Why schedules do not work

Don Mize
© 2007, Don Mize

Ellen read numerous self-help books, attended seminars, and worked hard
to manage her time.  However, she continued to feel harried.  No matter
how carefully she planned, she felt pressured and lagged behind.  Realizing
she needed to do a time study, Ellen pocketed some index cards and wrote
down the beginning of each activity in order to discover the actual
expenditure of her time.  Like most, she discovered that her scheduled plan
for the use of her time did not match up with reality.

Focus and motivation count

Time often slips away because we lack focus or motivation.  No one wakes
up in the morning fully focused on the day.  No person starts a task fully
focused on the task.  A warming up period is natural.  However, many of us
allow valuable time to slip away because rather than warming up we pander
to this lack of focus.

A creative time (or prayer time, or meditation time) early in the morning can
increase productivity as one reviews projects, solves problems, and gains
insight while also progressively focusing on the day.  However, wandering
around aimlessly, reading interesting items with no purpose, stopping for a
visit with friends on the way to work, and countless other activities amount
to letting time slip away due to lack of focus.  Throughout the day, if we
lack focus we allow time to slip away.

In addition to a lack of focus, a lack of motivation causes slippage.  No
matter how much we like our work, some tasks are distasteful.  We
procrastinate in calling on a difficult client, doing paperwork, or taking care
of a housekeeping chore because we lack motivation.  Rather than develop
methods of self-motivation, we simply put off the distasteful tasks and allow
time to slip away.

Mario hated paperwork

Mario was one who allowed time to slip away.  He warmed up for his day
by allowing time to drink coffee and dress in a leisurely manner.  He arrived
at work motivated and focused.  However, Mario hated paperwork, which
he tended to put off.  His boss insisted that all paperwork for the week be
finished before Mario left the office on Fridays, so Mario ignored the
paperwork until Friday.

On Fridays, Mario dragged himself to the office, stopped for an extra cup of
coffee in the café downstairs, visited coworkers on the way to his desk, and
left his desk at every opportunity.  He would then work late every Friday to
finish the paperwork.  His wife complained so much about the late Fridays
that Mario decided to do a time study.

He pocketed some index cards and wrote down the start of each activity.  
Thus, he noticed that he arrived at the office at 8:30 a.m. but started his
paperwork at 9:30 a.m.  Then he noticed that at 9:45 a.m. he went to ask a
co-worker a question.  He was surprised to find that it was 10:20 a.m.
before he returned to his desk.

Mario nursed the impression that he slaved over paperwork all day, but the
time study revealed only two hours devoted to paperwork during office
hours.  The other hours had slipped away.  At quitting time, he desperately
focused on the paperwork and spent an additional three hours before he
could go home.

Mario was surprised that only two hours of office hours focused on
paperwork.  He continued his time study into the next week.  The index
cards revealed that when he finished an activity he avoided the necessary
paperwork even though he had all the information at hand.  He realized that
he would save time and avoid the burden of Fridays by completing the
paperwork as a part of finishing the task.  Looking forward to a less hectic
Friday motivated him to whip through his paperwork each day.

The simple task of writing down the start of each new activity, even a trip
to get a drink of water, showed Mario the actual use of his time.  By
eliminating the slippage, Mario traded the distasteful task of paperwork for a
less hectic Friday.  Everyone faces unpleasant tasks.  Being focused
increases efficiency and keeps time from slipping away.

Interruptions steal time

Interruptions also force time to slip away.  Few people possess complete
autonomy at work.  A secluded pastor preparing sermons may soon learn
that people expect more than preaching.  A busy person who refuses a
summons by his boss may be looking for employment.  The phone will ring,
people will drop by, favors will be asked, and invitations will appear.  While
protecting time is essential, no one can completely avoid interruptions.

Jane lost income

Jane worked at home, an arrangement she loved.  However, for two months
in a row her income had dropped because she finished fewer projects.  She
knew that she was working extra hours at night, so she decided to “work
smarter not harder.”  To find out what was really happening, Jane started a
time study where she wrote down the start of each new activity.

