My screen printing business, like many others, started as a one-man operation. It was located in a small building, not much better than a shack, with a telephone, a big table where I ate lunch and (occasionally) printed a job, a pair of hinge clamps, and a rack of shelves holding a few cans of ink and five or ten wooden frames. The first winter was slow, very slow. Once, I called a friend and asked him to call me back to make sure that my phone still worked. I had a lot of problems but time management was not one of them.
I worked hard and I got lucky. The economy took an upturn and soon there were jobs available even for screen printers as inexperienced as me. As the business grew, I became adept at wearing many hats. I was the business manager, the production manager, the art department, the head printer, and the janitor. Each responsibility was a ball I had to learn not to drop. I was not very well organized but I survived.
I had a run of big orders (any order over £300 was a big order and I still remember my first). I hired my first employee, then my second, and soon we had enough staff on the payroll to need regular meetings. And I was still operating as a one-man band; I was the receptionist, the bookkeeper, the shipper, and still the janitor. I worked long hours, seven days a week. I got much better at juggling all the balls, but I couldn’t keep up. Our increased sales were offset by missed deadlines, blown jobs, angry customers, and overdue bills. I was still trying to do everything but attitudes and work habits that got me through the start-up phase were killing the business.
I couldn’t do everything anymore. I didn’t have the time or the stamina. I was assuming responsibility for tasks that I didn’t know how to do and didn’t have the time to learn. Even worse, I was becoming ineffective at tasks that I knew how to do. In an ironic twist of fate, the business I had worked so hard to develop was making it impossible for me to get anything done. Interruptions, some major, but most trivial, were a constant fact of life. I worked longer in the evenings and weekends because it seemed that that was the only time I could get anything done.
Does my experience sound anything like yours?
I was becoming ineffective and my business was failing because of a cluster of problems, all revolving around my inability to manage my time effectively. I had more to do. I had more responsibilities. I had responsibilities in areas where I lacked knowledge or skills. I was not prioritizing my tasks.
I was constantly interrupted. My job description had changed. I still thought of myself as "the guy who does everything" but my job description had changed to "the guy everybody can interrupt". I had less control over my time than the newest employee. Everyone knew better than to interrupt one of our artists when he or she was creating a new design. Everyone knew that you never interrupted a printer in the middle of a run. The only place I was safe from interruptions was in the bathroom. Gradually I learned to manage my business more effectively by managing my time better. This was not a weekend makeover. I learned by hard experience and many mistakes over the years.
Time management is simpler when you have fewer tasks to do. The most important lesson, and the one that took the longest to learn, was how to delegate. Perhaps some people come by the ability to delegate naturally. I hate to do it and I still don’t do it very well. Nevertheless, I had to accept the fact that I couldn’t do everything. I had to put other people in charge of most of the tasks in my business.
In some cases the decision to delegate was relatively easy. We outsourced our payroll because I was bad at it and the cost of mistakes was high. I put other people in charge of the art department because even though I enjoyed creating designs I was slow and unimaginative, at least as far as designs are concerned.
I learned to focus my time on the few tasks that were vital to the success of the company and that I could do better than anyone I could hire. I was the senior partner in the company so I spent a significant amount of time in planning. I had a background in accounting so I did the bookkeeping and dealt with banks, collected accounts receivables and paid accounts payables. I had training in darkroom operations (this was a long time ago) so I did most of the camera work for the first few years. Odd as it may seem, I really like running a manual press, but since I could hire people who were as good as me (and much cheaper), I had to give that up. I learned that almost anyone else is better than me at hiring and firing employees, so that responsibility was also delegated.
To explain all the rules of delegating would take another long article, but you have to know that as soon as I stopped trying to be the "do everything" guy, my life became a lot easier. You can’t increase the amount of time in a day, so the first task in time management is to make sure that you spend the time you have doing the tasks that only you can do.
Group routine tasks
As much as possible, organize your work so that you can group routine tasks. Paying all your bills at one time, once a week is more efficient than paying one or two bills a day. The same principle holds true for business correspondence. I even scheduled my day so that as much as possible I returned phone calls in bunches rather than dealing with every phone call as it came in. (Some phone calls have to be answered by the boss, but we’ll get to screening phone calls later in the article). This rule requires some judgment, but of course you have good judgment because you’re a business manager. I even stacked up all the trade magazines I received and set aside one afternoon every month to read them all.
