Time Management: Packing and Sorting

Probably you know the picture of a jar filled with large pebbles, then smaller ones settle in the gaps and finally sand that fills the last gaps. This is exactly how my first team leader explained time management to me. He couldn’t have described it more wrongly.

But what is the purpose of time management? Think for two minutes about this question and decide for yourself before you read on.

A wise answer could include: “I can often go to the weekend at 4 p.m. on Fridays without a bad feeling”, “Being able to estimate more precisely the time spend for high-priority tasks”, “Doing valuable duties at the time when they are needed”, “Knowing at the end of the week what one has accomplished and that progress has been made in one’s area of work” or “Looking back to last week, I am sure to having found the right balance of work, family and leisure”.

Time management also has ways of achieving the above goals: “Working towards efficiency and achieving it, not just being effective”, “creating and improving a solid framework for fluent execution”, “prioritising to learn”, “eliminating time drainers” or “doing more in less time”. Beware, viewed in isolation, such measures should only be a tool towards our aim, not an objective as such. From the point of view of objectives, the above ways  could render at least problematic, but in any case in isolation they are misleading.

Time management should not have the aim of squeezing out every spare minute for work. Even if from time to time tightly packed work assignments may be necessary for project submissions, they must be the exception, and good time management will ensure that those events are rare. If you can not protect yourself, those actions will be wearing out even the best superheroes. Furthermore self-management is not a process in itself that lists, rejects, delegates, manages and regroups tasks. After you have found your time management system, methods should only take a very small percentage of your working time. Time management is self-management, allocates predictable time and creates space for the unforeseen: freedom.

Invest now

Prioritising is a rather tricky thing, because there are many different factors involved. That’s why I like the pretty simple system of a job stack, where tasks have values and then are dragged into the batches “Ready”, “Work in Progress”, etc. according to their values. However, other methods are also suitable.

Besides the importance and urgency for the value the investment in time must also be evaluated, in fact a very trivial statement, sadly investment in time is not stable for many tasks. One of Kanban’s central concerns is to increase throughput and this is exactly one of the miracle effects in efficiency gains of people who master time management.

Tasks that linger around for a long time, that are touched frequently or change processors take much longer to complete than necessary. We will look at some cases where time can be gained.

  • You receive a mail, which tries to schedule a customer appointment next week, all participants are asked for time slots. If you now react on short-term everyone is still in the planning stage. It might turn out that it is difficult to find a joint schedule, so you have to call each other spontaneously and find a compromise. If such an attempt takes days, there will typically be many issues on the way even sometimes the planning comes to a new start, if the customer has already allocated the time slot suggested days ago.
  • Imagine a task will be assigned to you that does not exactly match your area of responsibility, but also does not match the field of duties of the other possible players. Forwarding this by mail saying “seems to be something for you” is creating a time-eating monster. Not answering this request boosts the urgency of this monster, also not a clever move. It’s better to actively search for someone who will take on this assignment, or finally confirm that you won’t do it. Discuss this with your boss that there is no way you get this job. I also realize that in assignments of an unclear area of responsibility, the messenger of the mission will not be killed, but will become the owner of the mission. I still recommend that you put the baton of the task correctly into competent hands. Time management also has a lot to do with communication. Your environment will accommodate, which is sometimes a stony pathway.
  • An important but not urgent task, which has to go through many departments, is an example for the prolongation of the processing time. Participants have to adjust to the task again and again, have to ask questions and given agreements are overlooked in time. Cross-functional working can help in many of those cases. A cross-functional team can solve many parts of this task, e.g. using coaching of experts. It also helps to render the task (artificially) urgent at a purposefully chosen time in agreement with other teams. If this task represents a value, then it is a waste as long as it is in half-finished state. So you have to shorten and determine the production period.

Know your tools and automate

You should master your instruments, in order to be more productive and more efficient with recurring tasks. Investing time in such areas usually has an amazingly fast return on investment.

