16. Seven Time Management Tips

Like the three skills discussed in the previous chapter, you could use the tips below in the absence of a formal time management system and they would still help you be more productive. But they are best used as part of a system such as the one described earlier.

1. Strive First for Effectiveness; Then Efficiency

Effectiveness means doing the right things and doing them well; efficiency means doing whatever you are doing fast. Obviously, if you do the wrong things well, or the wrong things fast, it’s not going to advance your Mission.

So focus first on doing the right things. Then on doing them well. And then, finally, on doing them fast.

If you have trouble figuring out what the right things are—and it’s often trickier than it might at first appear—ask your mentors. Ditto for figuring out how to do those right things well. As for doing them fast, the key is often to set a reasonable deadline for yourself. There’s nothing like a deadline for focusing the mind on the task at hand.

2. Develop an Intolerance of Wasting Time

Successful people often develop an intolerance of wasting time. That’s because they are incredibly focused on achieving their goals, and incredibly cognizant of how little time they have to do so. Knowing how little time they really have, they’ll be darned if they are going to spend any of it playing a video game or in a worthless meeting.

You should emulate that attitude. That means, mostly, aggressively Discarding, Delegating and saying “No.” It also means reflexively making choices that save time; for example, not traveling to someone’s office for a meeting when you can talk over the phone, and not talking over the phone when you can send a quick e-mail.

It also means setting time limits on common activities; for example, thirty minutes for meetings and five minutes for phone calls. You won’t always be able to enforce these limits, but you will be surprised at how often you can. (Often, the other people involved will thank you for helping save their time!) Most meetings and phone calls go on way too long.

One of the best things you can do to save time is to start timing everything you do. Buy a phone with a timer and also buy a kitchen timer (or a watch with a stopwatch feature) and use them to time your phone calls and other activities. Just the simple act of timing yourself is often enough to help you reduce the amount of time you spend on an activity.

3. Defend Your Schedule against “Time Thieves” and “Time Nibblers”

As discussed way back in Chapter 3, there are many people out there who are happy to tell you how you should use your time, or to annex a piece of your schedule for their own use. Sometimes it’s coworkers, sometimes it’s other activists, sometimes it’s your family or friends, and sometimes it is total strangers, including strangers who work for “news” shows and corporations. You need to defend your schedule against these “Time Thieves” and “Time Nibblers.”

Time Thieves typically demand a large chunk of your time—say, half an hour or more. Time Nibblers, in contrast, only want a few minutes. In some ways, it’s harder to deal with Time Nibblers, since there are a lot more of them out there and it’s often harder to say “No” to a seemingly minor request. But, as I hope you now recognize, even a fifteen-minute chunk of your time is precious. If you wouldn’t give someone $25 just because they asked, then don’t give them fifteen minutes. And if you can’t say “No” entirely, at least try to limit your donation to five minutes.

4. Make Sure Your Computer is Working With, and Not Against, You

A computer can either be your best productivity tool or worst time-sink: it depends on how well it’s been set up and how well you’ve been trained to use it.

For many activists, unfortunately, their computer is a time-sink. They’re using old (often donated), badly maintained equipment, or lack the proper applications to really be efficient. Or else, they have a good computer setup but haven’t been trained to use it well.

If you are stuck using a sub-standard computer, or don’t know how to use your programs well, then one of the very best actions you can take to boost your productivity and effectiveness not just in the short term, but the long term, is to improve your computer situation and literacy.

Even if you work for an organization that provides computer support, therefore, try to take personal responsibility for your computer system and computer productivity. That means making sure your computer works well and is equipped with the right programs, and that you’re well trained in using it. You don’t have to become a computer guru, but you should find a computer guru to help you out. If your workplace won’t or can’t provide such a guru, ask a friend or colleague to provide at least informal advice or help. Or, consult one of the many organizations out there that provide free or cheap computers and/or computer training to nonprofit and activist organizations. Some are local computer or software clubs (often called User Groups), others are corporations (call the Community Relations or Public Relations office), and still others are nonprofits themselves. Check around, and just make sure that whoever is helping you is truly an expert and not simply well-intentioned. One way to do this is to give him a highly specific list of what you’re trying to accomplish with your computer, so that he can determine whether he does have the appropriate skills, time and tools. If not, he can probably point you to someone who does.

And don’t forget automation. Many e-mail programs and websites can be set up to automatically send group e-mails or to reply automatically to certain types of incoming e-mails, such as requests for information. Other programs can be set up to automate database work or budgeting. And antiviral and backup programs are routinely automated so that they will work in the background with little input from the user. (You should always use up-to-date antiviral and backup programs. Few things kill productivity more than a computer virus.)

5. Manage Your Personal Time as Well as Your Professional Time

Sorry, but it’s true: you’ll need to manage both your professional and your personal time. This is not just to ensure you meet your personal goals, but also because, if you neglect to manage your personal time, your personal life and commitments are likely to impinge on your professional time. An obvious example of this is the devoted partier who keeps oversleeping, but non-partiers whose personal lives are merely over-booked will also have trouble sticking to their weekly schedule.

So, for the sake of your cause and your own emotional health, make sure your personal goals and priorities are included in your time management.

6. Organize Your Physical Environment

I’ve noticed a fascinating difference between productive and unproductive people: productive people tend to shape their physical environment to suit their needs, whereas unproductive people tend to passively accept whatever physical environment they find themselves in.

Back in that leadership workshop I mentioned earlier, we participated in an exercise that involved, among other things, putting together jigsaw puzzles. When the exercise began, the participants were working on tables in poorly lit areas of the room. Some people, however, quickly moved their tables to places in the room where the lighting was better, and—guess what?—they got much more done than the people who stayed in the poorly lit locations.

So, take a fresh look at your workspace and living space and . . . go bananas! Re-organize them so that they are more comfortable, efficient and otherwise conducive to productivity and happiness. Lack of money might be a barrier to doing this, but creativity and enthusiasm will often more than compensate for that lack.

7. Make Quick Decisions

Indecisiveness didn’t work for Hamlet and it’s not going to work for you. Successful people tend to make quick decisions, and you should learn how to do so, too.

The trick, of course, is to make them quickly but not too quickly. Gather all the information you need, including, if at all possible, input from a diverse range of people directly knowledgeable on, and affected by, the topic. Then, make your decision.

If you’re stuck, try writing out the issues and then promptly go out and talk to a mentor.

Recognize that indecisiveness is not helping you make better decisions; it’s just procrastination, pure and simple. Also acknowledge that some of the decisions you will make in your career and life, including some important ones, will inevitably be wrong. Far better to make a few wrong decisions than to lose lots of time and opportunities due to chronic indecision.

If you are having a lot of trouble making decisions, try practicing being decisive in small areas; for example, what to have for dinner or which movie to see. With enough practice, you’ll get comfortable enough to start making bigger decisions.