Some tasks should not be saved up for the efficient moment. Mail out your invoices the instant that the job is done and delivered. Call accounts receivable the same day the bill become overdue. But you’d be amazed at the number of routine administrative tasks you do that become much more efficient when you do them in bunches of five or six rather than one at a time.
These tasks generally involve administrative paperwork. I organize my paperwork into two files. One is a "Suspense" file with one folder for each day of the month. As each piece of paper comes in it goes in the appropriate Suspense file and except for emergencies I don’t leave the office until the file for that day is empty. Proper use of a Suspense file makes me more organized, more efficient, and helps me to efficiently plough through the routine administrative "BS" that every management job involves.
Most well run offices have a Suspense file somewhere, but as far as I know, I’m the only person with a "Procrastination File". Like you, I receive many documents that need my attention, but not right now. They interest me but are not time sensitive. I put them in the Procrastination File. When I have some dead time I haul out the Procrastination File and start to read through it. A lot of the material is outdated. That’s OK. Remember, no answer is also an answer. I throw it out and move on. Some of the material, after review, doesn’t interest me anymore. I throw that out and move on. Any material that still interests me and requires a reply at some time in the future I move to the Suspense file. The Procrastination File is a wonderful way to kill an hour on a Friday afternoon when I can’t face one more customer or employee problem. I can close the office door and hide from the world and still convince myself that I’m being productive.
Get a gatekeeper
Interruptions are the bane of a manager’s existence. Modern management theory emphasizes that managers have to be accessible to employees, customers, stockholders, the press, their family, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. (And if life is ever found on Mars, you can be sure that they are going to want a slice of your time too!)
Demands on your time come via snail mail, e-mail, and telephone. They come through your office door and if your office is on the ground floor, through the windows too. With your daily schedule subject to the whims of every passing stranger, how are you ever going to get anything done? You could develop a nasty, grouchy personality so no one wants to talk to you, but a better suggestion is to have a gatekeeper.
A gatekeeper is someone that people have to go through to get to you. Gatekeepers are usually thought of as a secretary or receptionist who makes appointments, screens calls, and handles routine administrative matters. If your company is large enough to afford a crackerjack administrative assistant or executive secretary, more power to you. He or she probably doubles your efficiency and you’re not paying him or her nearly enough.
But what if you can’t afford a full-time gatekeeper or you don’t want one because it infringes on your management style? Another concern is that a really efficient gatekeeper may, unintentionally, shield you from some of life’s unpleasant realities such as unhappy customers or annoyed employees. As much as a manager needs big chunks of uninterrupted time to think, plan, and meditate, he or she also needs a first-class, real-time, all-weather, bad-news-approaching detector. A good gatekeeper allows you to avail yourself of frequent chunks of interrupted time but doesn’t restrict communication between you and the people you depend on to keep you informed about what’s going on in your business.
The first thing to do is to get control over your telephone. Do you automatically answer the phone every time it rings? Why? When you answer the phone, you’re working according to someone else’s schedule, not yours. If you’re a one-person operation or a small shop, get a good answering machine and use it. For example, you could let the answering machine collect and screen calls all morning, then use the afternoon to answer the calls and make your own. Now you’ve organised your life so that the phone works for you rather than against you.
If your business is large enough so that several people, you included, answer the phone, establish a schedule that allows you to delegate the phone answering chores to someone else for part of the day. The delegated phone answerer collects messages for you and you call back at a time that suits your convenience.
The trick to using a gatekeeper effectively is that the gatekeeper is used only sometimes and only on some issues. The truth is, a manager’s main job is communications and any time you restrict those communications, for any reason, you run a risk of missing valuable information. You have to organize your schedule and your job so that your gatekeeper, whether human or machine, provides you with the uninterrupted time you need, but does not significantly restrict your ability to find out what’s going on outside your office.
Learn to end phone calls gracefully
There are two types of people who will waste your time on long phone calls. One is the person calling you. The other is you! Have you ever been stuck on the phone with someone who just talks on and on and on, far past the point of the call and the time necessary to settle the issue that occasioned the call? Of course you have. Most phone calls for routine business purposes can be handled in three to five minutes. Calls that last ten minutes or longer are either wasting your time or should be planned and scheduled like a meeting.
