning of the month? It's only as the month-end approaches and pressure begins to moun t that they really start selling. In production, when are monthly figures really pushed for? At the month-end of course, when overtime also starts off. In all cases, it's at the end of the time interval that work really begins in earnest.

We ask for extra time to finish tasks because we know that something can always go wrong and delay the task. And yet, the vast majority of tasks don't get completed on time. Software projects rarely finish on time, building projects almost never do, edit ors are familiar with reporters sending in stories way past the deadline, teachers know that students will invariably ask for more time to finish research projects...the list is endless. Do so many things always go wrong then?

We know things can go wrong and ask for extra time. But not everything can go wrong all the time, can it? And yet why do so many projects and tasks finish late? The main reason this happens is because, as Eliyahu Goldratt points out in his book Critical Chain, we place the buffer at the wrong end of the task.

In most cases, the buffer is placed before the task. In other words, we waste the extra time at the beginning, then start the task at the last possible moment, and then find that we have no reserves left over.

Let's say a certain task takes three days, and we ask for a week. We take it easy for four days and start work in earnest on the fifth day. This leaves no buffer for problems or glitches. We should actually start right from day one, and look to finish by day three or four. If something does go wrong, there's now a four-day buffer and we don't have to stretch into extra time.

In all cases, the end time is clear, but the beginning is rarely clear. Since we can see the deadline, it becomes a goal to work towards -- which means that we delay or stretch out tasks until we get closer to the deadline, but then end up over-shooting. The deadline isn't a goal to be reached. It's an electrified fence to be avoided. Try to finish well within the deadline. To make it easier to recognise when your project time actually starts, recognise that it always starts now. It starts the moment yo u take on the task.

To conclude, to get a better grip over your time and your life, first, slash lead times by two-thirds or at least a half. Shortened lead times don't adversely affect performance; if anything, they improve it. Second, place time buffers where they really belong -- at the end of the task. Third, all the planning in the world is no substitute for action. So the sooner you get started implementing the above, the better.

The author is a Chennai-based HR consultant. He can be reached at porusmun@hotmail.com

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