  • Educate yourself on your tools, learn how they function structurally, where the sources of failure are and what optimization potential they have. This can often be easily incorporated into your day-to-day work. Memorize a keyboard shortcut now and then, add a tip from the expert later. For instance, do you know the template system of your word-processing program? This saves a lot of time for formatting and the document will be even more consistent in the end.
  • “Mise en place” is the name used in restaurants for the preparation of the workplace, such as the arrangement food and ingredients prepared in the morning using a structured method, supporting to handle the crowds to be served at lunchtime. This principle has two advantages, on the one hand to know where something sits or goes and on the other hand this system offers potential for improvement. In a retrospective you can optimize your mise en place system again so that you can work even more relaxed and be on time surviving the next stampede for lunch. Using digital technology and mind work has even more potential for such a method. The bowls with pre-cut vegetables can only be arranged in three dimensions using tables and shelves. In digital systems a lot more different instruments than that are available. Discuss such ideas this with colleagues and experts, the mutual exchange will be very fruitful.
  • Remove workplace defects, report errors and highlight usability issues. Remain stubborn and discus problems even if it initially costs time. In many cases I have already found that users simply accept errors of their systems, although they are easy to solve. Regrettably, I know very well that companies buy pricey systems, despite many consulting hours they don’t get them working properly and at some point decide that the current state is now ready and usable. In analogy a professional 40 ton truck is bought to deliver goods in a medieval city center and one is surprised that the truck does not get past curves. Take out the stopwatch and be persistent, such a waste of time is not acceptable and costs you a lot of energy at work.
  • It is worth to automate almost everywhere in case tasks (or parts) are repeated frequently. And I even think so when automation probably takes as much time as the manual approach, I do automate. Because on the one hand I learn and accelerate with the automation, on the other hand the task could recur. Ask system operators to speed up processes. Let them help you write text templates or macros in the Office suite. Automate your operating system. However, please do everything locally, do not create complete workflow cascades in those colleagues then have to contribute, there are central IT systems that should take care of workflows.
  • Experiment with new technologies. Do Speech-to-Text dictation functions work well for short messages? Share successes and limitations of such tools with each other, because trying out gadgets is fun, yet also time-consuming. A little bit of fun is always good, though 🙂

As you will see, the quest for optimization increases the enthusiasm for intellectual work greatly. You don’t need to be afraid of “more in less time” in the case of automation. Removing recurring stuff is a source of pleasure and having a functional workplace that minimizes search and sorting time is simply great.

Reject and redesign

Usually, a chapter in every time management system discusses the refusal of tasks. In the sense of a workplace, however, the rejection of useless structures is also important. That is by the way still possible after you have slipped into such structures, perform a retrospective and start a discussion.

  • You join a new project and get invited to a daily 60 minute Jour fixe. Even during a good Jour fixe things are discussed that belong to other subprojects or every participant needs to speak. If you don’t know the organization yet, it’s okay to participate in a first Jour fixe, but as soon as you experience defects, encourage the project manager to improve the situation. Instead of 60 minutes discussion, a 15 minutes stand-up meeting can be sufficient or simply reducing the number of meetings or assigning a weekday to each sub-project and declaring that Jour fixe as an open event. If you are interested in a certain subproject, you are welcome to grab a coffee and listen in.
  • You become invited to project meetings lasting several hours without any agenda and the whole event turns into a coffee party, discussing everyting and nothing. Demand an agenda, even open discussions should be prepared by project participants and open topics need a time box. You don’t have to reject such a sitting harshly, for instance you could ask to plan and host the meeting.
  • Once a week the project manager discusses the current status and goes down deep into the technical aspects of the work, asking every time to re-prioritize. Use the next retrospective to get the freedom to perform a task in scope, duration and success factors. Such a demand doesn’t even have anything to do with agile work, modern project management methods also require defined responsibilities for project workers.
  • Once a week you have to submit reports that are cumbersome and most likely unnecessary. Reject exuberant bureaucracy! It is important to understand what reports, approvals, etc. are called for. A mutual understanding helps already quite a lot. Perhaps you have an automatic report that better shows the requirements and is available for retrieval anytime without extra work. Or you can reduce the reporting to a minimum and only capture the full report once a month.

“Strict but polite” is helpful advice, specifically when rejecting structures. Check out things first, share your experiences using guidelines and necessities, be polite in the rejection. After weeks of project jogging you may find that Jour fixe sucks, do not wait it’s always time to fix things.

Another thing that strikes me on the subject of obstructive structures are bosses who practice micromanagement. Thank God I personally haven’t been confronted with such a problem yet. To make things transparent has always been helpful, combined with a very strong performance. In other words, deliver a project contribution over-punctual and use this advantage to discuss obstacles. Which is almost better than offering presents. Show what you are capable of, demand better conditions and remember to give feedback of the performance gain (or the initial difficulties) properly.

When all this doesn’t work out and you guys have to deal with a micromanager who has been in leadership positions for 30 years and turns out to be untrainable. All I can say is the job market is a considerable alternative 🙂 With other words, I don’t want to pretend that you can change all circumstances into positive outcomes. However, a lot is possible and you often wonder how easy it is to accomplish this, as people have never been asked about obstacles they have produced in the past.

Glas mit Bonbons
Not quite a pebbles jar but at least small and large sweets

Now let’s come back to the jar with the little pebbles packed among big pebbles. We have already spoken about the fact that self-management is not about filling every second with work. Nevertheless, the picture of the filled glass can have a useful application: If you write on some big and small pieces “Time for family project A”, “Family project B”, “Time for fun with the family”, “Time for a short rest”, “Time with friends”, “Time for creativity”, “Think about drinking a cup of coffee without looking at the smartphone”, etc., etc… Then the glass becomes a showcase for a week with enough time and concentration on all important aspects of work and life.

P.S.: This is a future section of a little publication about time management with Kanban. It’s still a bit down the road, so I decided to publish some useful chapters in advance.


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