What can you do to cut down on phone calls that run on too long? If the call is incoming, learn to listen politely, settle the issue, then say goodbye so it will stick. I have a small repertoire of stock phrases that are effective at ending a phone call and close enough to the truth even for the Pope to use.
"Thank you for calling. I’m glad we settled that. I’m due in a meeting so I have to go now. Thanks, goodbye." With some callers you will have to interrupt to wedge these phrases in, but if that’s what it takes, do it. "I have another call coming in," is another good line and especially effective because it makes you sound like a big shot executive with a multiple line phone. Another way to shortcut an endless phone call is by setting a time when you will return the call to continue the conversation.
But what if the offending caller is you? Have you ever put the phone down, looked at the clock, and said to yourself "where has the time gone?" To save some time the next time you’re making a phone call that may run on too long, first list the subjects you want to cover and the results you want to achieve. Next, get an oven timer and set it for the amount of time that you think the call should take (five minutes max, but try for three). When the timer rings say "Gee Joe, thanks for taking my phone call. I hope we’ve settled that issue to your satisfaction. I have to go now. Goodbye." Or something to that effect.
The basic routine for ending a phone conversation gracefully is to thank the caller for their time, say that you have to end the phone call now, wait a moment for them to respond, say goodbye, wait a moment for them to say goodbye, then hang up. There, is that so hard?
Learn to manage meetings
Books have been written about managing meetings and I have no intention of adding to the pile. I do have some tips you can use to limit the length of a meeting.
- Publish a meeting agenda with specific topics and times. Limit discussions to the topics and times on the agenda. If the meeting threatens to run over, adjourn it.
- Hold the meeting in a room with no chairs.
- Hold the meeting at 4:45 PM
- Don’t let anyone bring anything to drink into the meeting. If more than two people come into a meeting carrying those plastic, half-litre, insulated coffee mugs and settle comfortably into their chairs, only a bomb scare or quitting time will end the meeting.
- Ask yourself, do you have to attend the meeting or can you read the notes afterwards?
- Is this meeting necessary or could you settle the issue in some other, less time consuming way?
Pay attention to your biological rhythms
I’m a morning person. I get up early. I’m insufferably cheerful at the breakfast table and on a good day I can work full steam ahead without a break until about 11:30. Then I start to slow down. By 1:30 PM I need a nap. Afternoons are great for physical labour but bad for business decisions. By 8:30 PM I’m ready for bed. What’s your daily biological rhythm? Do you plan your daily schedule to take advantage of the times when you’re most alert? The best time for me to meet people I want to impress (customers, bankers) is in the mid-morning. So, that’s when I meet them.
One of the advantages of being a manager is that you can, to a limited extent, force the world (or at least your subordinates) to adjust to your idiosyncrasies. Since the business is paying a lot of money for your time, it makes sense to get the most bang for the bucks they’re spending by scheduling tasks to take advantage of the natural daily changes in your mental and physical abilities.
Day planners and personal digital assistants
I’ve used both PDA’s and Franklin-style day planners. They work but I found that I was spending more time maintaining them than they saved me. Anytime I enter a new job or have a major change in my schedule I buy a reporters’ spiral notebook at an office supply store and keep notes in that. After about 90 days I’ll have settled into the new routine and I throw out the notebook. For appointment reminders I post notes to the desktop on my computer.
If you’re having trouble organizing your schedule or if you occupy a position where a record of your past activities is important, then you might want to give one of the aforementioned silent administrative assistants a try. I know some very effective executives who are never more than 18 inches away from their Franklin Planner, so don’t make your decision based on my experience. However, I keep my schedule simple enough that I don’t need an elaborate scheduling device and I’m not in a position where a record of what I did on February 18, 2001 would be of any value to me.
This is knowledge born of hindsight over 20 years of experience of trying to cram 12 hours of work into an 8-hour day. You have to learn that time is the ultimate limiting resource . You can buy more buildings, raw materials and manufacturing equipment. You can earn or borrow more money. You can hire more employees. But you’re stuck with only 24 hours in a day. One of the major skills that you have to cultivate if you want to be an effective manager is to make every minute count.
With thanks to: Mark Goodridge, who started Goodridges Screen Printing in 1982.
This column focuses on business problems and how to solve them. Andrew Gregson, BA, MA , M.Sc.Econ is an economist, author and a Senior Partner in iNTENT Financial