You don’t need a fancy consultant, you can do this yourself – just steal our fancy consultant’s process.

Employers expect their people to have a good handle on their time by default. That’s a lovely wish, but it’s also the reason I spend a lot of my time teaching people how to manage theirs. While I like our time management courses, I’d really love to see companies preventing time management problems instead of trying to fix individuals through training. My way forward – take time as seriously as money because time management affects profit. Train your whole company to use time responsibly and keep training them. I’m sharing the five-step fix I use with businesses that ask me to help them improve time management rapidly. Before that, let’s look at why we need time management in the first place.

Take time seriously

Struggling to find a chance to do your expenses? Our employers make us learn standard procedures when it comes to managing and controlling money but leave us to our own devices with one of the most precious resources – time. If time management is one of your team’s most common developmental needs, then it’s also one of the biggest opportunities for shared learning and collaborative change. This change can make a dramatic improvement to a company’s profits. Getting your employees to manage their time better improves the quality of their whole lives. They can use the skills to spend fewer hours at work and make better decisions about time outside of work.

You don’t need a pre-existing time problem

You don’t need a problem to decide to you need time management training. Athletes don’t have coaches to stop them being crap. If you’re good at time management, maybe you could be flipping brilliant. People who manage their time poorly don’t always know it, and they’re not always easy to spot. They aren’t always the people that you notice turning up late, missing deadlines or working into the night.

You may detect other symptoms:

  • Consistently going straight from one meeting to another
  • Struggling to make decisions
  • Being constantly overstressed
  • Not being able to set goals
  • Showing up to work way too early every day
  • Insisting on perfection at work
  • Saying yes to every request

When you identify people with time management issues, give them a break. Good time management isn’t a traditional school subject, and it’s not unusual to finish education with an entirely distorted view of how time passes. That’s why employers need to teach this skill at work.

My five-step process for time-management

I often work with PR and marketing agencies that want to increase their productivity – when you’re charging by the hour, time really is money. If I’m called in to fix a problem, I find the main issues are usually the same:

  • There’s no system for prioritising tasks
  • The business doesn’t know what each person does with their time
  • People don’t always know how long things take to do
  • There’s no single view of the company’s entire workload

Some of these have simple solutions – but they’re only easy when the whole team helps. Tackling these issues can require a substantial investment of energy and time, followed by a structured induction period. Here’s our five-step process. Keep it to yourself, because it’s proprietary.

Step 1 – Become aware of your currency

Could you manage a budget without knowing how much things cost? You can’t expect to plan time successfully without knowing how long routine tasks take. Awareness is the key to getting time management right, so we start by getting data – like you would if you were analysing spending. My clients start by logging their time for a week, including even the smallest tasks like checking email. Timesheets are generally filled with half-arsed estimates and lies, so we use timing apps such as Toggl and Harvest, which have stopwatches alongside traditional inputs. Once you know how you spend your time, you’ll quickly notice waste and have a sense of what to prioritise. There’s another important step before you’re ready to implement a system.

Step 2 – Make your work completely visible

So much of a company’s workload is invisible; it’s sitting on written to-do lists, in email inboxes or worse still, floating around people’s heads. Imagine you were sorting out a cluttered wardrobe – if you didn’t take everything out first, you wouldn’t fully appreciate the task. You’d just be moving things around and hoping for the best, which means you’d soon be back to sort another overwhelming mess. This step is a cathartic emptying of your brain and to-do lists. One of my favourite ways to do this is getting people to write each task on a post-it note, so it’s defined and contained. Once you’ve got the workload out in the open, you’ll have a powerful opportunity to make your work easier than ever. You’re still not ready to implement systems for prioritising work and budgeting time.

Step 3 – Give every task meaning

A major issue that stops people prioritising is a lack of clear direction. When you’re at work, every task should be helping you to achieve meaningful objectives and goals. If it’s not, it’s probably dragging you away from those things. Start by setting specific goals, then measurable objectives with timelines and deadlines. You’ll soon spot meaningless activities and weed them out and add meaning to the necessary tasks you hate. It’s nearly time to set your system up, but only a fool dives straight into software without a plan.

Step 4 – Pick a prioritisation model

For all my talk about time management, you can’t actually manage time – it just happens. Humans default to prioritising by urgency, so it feels right to continually tackle the latest email with an exclamation mark on it. A lot of urgent work achieves little and too many things are fake-urgent, so we need to change the way we think about priorities. I teach people several prioritisation methods so they can choose whatever suits their organisation best. You need test a few before you pick one. Most of my clients like a variation of the ‘Eisenhower Matrix’ which categorises tasks as:

  • Important and urgent
  • Important but not urgent
  • Urgent but not important
  • Not important and not urgent

Assigning these qualities to tasks helps you prioritise and – just as importantly – procrastinate. It’s impossible to do everything at once, so we need to learn to procrastinate productively. How do you decide what’s most important? Go back to the third step. If it’s not contributing to your goals, an urgent task is a distraction. OK, you’re ready.

Step 5 – Create your time management system

Models are great, but you need to bring them to life with practical management tools. Divide big tasks into small tasks then assign responsibility and deadlines. Make checklists for regular processes and tasks – they will be easier to complete and much easier to delegate. Now, you need to put this into a digital tool – avoid spreadsheets and go for purpose-built project management tools such as Asana, Basecamp, Wrike or Teamwork. They’re designed for collaboration and to help people cope with shifting timelines and requirements. If you’re working in a company that insists on spreadsheets – these tools usually export data to whichever form you need. Set this up well and keep it simple – making people spend extra time on saving time will make very little sense to them. Coach people into using the system correctly and keep them motivated – make sure they’re getting feedback and reports on how they’re doing.

Back to treating your time-resource like money

Get into the habit of rewarding good time management. People get cash bonuses for bringing money into the business, maybe bringing new time in deserves a few hours off as a reward?