One o'clock in the morning. The room is dark, except for the bluish glow emanating from the screen of my PowerBook. I'm sitting in bed, the laptop propped on my knees, typing the words that you are reading. Beside me sits my wife, typing furiously on her PowerBook. We both have do-or-die deadlines at 10 AM sharp.
I should have finished this hours ago, but I wasted the day playing phone tag with a source and answering 37 e-mail messages and getting stuck in a meeting that went on way too long. By 5 PM I still hadn't gotten to the first item on my To Do list. My wife's day was pretty much the same -- lost to time-sinks. Now it's 1:15 AM The minutes are slipping away.
What an absurd picture the two of us must make. Absurd, but not uncommon. Not so long ago, this time of night was for finding love, or losing it, or even for sleeping. And now? Deep into the night, all across America, I hear the sound of people clacking away on their computers, trying to make up for lost time.
All right, I'm getting a little punchy. But I won't concede the point: your company, your competition, business in general, all move at one speed only -- faster! Your work day has been stretched to 12, 14, 16 hours, but there still isn't enough time to get everything done.
If there's any solace for the bleary-eyed, it's this: though we're all feeling squeezed, some among us have come up with creative tactics and tools for keeping pace. In this edition of ToolBox, you'll find the best in time-saving planners, workshops, and books, plus innovative approaches to prioritizing assignments, managing work flow, getting organized, and finding shortcuts.
Is this the Definitive Story on Saving Time? Not quite. I don't have enough time to nail it. But if you apply some of these lessons, you'll find the time to do other things at 1 AM besides work.
No one has all the answers. But when it comes to tackling the challenges of using time wisely, some people can deliver a few hard-won lessons. So we've gathered four time mavens from different walks of corporate life: a high-tech tax man who rides a seasonal roller coaster of intensely demanding work; a new-media guru who snubs beepers and e-mail; a quality assurance champion who escapes time traps; and a consultant who favors spontaneity over strict time management. Here are their lessons.
Training Regimen for Marathon Work
Time Maven: Bruce Johnson, program manager for QuickTax, Intuit Canada's personal income-tax software, which supports 150 different tax forms and schedules to help consumers prepare their returns. Based in Edmonton, Alberta.
Minutes from My Daily Log: Commute 5 minutes to the office ... Work up to 17 hours a day during product-development periods ... Average 15 hours a week in meetings. . .
The Challenge: To perform at my peak during marathon stretches of work, without sacrificing my family responsibilities.
When we're developing new product for the upcoming tax season, we work in overdrive. Typically, our rough periods come twice a year and last from three weeks to a month. I leave my watch at home. It would drive me crazy to look at it all the time.
Lesson #1:Prepare your family for those killer 17-hour days.
Before tackling stretch goals, have a talk with your family. Tell them you've got a tough period of work coming up, why it's important, and that you'll have more time for them when it's all over. Your spouse and children need to buy into your commitment. If they don't, it will weigh on you -- and you won't achieve your goals.
Lesson #2: Work the hours that suit you best.
When deadlines hit, most people get here by 5 AM and leave around 10 PM My most productive work comes after seven in the evening. I work until one or two in the morning, head home and get some sleep, and return to the office around 9 AM I'm in the office for scheduled meetings, and I've got enough hours at the end of the day to make real progress on my most important work.
Lesson #3: When you reach the point of diminishing returns, recharge.
When fatigue kicks in and I realize I'm reading but not comprehending, I take a five-minute time-out. If I can't solve a problem, I move on to a different task and come back to it later. Sometimes, I just have to go home and sleep on it. But I won't let up -- I still keep pushing myself.
Lesson #4: After completing a big project, take time to decompress.
Once the deadlines have passed, I usually take a power-down period where I work half-days for about a week. It's payback for my family, and it gives me the chance to get prepared -- physically, mentally, and emotionally -- for the next round of work.
Coordinates: Bruce Johnson, email@example.com
A Luddite's Guide to Gadgets
Time Maven: Garry Hare, founder, CEO, and president of Fathom Pictures Inc. in Sausalito, California, producer of such computer games as "Return to Cybercity" and "Bob Bondurant High Performance Driving."
Minutes from My Daily Log: Sleep 7 hours a night . . . 15-minute commute . . . 2 hours per week in company meetings . . . 0 to 60 hours per week in meetings with clients . . . race Porsches once every ten weeks . . .
The Challenge: To put a lid on technology-induced information overload.
We work at warp speed, turning out new product every three months. Living in a high-tech work culture, I'm a real contrarian when it comes to new technology. If I don't stay skeptical, I'll drown in the flood of information spawned by that new technology.
Lesson #1: Be ruthless with e-mail.
I use e-mail to communicate instantaneously with clients, not as an alternative mailing address. So I maintain a private e-mail account to which fewer than a dozen people have the address. Messages sent to the company's e-mail address are screened by my assistant, who forwards the important stuff. And I don't allow internal e-mail. After all, we've got just 23 employees. In such a small operation, there's no excuse for not having face-to-face conversations.
