A few years ago, a commercial for modular telephones showed harried business types pulling up to a drive-through window labeled "Time-R-Us." They placed orders for "a spare moment" and "a couple of hours." This clever pitch registers amused recognition in most of us. How often have you needed some extra time -- to complete a project or just to catch up?
If you often find yourself juggling more tasks at a faster pace but accomplishing less, you may wish "Time-R-Us" were a nationally franchised chain, not a figment of some copywriter's imagination.
Instead we have an epidemic of time-management training. Training magazine's Industry Report estimates that almost two-thirds of U.S. organizations with more than 100 employees provide time-management training. And employers' in-house programs are bolstered by offerings from hundreds of consultants, speakers and program providers.
The facts are these: Everybody wastes time, but productive managers waste less of it. How? There's no big secret to it; the principles and techniques taught in most of those training programs are pretty much the same. But the concepts won't do a time-crunched person any good if they aren't put to use.
Time management is not concerned solely with the amount of time spent on certain activities in terms of minutes, hours, days, weeks or months. Successful time managers recognize and avoid falling into certain mind-sets about time. The following are some of the most common -- and erroneous -- assumptions about time. Root them out and you'll find more productive time in your day.
* Other people make too many demands on my time. Other people do not control how you spend your time. You do. If you allow other people to intimidate you, they will control you.
"No" is the single most effective time-saving word in the English language. Learn to use it graciously. Be courteous, give a brief explanation of why you cannot comply with a request and avoid being dragged into an argument or prolonged discussion about your reasons.
* If you want something done right, do it yourself. This assumption stems from asking yourself the wrong question: Can I do this task better than anyone else? Instead, ask yourself: Is this task the best use of my time? Could someone else do this task well enough? Could I train someone else to do it? By moving mundane tasks off your agenda, you free up time to tackle more creative projects.
* If only I could work more hours every day, I could finish what I need to do. This one is not only wrong, it is dangerous. Working more hours every day produces mental and physical fatigue and devours personal time. Learn to set priorities and make choices.
* I'm too busy to plan my activities. The busier you are, the more important it becomes to take time out to plan. If you have a master plan, spontaneity becomes a matter of making intelligent choices: When an unexpected demand arises, ask yourself if it is more important than what you already have planned.
* Some of my assignments are so overwhelming, I don't know where to start. When you postpone getting started on a major project, you're simply delaying the inevitable. The problem will not go away until you deal with it head-on.
One of the best ways to stop procrastinating -- and this is not news but bears repeating -- is to break the project into mini-projects that you can complete in less time. Sequence these activities in priority order and chip away at them one at a time. Steady progress is a tremendous motivator. It will help you persist until the project is completed.
Thomas J. Quirk is a professor of business at Webster University in St. Louis and presents seminars on time management for various companies and organizations.