Time Management and Procrastination

This article is based on a presentation I gave at Freelance Camp TO on Sunday, October 3, 2010.

Hi, my name is Elie Kochman, and for the last four years, I’ve been working as a freelancer.

When Rachel asked me to present this session, I was amused. I had, after all, missed the deadline for submitting a proposal for a session. When we couple that with the fact that I was still making revisions to this presentation last night, well, I guess that makes me an expert on procrastination.

Before we proceed into the presentation, I have a question for you:

Why are you here and what are you hoping to gain from this presentation?

To begin, let’s dispose of the misconception that there are some hard and fast rules that can solve a time management problem. There aren’t any in particular to time management. There is one rule, though, and it has nothing to do with time management in particular, but still relevant.

Only you can bring about your own success.

That is, you cannot solve any problem, and time management is one such problem, until you recognize that you are capable of bringing about your own success, and that no one else is likely to do it for you.

Einstein said, and I’ve seen this quoted in a variety of ways:

You cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that created it.

The issue of time management is no different. While you can, and likely already have, identified the missed deadlines and the late nights working to finish projects at the last minute, you might not be able to identify why. Procrastination is merely a result of poor time management – it’s not a cause.

Most of you will be familiar with the following statement:

It is human nature to be able to easily identify problems in other people while failing to recognize our own.

As we are notoriously bad at recognizing our own problems, or the causes of our own problems, the solution becomes quite simple. Find someone who can recognize our own failings.

If there’s one thing you take away from Freelance Camp TO, I would suggest that it be a new friend, or group of friends with whom you can share your experiences. Meet with that person on a regular basis and talk about the issues your businesses are facing, and how you’re dealing with them. The best source of ideas and suggestions are often from those people who are going, or have gone, through a similar situation to what you’re facing.

Going back to time management – what types of problems are you looking for? Some of my own that I’ve learned to deal with are a predisposition to spend time playing solitaire when I could be working, and failing to write down important pieces of information.

Both problems were pointed out by someone working in the same office as me. It wasn’t something I didn’t know, but it was something I was subconsciously blocking out.

Who can you turn to that might be able to identify such time-wasters for you?

Okay, so you’ve managed to identify some portions of your day that could be utilized more effectively. What do you do next?

The reality is that you’ll need a change of perspective, as the quote from Einstein implies. In this case, though, I’m more open to taking the approach from a large business:

Just do it!

Nike has it right when they say that there are times when the best course of action is to act. You need the mentality of success, but if you convince yourself that you can succeed, you will find the rest of the suggestions over the next little while not to be solutions per se, but rather tools in your arsenal to help you accomplish what you already know to be possible.

What is it that you’re doing? You’re taking control of your schedule, and you’re starting right now. Not later, when there’s a lull in the work. Not next week, after this emergency project gets sent to the client.

Today. Before you get out of your seat.

Recognize the power of a schedule, and make it work for you.

Big companies spend significant amounts of time and money on management, because people are more effective when they are working with a schedule. A good manager will have their team working effectively by scheduling their time for them.

When you’re working for yourself, there really isn’t anyone to do this for you, so you need to do it for yourself.

Steven Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes the progression of time management techniques under the heading of one of the habits. I don’t agree with his list completely, but the first three of the following tips I discovered yesterday as I was reading his book overlap exactly with 3 stages of the progression, though in a different order.

Get a daily planner.

First, if you don’t already have one, go out and invest in a daily agenda. If you use a smart phone, there’s probably an app already on it that can do the job. You need to commit to using it, and the best way to do that is to write EVERYTHING into the agenda.

For each item in the agenda, make sure you put on appropriate reminders. For example, you might enter all your bills from vendors that need to be paid. Set the reminder for a few days before the bills are due so that you don’t miss deadlines because you forgot.

Use to-do lists.

Second, make your schedule for each day in terms of what you are going to accomplish before the end of the day. Balance the need to finish projects to get them out the door against the excitement of working on the next big project.

The way I do this is with a large whiteboard, on which I’ve written a detailed list of things I need to do. Each morning, I spend a few minutes marking which items I’m going to finish today, and over the course of the day, I tick them off. At the end of the day, I erase all the completed tasks, and fill in any new tasks that came up that day.

Prioritize daily.

Schedules change constantly, because what you need to complete changes constantly. Clients come and go, emergencies arise, scope of projects expand and contract. You need to recognize that this means priorities are likewise changing. By combining the previous two tips, you can take control of your priorities by always knowing what you need to do, and when it needs to be done.

Each day, as you set the priorities for that day, remember that you are dealing with both the priorities of the here and now as well as the future. Try to set some time every day for the low priority items, because otherwise they will never get done.

Think tasks, not time.

Here’s where I digress from Covey’s progression. In my experience, I’ve found that thinking about work in terms of tasks makes me much more efficient than when I focus on time. When I decide which tasks to work on today, I think about completing those tasks, not how much time I’m going to spend doing that.

The problem, of course, is that with larger projects, it might not be possible to complete them in a single day. So break them into smaller pieces, and make a deadline for finishing each piece of the project.

Use artificial deadlines to assist scheduling.

An artificial deadline is one created by yourself, over which you have absolute control. Once you’ve set that deadline, though, it needs to be considered as rigid as if a client assigned it.

What this lets you do is to create a to-do list that has many manageable tasks in it, and to schedule each of those accordingly. Your schedule doesn’t look like blocks of time assigned to various tasks, but a list of tasks that you’re going to do on any given day. Some tasks might have specific times assigned to them, such as meetings with clients, but others will only specify what, not how long.

Last, I want to talk about interruptions, or, more specifically, phone calls and emails.

You don’t have to answer right away.

While many people find a ringing phone to be an irritant that cannot be ignored, the truth is, you don’t need to pick up every time. Look at your call display quickly to see if it warrants an immediate pick-up. If you do pick up, change your answer to something like,

Hi, this is Elie. I’m just in the middle of something right now – can I call you back in about 20 minutes when I’m done?

Most people would rather talk to you in 20 minutes and get your undivided attention than have a conversation with someone who just admitted their mind is on something else. The same applies to email. While we’ve been trained to respond quickly to emails, the truth is that most emails are not urgent, and can wait an hour for a response.

What I would suggest, then, is that making phone calls and checking emails become a task you do several times a day, perhaps between all the other items from your to-do list that you’ve chosen to do.

Success breeds success.

What you will discover is that each day you succeed at managing your time will result in making it easier for you to manage your time the next day. By constantly looking both ahead and behind you, you will find that you do, in fact, take control of your schedule. Your success, in short, will make it easier for you to continue to succeed in the future.