Lesson #2: Restrict your use of the telephone.
I don't carry a beeper. This notion that you've got to be "connected" at all times is just plain crazy. I also gave up on my car phone after two days. The first time I got a call, I realized that I don't want to be interrupted while I'm driving. That's some of my rare private time to think. And just because someone calls me doesn't mean I have to answer immediately. I don't take calls after noon and I return all my calls during two periods, at 10:45 AM and between 5 and 6 PM My assistant, however, has a short list of people who can get through to me at any time.
We don't have voice mail during business hours. If the person who ordinarily answers the phone is out, the calls are transferred to another line and a real person answers. (We do have voice mail after hours. It comes in handy when it's 3 AM and an overseas distributor wants to leave a message.) Also, we don't have call waiting. Whenever someone says to me, "Wait a sec, I'm getting another call," I hang up. It's rude, but it's a waste of my time.
Coordinates: Garry Hare, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cruise through Time Traps
Time Maven: Steve Kahn, CEO of Integrity QA Software, a Silicon Valley company that develops quality-assurance products to automate bug-finding in applications written on Windows 95 and Windows NT platforms.
Minutes from My Daily Log: Wake up at 5 AM . . . Browse Web sites and do e-mail twice a day for 35 minutes total . . . Work out 60 minutes -- four times a week -- with a personal trainer . . . Work 55 to 65 hours a week . . .
The Challenge: To minimize everyday time-sinks.
As the CEO of a nine-month old startup, I can't find enough days in the week to do everything. I don't have much of a support staff -- we've got an office manager and a very part-time rent-a-CFO. So I've got to be real strict on how I allocate my time.
Lesson #1: Set limits on people who take up too much of your time.
How do you get people to shut up? If a person gets long-winded in explaining something, I say, "Give me the short version." Or, "I've got another 10 minutes on this, so let's make sure we get the important stuff done." Then I smile, to avoid being perceived as rude.
Lesson #2: If a meeting is not a top priority, stay for the beginning and then hand off to an associate.
We outsource our benefits administration. When the benefits people come here for a meeting, I don't want to hear the details but I know they need some face-time. So I bring my assistant, stay for the first five minutes to go over the big picture, and leave. My assistant handles the details. It's like getting an executive summary and delegating to someone else. I hold these meetings in a conference room -- it's pretty hard to walk out of your own office.
Lesson #3: To avoid workplace interruptions, work off-site.
I have a home office with an ISDN line and the same equipment I have at my company office. I can access files from either place. Working at home allows me to extend my day by two to four hours. With fewer interruptions, I do twice as much in half the time.
Lesson #4: If you don't have time for something, just say so.
We don't have a receptionist to screen calls. Just the other day I answered the phone, and it was somebody who knows nothing about this business trying to get me to advertise. My reply: "Sorry, I don't have time for this." Sure, I was abrupt. But I kept the entire conversation to less than 30 seconds.
Coordinates: Steve Kahn, email@example.com
Create Your Own Time Zone
Time Maven: Janet Ryan, president of J.M. Ryan Associates, a Menlo Park, California publishing consultant. Formerly executive director of ZDTV and publisher of "MacUser Magazine."
Minutes from My Daily Log: Work out in the morning for two hours . . . Important meetings come at lunch, usually from 12:30 to 2:30 . . . work 45 to 50 hours a week . . .
The Challenge: To find an alternative to compulsive scheduling.
I've done the time-management courses. I even learned to schedule down to 10-minute increments. Great. I was completely controlled by To Do lists. I'd get to the end of the day and feel like I didn't accomplish anything important. So I reevaluated how I was spending my time, and realized that I needed to be less structured. The only time that matters is this moment -- the here and now.
Lesson #1: Keep your schedule loose enough to allow for spontaneity.
The best business ideas come from unplanned conversations. The other day I was in a restaurant, meeting with a former colleague. I looked across the room and saw someone I hadn't seen in years. I was pulled in two directions. On the one hand, I had this lunch meeting and I thought I should stay focused on it. But I wanted to say "Hi" to the other guy. I brought my old friend over to the table, and I ended up arranging to do a consulting project for him. And my lunch partner got some business with him, too. If I had kept to my schedule I would have missed out.
I still have To Do lists. But I'm more likely to look at my priorities, and trust that I'll get things done in my own time.
Lesson #2: Don't be afraid to step back and ask if you're really accomplishing anything.
Say you have a meeting scheduled for 2 PM to 3 PM After 15 minutes the ideas aren't flying. Instead of fighting to get results, I'll say, "Hey guys, this isn't working. Let's put our ideas in e-mail or schedule a conference call on Tuesday.' You don't have to use up an hour just because you've scheduled an hour.
Lesson #3: Give yourself permission for interruptions -- they may be more important than anything you're "scheduled" to accomplish.
I allow myself unplanned breaks to get the creative juices flowing. Sure, a report may be due on a coworker's desk in half an hour. But you've got to be able to say, "I'll see you in 20 minutes. I'm getting out of here. I want to clear my head." The world won't end when you do.
Coordinates: Janet Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org