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The Seven Steps of Time Management According to Science

Success is a process, a quality of mind and way of being, an outgoing affirmation of life
- Alex Noble, artist & entrepreneur

Like you, I’ve read plenty of articles, posts and books on time management, most based on the personal experiences of the author.  Not to demean what these people teach, I decided to find what scientific research has to say about this too vexing problem.

I found a recent review of current research on time management written by two Ph. D. researchers, Temesgen Belayneh Zerihun, Asst. Professor, Department of Marketing, and S. Murali Krishna, Professor, Department of Management, both of the College of Business and Economics at Mekelle University in Ethiopia.  They reviewed the entirety of scientific literature on time management of the past decades, and distilled all if this into seven simple principles of time management that were common to the reams of research reports they studied.

Their conclusions:
Understand that we cannot do everything in 24 hours. We have certain priorities in life. Our family, our hobby, our studies, our professional education or any other aspect of the career development, we have to set priorities in life.

Time management is not optional.  How true.  As there are only 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours is a day then if we’re to accomplish anything in our lives or with our businesses, time management is not optional.

Stay aware that the purpose of managing time is getting things done and achieving results.  This may seem obvious, but I have come across time management systems where it seems the author’s process is more important than the results you want.

Time management is a habit developed only through determination and practice.  I’ve read that it takes at least twenty consecutive days of conscious practice to create a new personal habit, with some authors stating it takes at least a month.  I’d go with the month to make sure the habit sticks.

An individual will become effective in using their time only when the individual clearly knows what they want to do, what they need to do, and by which specific target date.

An individual needs to be aware of self, their personality type, their foibles and flaws and to remain aware of how they are performing.  I am of the personality type typified by impulsiveness and procrastination, two traits linked to the same gene in my biological make-up.  So, I have to be aware of this and work to create a system for myself that helps me overcome these tendencies.

"20 percent of what you do produces 80 percent of results."
Don't over-organize
Understand that the Pareto Principle or The 80/20 Rule applies to time management as well as most other things in life.  This principle states that 20 percent of what we do produces 80 percent of results.

In practical terms, you don't have to plan out every minute of every day, just that precious 20% of the day when you get the most - and best - work done.  Twenty percent of 24 hours is 4.8 hours.  You are going to organize the daylights out of those hours, and let your impulsiveness and procrastination rule the remaining 19 hours.  That's correct - 19 hours in which to just let stuff happen.  What kind of luxury is this?

So what next?
According to the author’s research, time management involves these simple steps:

  1. Set goals,
    • Select the most important goal to achieve, and plan your time around it.  As the Firesign Theatre once sang, "How can you be two places at once?"
  2. Decide which tasks are the most important in achieving your goal and realizing that other activities will have to be scheduled around them (prioritizing), 
    • The three questions of setting priorities are:
      • What are my highest value activities?
      • What can I and only I do that, if done well, will make a real difference?
      • What is the most valuable use of my time right now?
  3. Decide how much time to allow for certain tasks (learning to predict how much time is needed for an activity), 
  4. Learn to adjust to the unexpected (problem solving).
  5. Review and reconsider your goals and priorities on a regular basis - set an appointment with yourself, say weekly.
  6. Learn to observe and evaluate the patterns and trends in your own behavior.  In other words, time management is a process that requires learning from your own behavior and applying this knowledge to your time management system.

The author’s seven steps of Time Management
With these understandings, all based on solid, empirically based research we're ready to go.

  1. Set a goal; decide exactly what you want.  (Start with as many goals as you want, but choose to work on one and only one at a time.  As Confucius said, "One who chases two hares catches neither.)
  2. Write it down.  Put it on paper.  Visualize it.  Taste it.  Feel it.  Enjoy it.
  3. Set a deadline for achieving your goal.
  4. List out what you must do to achieve your goal.
  5. Organize this into a plan of tasks and steps necessary to achieve your goal, then execute the plan daily consciously, every day for at least twenty days.
  6. Take action on your plan immediately.  Don't give into procrastination.
  7. Resolve to do something every day that moves you towards your major goal.  This especially required reviewing your time management process daily.
    • Make a short, prioritized list of what to do during that day's five hours, then, to quote Nike, "Just Do It."  
Remember, you get 80% of your best work done during just 20% of your time, in other words, in just 4.8 hours a day.  It's within these five hours you apply your growing time management skills.  Leave the rest of your day free for all that other (fun) stuff.  Those five hours?  Protect them like a lioness protects her cubs, to the death.  These precious hours represent your success.

On the flip side of managing time is avoiding the major time wasters

  • Avoid interruptions- Is it really necessary to take all calls when a phone is ringing?  Can you just shut the door and post a sign, "Go Away.  On deadline." Make sure all around knows that this means them.
  • Learn to say “No.”  At times, we do not know how to refuse to take part in a time waster.  Practice saying no to things that don't take you closer to achieving your goals.
  • Use self-discipline when you need it - Trying to organize all 24 hours a day, seven days a week would be as exhausting as running a marathon every day of the week for seven days.
    • If you handle one task only once, we will have more time.
    • Remember, you're only required to discipline yourself five short hours a day.  You have 19 hours a day to do. . . whatever.
  • Avoid Management by Crisis-If we do not “anticipate” problems in advance, we will be managing by crisis. This is also called “fire fighting” in management terms. It is said: Expect the unexpected and plan accordingly! If we try to plan for unexpected, we will be in a position to manage crisis fast and effectively.
  • Eschew Socializing during your all important 5 hours Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, texting, email, and others, we have lots of opportunity to socialize! Socializing and networking is a good habit but not at the cost of wasting time. Save socializing for your all important 19 other hours a day.
Finally, print out this article and post it where you will see it and read every day during your habit building period.  If you don't, science clearly shows that you will have forgotten 70% of these steps by tomorrow at this same time.  It's a process.  Work at it daily.

*  *  *  *  *

Source: T. B. Zerihun, S.M, Krishna, College of Business and Economics, Mekelle University, Mekelle, Ethiopia. A Few Techniques for Time Management, Journal of Business Management & Social Sciences Research, December 2012.


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