Time Management: The Elusive Skill We Busy People Can’t Seem to Learn

As I write this it’s a bit after 1 in the morning. I am simultaneously having an email conversation with a consultant friend who is working on an assignment for a new website I’m launching in the next few weeks. The TV is on — for background noise only — but I randomly came upon the first episode of “Will & Grace,” so I’m looking at the screen more than I should. I’m also checking my Tweetdeck page (which is always open) to make sure I don’t miss anything … like there’d be anything to miss at this hour. Is it any wonder I look for time management tips the way King Arthur’s knights searched for the Holy Grail?

And I know I’m not alone. Like me, all too many of you are working nearly round the clock. One of the aftereffects of three years of business ownership is that I often get only four hours of sleep a night, despite knowing better.

There are perhaps thousands of time management tools, books, and systems available. I’ve spent my share of money “testing” them out. (For a while I was making weekly trips to the Franklin Covey store, in search of the perfect planner.) What I’ve discovered (hundreds of dollars later) is that none of these tools will do the trick if they don’t work with the way you work.

Almost every time management expert advises you to work in a space with as few distractions as possible. I don’t know if it’s the fact I’m the oldest of four kids and have been surrounded by noise my entire life, but I can’t work in a quiet place. Silence is a major distraction for me. Therefore the TV is nearly always on when I’m working.

Another issue: Deadlines. I was a broadcast journalism major in college, so I was trained to write on really tight deadlines. I am essentially a deadline junkie — meaning I’m really good at meeting deadlines, but not so good at beating them.

And then there’s email. To manage your time well, most experts suggest you never check email first thing in the morning. And that you set aside a few specific times a day to check your messages. I not only consider that bad advice, but it would be torturous for me to do that.

Almost all my time management struggles were exacerbated when my company went virtual nearly a year ago. While it was a smart business decision (why pay overhead when most of our days were spent writing — a solitary activity to be sure) it made me more dependent on my computer, email, and Twitter just for company.

I’m not whining (well, not much). But I know many of you entrepreneurs share my plight. So I went in search of solutions that might actually work for me — and you.

  • Make a to-do list. Whether the list is on your computer, a specially created app, or an old-fashioned paper list, this is a critical step.
  • Get real. Try to estimate how long tasks will really take to complete. I’m guilty of usually underestimating how long it takes to accomplish something.
  • Stay organized. Try to keep similar items in the same place. Too much time is wasted when you’re searching for a business card (scan it into your computer) or trying to remember a forgotten password. I finally bought a small address book to keep track of my passwords. This simple act has already saved me hours.
  • Take advantage of technology. The smartest thing I did was buy a computer tablet. Using it enables me to get things done during those all too frequent “waiting” times.

Another popular tip from the experts is to avoid multi-tasking. If you can do that, more power to you, but without multi-tasking I’d get almost nothing done.

None of the above is rocket science. But I think that’s part of the point. If I had time to read the books, take a class, or learn a new time management system, I wouldn’t need time management advice. Michael Gerber famously said in his book The E-Myth that successful entrepreneurs work in their businesses and not on them. Unfortunately today, most of us business owners need to do both.

If you have any suggestions about how we can better accomplish those tasks, please leave a comment below.

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