Time Management for the Busy Consultant

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I admit it. I waste time. Given that time and talent are a consultant’s best assets (money is not — fortunes have been made with no money to start with, but never with no time or talent), this is a problem. I suspect it’s also a problem for some of you.

Let’s find out. If you have a “to do” list, get it out. If you don’t have one, make one. Limit it to the tasks you need to do today, but make sure it’s thorough.

Now, next to each task, write down how long it will take you to complete it. Ten minutes? Three hours? Put a number next to each item. Now add a cushion of 20 percent, and bear in mind that 20 percent is conservative. We rarely complete tasks in the time we allot because time estimates are inherently optimistic. If you gave a task 30 minutes, add 6 minutes as a cushion. If you wrote down three hours, add 36 minutes.

Now add up the total time, including the cushions. When I run this test with colleagues, they nearly always have more than eight hours. In fact, some have more than 24 hours. And bear in mind that your task list does not include meetings, phone calls, interruptions, e-mail, bathroom trips and breaks.

The point? If your task list had more than six hours of work — the average amount that a person can perform in a day, given all the interruptions, errands and other intrusions — it’s unlikely you’ll finish it today. And it proves, in rather painful detail, how little we all know about using that most precious of assets: time.

Even though I’m the first to admit my own ignorance, I’ll add that I’ve learned a few things along the way. Here are some of the better lessons.

Don’t Over-Promise
Clients rarely have a problem if you say, at a project’s onset, that you need a chunk of time to finish it. But they always have a problem if you miss a deadline. So don’t promise too much when you project an initial schedule. Give yourself room for delays, problems and meltdowns, because, sad as it is, they always happen. Without fail.

Know That One Plus One Does Not Equal Two
If you’re working with someone else, you won’t double your output. In fact, you might cut it in half. The more people you add to your team, the more overhead — meetings, e-mails, water-cooler chats, dispute resolutions, etc.— you’ll have to contend with.

It’s called Pareto’s Law, or the 80/20 rule: Simply put, 20 percent of your tasks account for 80 percent of your progress. Ask yourself this: Do you concentrate on the few truly important things, or spend your day responding to the urgent tasks, the fires and the ringing phone?

Don’t Multi-Task
On that note, beware of the myth of multi-tasking. It does not save time. Studies have shown that “task switching” (the mental work of moving from one unfinished task to another, and juggling two, three or 10 jobs in your head) takes more time than working on one task until it’s complete, then moving on.

Learn to Say No
I’m lucky to have a friend who’s a well-known financier. He’s founded a number of public companies and made fortunes many times over. He’s been around the block, and he’s shrewd. The best advice he ever gave me was simple: “Learn to say no. Treat yourself like a client, and don’t background the work that’s important to you just because someone asks you for something and asks for it now.”

Conquer Papers
Is your desk a wasteland? Do you look for papers at least once per day? If you lose only five minutes daily looking for paper, you lose 1,825 minutes, or 30 hours, per year. That’s nearly a complete work week.

Read a Book
There are many good books on getting things done. Choose one that resonates, and read it cover to cover.

And the last bit of advice? Know what you want. The world is rife with people who can’t tell you, in simple, precise language, what their goals are, meaning they’ll never achieve them. Instead they’ll spend their days in ignorance of Hemingway’s famous line, one that applies to consultants as well as any other, “Never confuse motion with action.”

That’s good advice indeed.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at dgarrett@certmag.com.

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