On Monday, she started work by 9 a.m. on her current project.  However,
she noticed that at 9:15 a.m. her mother phoned.  Normally, Jane would
have discounted the interruption, but the time study forced her to notice that
she did not return to the project until 9:30 a.m.  In addition, she had lost her
train of thought and had to refocus on the project, losing more time.

At 9:45 a.m., the dentist office called to remind her of an appointment.  
Again, the time study forced her to note the interruption, the break in
concentration, and the time wasted on refocusing on the project.  Just
before noon, a friend called and begged her to join her for a quick lunch.  
The time study forced her to face that it was 2:30 p.m. before she returned
to her project.  Then she remembered running several quick errands during
the lunch break, plus dropping in on a sale at her favorite dress shop.  At 3
p.m., she had to leave to pick up her children.

Throughout the week as Jane continued her time study, she discovered
interruptions:  phone calls, people dropping in, email notices, instant
messaging, text messages, news updates, invitations for lunch all interrupted
her work.  Now Jane realized why her income was dropping.  Now she
could think of ways to handle the interruptions.

Phone calls, emails, and other messages were dealt with at 2:30 p.m. just
before she left to pick up her children.  She went out for lunch less often
and strictly limited lunch so she was back at work by 1 p.m.  She hated
being less accessible, but her income trumped all other considerations; she
had to complete projects more quickly in order to sustain her working at
home.  Besides, if she were working downtown in an office, no one would
expect her to be that accessible.  She explained to her friends, dealt
professionally with business communications, and made a point to plan time
for her social life.

Time allocations count

However, even when we eliminate slippage and limit interruptions, we often
underestimate the amount of time needed for a task.  While some people
naturally observe and note how long various tasks take, most do not.  
Therefore, most people underestimate the amount of time needed for even
routine tasks, plan poorly, and experience frustration.  In addition, many
people think in pictures and can visualize a completed task while neglecting
the time-consuming steps necessary.

Jill made everything look easy

Jill was the envy of her friends:  she always seemed organized poised.  
Actually, Jill was unaware of a lifelong habit:  she observed and noted the
amount of time needed for a task.  She knew exactly how long to allow for
driving to work, for the laundry, for house cleaning, for various tasks at
work, and for errands.  Since she could accurately predict the amount of
time needed, she never appeared rushed and frantic.

A new task is tricky

Another factor that prevents realistic planning is a lack of previous
experience.  Previous experience matters when estimating the amount of
time needed for a task.  If you have no previous experience at a certain
task, multiply your estimate by three.  In other words, it will take you three
times as long as your initial guesstimate.  Once you have gained experience,
you can estimate more accurately.  A time study allows you to benefit from
your experience.

Walter planned unrealistically

Walter had eliminated slippage from his day.  He arrived at work focused
and motivated.  His secretary skillfully protected him from unnecessary
interruptions while using excellent judgment and public relations skills.  
Nonetheless, Walter seemed always to be behind.  A breakthrough occurred
one day when he spent the whole day writing a difficult official letter.  He
had allowed only an hour for composing the letter, but discovered from his
time study that he started at 10:15 a.m. and finished at 4:30 p.m.

Walter was shocked.  He reviewed other tasks over the past month and
realized that he consistently underestimated time allotments.  Once he
realized his problem, he planned his work realistically, including leaving
some margin-of-error time.  In addition, he reviewed his work mix and
discovered he could delegate, eliminate, and combine tasks for greater

Facing reality matters

Until you know where you time really goes, you cannot make a workable
schedule.  You may let some time slip away, have some time stolen by
interruptions, and simply underestimate many tasks.  Once you know where
your time really goes, you can work out solutions.

A time study can be conducted by simply using index cards and writing
down the start of each new activity, or you can find systems such those
offered by Day-Timers, Inc. (www.daytimer.com) in which a small pocket
calendar includes room for appointments, things to do, expenses, and a time
study system for billing as well as analysis.

A time study should be done for at least a week in order to see patterns, but
an effective system always allows one to go back and see where the time
really went at any point.  Anytime you are feeling pressured, frustrated, and
your plan is not working, a time study allows you to solve the problem.
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