Management consultant and author Peter Drucker once said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” I find that the New Year makes me want to get more organized and get a better handle on my work responsibilities. I scan in everything that has been sitting in my “to be scanned” basket, which by the end of the year is overflowing. I clean up computer files, make new virtual folders, rename, replace and redesign everything in sight. 

I have discovered a book called Procrastinate on Purpose by Rory Vaden, who suggests that we can multiply our time if we first eliminate things that we don’t need to do. I looked at my “to be scanned” basket. Half the stuff in there I know I will never look at again. Why don’t I shred it? Because I think that “one day” I might need it. So I invented a game. I call it “worst case.” 

What’s the worst case if I need a copy of something and I don’t have it? An IRS audit? I can get copies of the canceled checks from my online banking account. Do I really need to have a copy of the invoices too? I thought out each task I routinely perform to determine whether this was an activity I do out of habit or one I really need to use. Among other things, I found great satisfaction in shredding nearly a whole basket of paper that had been accumulating for 12 months. 

There are plenty more unnecessary activities that can be jettisoned. For example, do you find yourself writing long e-mails? Why? If it has to be a long one, pick up the phone. E-mails don’t have inflection or tone, so you never know how people will receive your information anyway. Are you setting up client meetings because you said you would have them? Is there something to talk about? Do the clients actually want to meet? There are great alternatives to unnecessary meetings that still allow you to connect with clients. Do you volunteer to do talks, host meetings or manage events just because you are asked? Think before your agree and ask yourself, is this really something you want to do or you will enjoy, or are you agreeing because you can’t say no?

As I read through Vaden’s book, I pulled out little pearls that I want to share with you. What first struck me was that we all complain that we are so busy. We act like victims. If we are too busy, it is because we do not have control over our own lives—and the truth is we do! We have the power, the choice and the capability to decide what to do with our time. I remember my husband once telling me, as the phone was ringing off the hook, that the telephone does not have a constitutional right to be answered. Neither do the hundreds of e-mails you receive a day, or the thousands of interruptions you allow when you are trying to work. Start with picking and choosing what you will or won’t do. Think about what you will allow and what you will not. Secondly, don’t “should” on yourself. “I should be doing this. I should be doing that.” If you are the one who controls your time, “should” is not a word in your vocabulary. 

The next concept that Vaden explains is that there is no such thing as time management; there is only self-management. Wow. We can’t control time. We can’t manage time, but we can control and manage ourselves. All these time management courses I have taken did not improve my ability to get control of my activities and ultimately my life. What I have learned is that there are things I am very good at accomplishing and things that I am not as proficient in doing. Instead of forcing myself to do the activities that are not in my wheelhouse, I simply say “no.” I have learned that this is not a reflection of my laziness, intelligence or competence, just a clearer understanding of how to manage myself better. 

First Things First

I have always prioritized my time by listing tasks that were more urgent than others. What I ended up doing is putting out fires all the time. I seldom had enough time for those lower priority items that really matter to me. I couldn’t fit them into my schedule after I tasked myself with priorities. What good is that? I also discovered that there are certain times of the day that are better for me to accomplish work than others. Instead of forcing myself into a schedule, I now plan my days by working on items that matter most to me—when I am feeling my best at doing them. Eventually, I was able to delegate those tasks that are better done by someone else, or at least stop agreeing to do them myself. I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of dispatching someone to do their least favorite tasks, but certainly as you get older and more experienced in managing yourself, you are better able to control what you choose to do.

Vaden points out that successful people do not confine themselves to two-dimensional decision-making. In prioritizing activities, we generally ask ourselves, “How soon does this matter and how much does it matter?” (stressing the dimensions of urgency and importance). Vaden suggests a third dimension, “significance,” or, “How long will it matter?” For example, I used to triage e-mail into “immediate,” “next week” or “whenever.” Then I would spend so much of a day clearing out the “immediate” folder, then the “next week” folder. I seldom got to “whenever,” and when I did, it was so dated it didn’t matter anymore. If the material isn’t urgent or important enough to have significance now or next week, it certainly won’t be valuable “whenever.”

Finally, I recognize that I will never be finished with anything. There is always more I can stuff into a day if I choose to. The secret is to control what you choose to accomplish each day, finish with a deep satisfaction in doing what you set out to do and enjoy your day prioritizing what matters most to you. And don’t let others control or dictate your day. It’s really an art. To effectively manage yourself, you don’t have to be more disciplined; you just have to change your perspective.