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“Time management is an oxymoron. Time is beyond our control, and the clock keeps ticking regardless of how we lead our lives. Priority management is the answer to maximizing the time we have.”  

- John C. Maxwell

In all my surveys, interviews and conversations with consultants, the lack of time is one of the problems that always comes up. For those with children, it goes straight to the top of the list. 

So, let’s talk a bit about time.

The Time Management Myth

There’s a bit of a myth surrounding time – the one that suggests that you can manage time. The one people refer to as ‘time management.’ However, you can’t manage time.

It can’t be directed like a person. You can’t tell it what to do, send it somewhere else, teach it or improve it. It can’t be contained like a fluid or put under pressure like a gas - even though it may feel like that at times.

We measure time, but even that’s not as simple as it sounds. Once every 4 years, we add an extra day to February to account for anomalies between the calendar we use, and the Earth’s rotation around the Sun. Moreover, in 2014, a leap second was added in June. It is the task of scientists and officials at the International Earth Rotation Service in France to monitor the planet’s rotation and tweak time where necessary. In the latest leap seconds to be added in 2015 and 2016, problems were reported with internet networks and airline reservation systems. So, if scientists must ‘tweak’ time every so often and large software companies struggle to manage that adjustment, what chance do the rest of us have of managing time?

If you think about it, time doesn’t even pass in a uniform manner. We spend half of it bemoaning how slow it is, wishing it away. We spend the other half desperately wishing for more time. Furthermore, time sometimes seems to just stand still.

Time is the ultimate paradox and has a life of its own. If it were a simple matter of managing time, we could just take that time we wish away and move it to the time we desperately try to claw back. However, we can’t manage time.

Change Your Mindset

So, what can we do?

We can’t manage time, but what can we do is manage our activities and - to a point - the activities of others we are responsible for, such as employees and children. In fact, according to BusinessDictionary.com, management is ‘The organization and coordination of the activities of a business in order to achieve defined objectives’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines management as ‘The process of managing people or things.’ 

Not time. We can’t manage time as it isn’t an activity, a person or a ‘thing.’ 

And time doesn’t matter unless there is some objective associated with it, whether that objective is the delivery of a major business milestone, arriving on time for a meeting with a potential client, or picking the kids up from school.  

What you need to do, in fact, is to change your mindset. So long as you focus on time, you are abdicating yourself of responsibility for your productivity. Time is external and therefore outside of your control. It is only when you focus on yourself and your activities that you can become more productive. 

Having said all that, it doesn’t mean you should ignore time completely. The first step to being more productive is knowing how much time you have available. Once you’re armed with that information, you can focus on managing your activities.

How much time do you have available?

If you haven’t sat down and worked out how much time you have available to work on your consultancy business, you need to. A while back, a client of mine who is incredibly organised and who had previously had no problem achieving her goals, found that in recent years she’d been struggling to achieve everything she had set out to achieve in her business. I suggested that she sit down and work out how many days she had to work on her business – something she’d never actually done before.

The first thing she did was calculate how many days her children were in school. She got a bit of a shock. It was far fewer than she thought - less than half the year in fact. If she continued to work on the premise that she had 5 days a week to work on her consultancy business with just a few weeks off for holidays, she was unlikely to get everything done that she had planned. Rather than ‘a few weeks,’ which is how she described it, it was nearly half of the year that one or both of her children were at home. That also didn’t account for illness, routine medical appointments, taking the dog to the vet and other activities consultants often must make time for in their regular working day.

Whether or not you have children, you need to work out how many working days you have available. Don’t forget to account a few days for sickness, routine activities and errands you have throughout the year, and how many days you want to take as holiday. Also, consider how long your working day is: if you have children, don’t get back from the school run until 9:30, have to return to school at 2:30, with 30 mins for lunch squeezed in, you in fact only have 4 and a half hours per day. That’s 22 hours a week - or the equivalent of just 3 days per week. 

I don’t want you to obsess over the numbers, but it’s important to be armed with the facts. It’s far better than feeling despondent every day owing to the constant feeling of incompletion. 

Steps to Combating the Time Management Myth

1. Know exactly how much time you have available.

Many of us complain that we don’t have enough time but don’t acknowledge just how much time we really do have available to work on our consultancy business. It’s often less time than we think and until we face that fact nothing is going to change. It sounds simple, but the chances are if you don’t feel like you have enough time, you probably don’t know how much time you really have available.

2. Forget about trying to manage the time and focus on managing activities within a timeframe.

Change the way you think about time. Perhaps you focus too much on time - primarily the lack of it - and not enough on the activities you carry out within that timeframe. Some people find they actually have more time available than they thought. If that’s you then you know you need to look at the activities you’re filling that time with if you’re not achieving what you set out to achieve.

How do you think about your productivity? Do you focus on time, and lack of it? Or do you focus on your activities? Are you brutally honest about how much time you have available?

Lynsey Whitehouse is a former Chartered Aerospace Engineer, Management Consultant and FTSE 100 Executive. She worked for nearly 20 years in the aerospace and defence industry, working with, for and on behalf of organisations such as BAE Systems, Airbus, UK MOD, Lockheed Martin and GE Aviation. Founder of Lynsey Whitehouse Consulting and The Decision Engineer, Lynsey now works with entrepreneurs, SMEs and Corporate clients to help them optimise and grow their businesses by becoming more profitable, productive and high-performing.

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