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By Francis Wade

Friday, July 6, 2012.

Rightly or wrongly, one of the yardsticks that we use to measure the effectiveness of our colleagues is how well they manage their time. Skills vary widely from the bottom to the top of corporations, but we tend to assume that the higher the position, the better the skills.

The latest research (backed up by CEOs I have met with poor skills) shows that we need to revisit this assumption. Instead of looking at the person's position, we need to focus on the match between their capacity and the amount of stuff they need to get done. Here are four ideas to keep in mind.

1. Do It Only Once
The amount of data that the average professional must deal with in a single day is about the same as their grandparents saw in a month. Yet, the way people learn time management remains exactly the same - they cobble together a bunch of techniques from here and there, and essentially teach themselves. This minor miracle happens at some point during their early adulthood with varying degrees of success.

The problem is that these self-taught techniques rarely stand the test of time, and we fail to adjust them. Dr Dezhi Wu's recent research showed that students manage their time better than their lecturers and administrators. Their improved techniques are better suited for dealing with today's information overload, while their professors and administrators simply fail to evolve and therefore fall behind.
Learning how to manage your time is no longer a one-time event, but is now a continuous challenge.

2. Focus on Factual Symptoms
If the latest research is to be believed, we often make the mistake of looking at the wrong data when we make our own judgements.
The facts that we need to focus on are observable: skipped appointments, chronic lateness, waking up in the middle of the night remembering important items, forgetting commitments and missing deadlines. A reputation for being generally unreliable ensues, although it's sometimes masked by the person's position or powers of persuasion.
Poor time managers experience all of these symptoms.

3. Find Invisible Causes
Even when these symptoms are clear, we often don't know what to do about them. We need to gain a new understanding of the underlying fundamentals of time management that govern every human being, and stop being victims of skills that are simply not good enough to deal with a high volume of commitments.

A CEO I worked with in a financial institution had a practice of asking his secretary to print out all his email before dictating a reply. For him, email was just an improved postal service. This technique was not a problem in the mid-1960s when he learned it, but is woefully ineffective in today's environment. Without a deeper understanding of how to effect an upgrade, he was stuck like a dinosaur in quicksand.

This kind of mismatch between the requirements of one's life and one's capacity to fulfil them is taking place all the time, and gets worse when new technologies are introduced.

4. Resolve the Mismatch
If you find that you are suffering from one or more of the symptoms listed above, it's time to start doing your homework. Find the best model you can to explain how professionals should manage time. Measure your skills against that ideal model, and make a list of the shortcomings. Rank this list in order, and convert the most pressing items into habits, practices and rituals.

The hard part comes next - create a habit-changing environment that supports the changes you want to make in only one or two areas. There has been a lot of research in habit change that indicates that we make a mistake when we try to change too much all at once. Instead, take baby steps.

The second mistake we make is to overestimate our willpower. We think that we can change more than we can, which often results in changing nothing at all. Avoid that trap, and set up more than enough support in the form of advisers, reminders, scheduled appointments and rewards. Doing this effectively is an art that very few master, but doing so makes all the difference in learning any new skill that's necessary to be successful.

The truth is, managing your time isn't a skill that you learn once and then forget about. Not in 2012. Instead, it requires continuous diligence, a commitment to high standards and ongoing exposure to role models who probably don't live in Jamaica. That's the only way to stay on top.

Francis Wade is a management consultant.   

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