The management of TIME ITSELF

The management of TIME ITSELF
Wasted time is gone time
Creative Commons Licence hmcotterill on Flickr

There can be few greater misnomers than the title of the course I attended for two days last week: Time Management. Who thought that one up? Not students of metaphysics, anyway. The management of time? We can philosophise it, theorise it, chop it up into humanly sensible bits, run our lives to it; but we certainly can’t manage it.

Still, what’s in a name? It’s a pithy title (better than “Trying to make the best of our remaining hours on earth, at work and at home”) and at least sells courses to HR departments, so let’s go with it.

Manager-like, let’s also get straight to the core question: why was I there and what did I learn? (Management questions are always double-barrelled).

I was there because during a personal development chat with my manager and director, I raised the point that I was struggling to maintain my deadlines; overall we were happy that the quality and quantity of my output were acceptable – my work, however, was (is) often last minute or late. It was generally accepted that this was the result of the sheer number of inputs and outputs I’m supposed to manage with minimal support. A sensible remedy would of course be giving me a colleague or two; but since adding resource to our group is off the table for the next couple of years, my director suggested some training. My manager and I exchanged a subtle rolling of the eyes, but agreed it couldn’t do much harm.

And so to the second barrel: what did I learn?

I don’t know how to answer that question.

So I’ll break it down. There are two ways of looking at it, the tools and the settings. Let’s start with the easier of the two:


Engineers love tools, so here are a couple that were mentioned.

A certain Mr. Eisenhower is credited as saying “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This was used (by Steven Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) as the basis of a matrix that can be used to help sift through all the tasks you have facing you in this sort of way (my version below):

The important / urgent or "Eisenhower" matrix
The important / urgent or "Eisenhower" matrix

We should strive to be in the green zone, working on non-urgent and important projects. {Sigh}. I’m going to try implementing the matrix at work by setting aside a couple of hours and sorting my upcoming tasks as best I can.

As an aside, I would be tempted to try and add a third dimension to the matrix: Interesting / Not Interesting. There are tasks, such as validation testing, that are important (otherwise you don’t get regulatory approval to ship parts), can either be urgent or not urgent, depending on how the project is going, but which can be terminally dull – validation tests don’t tend to tell you anything in the slightest bit interesting about the product: these are the sort of tasks that grind me down to dust.

Another tool that we were shown was called “SAULUS”: It’s a German acronym which in English would end up something like SECSIV

Situation (Analyse the situation, i.e. what’s preventing you from working optimally)
Effects (Describe the Effects of this distraction)
Causes (Assess the causes of the situation)
Solutions (Brainstorm solutions with somebody else – a mentor would be best, though a colleague might do)
Implementation (Do it!)
Verify (Check)

Sound familiar? Yes, it’s basically an FMEA for a human issue. Our Quality colleagues would use an Ishikawa fishbone diagram.

The example I used was “too much surfing the web at work”, leading to ineffectiveness. One of the key causes I identified was the noise level in my offices: not just in decibels but in audible discussions that don’t concern or interest me at the time. I suffer from an inability to shut out extraneous noise (I’m the type of person who can’t help listening to another conversation even if I’m on the phone to somebody else. Sorry about that….) A solution would be to find a quiet room (an empty meeting room does the trick) and the implementation is to book it via Outlook. As for the verification – well, I’ve been doing it since the start of the year and I find it to be very effective and at least I know that I can focus on things given the right conditions. Now, if only I could get my own office to go with my new non-existent colleagues…

Adding colleagues fails the R in “SMART” test, that actions be


Delegation was also mentioned. It’s a tool that can be learned, especially if you’re not a manager and even if you don’t have colleagues that do directly the same job as you do. Whether it’s an email query that needs answering or a project in itself, delegation ensures that work is done without overloading you.

Yes, I noticed a big flaw with that delegation argument, too. It’s a double-edged sword, try not to get hit by people delegating back to you, and all that. Let’s move on.

Saying No. The ability to say no in a professional, constructive way is a tricky skill to learn, but it’s vital to stay on track with your own targets. It’s something I’m terrible at, but I’m going to practice, with Eisenhower’s Important / Urgent Matrix as a template.


Engineers are humans, too

What do I mean by settings? In this case, I’m talking about how we are as people. During the two days we filled out a couple of personal analytical questionnaires (rate things 1-5 then score according to categories). These highlighted two things: firstly that I’m driven by a desire to please, which makes it most difficult to say no (I’m also driven by speed and data, so I tend to “pulse” my work but get it right). Secondly, that I need to work on prioritisation (Eisenhower), target setting/following and coping with distractions.

A chunk of the “settings” theme was related to stress and looking after ourselves. This would be a course in itself, but the general gist is: eat well, avoid burnout, avoid alienating your family and friends, stay healthy.

Don’t look back in anger

So no, I didn’t actually learn anything that could be described as groundbreakingly new. However, having two days out of work to think about work was very valuable. For me, the biggest positive of the course were the attendees: there were five of us in total, which was in itself a nice, workable number, and we were diverse. Our crew was an architect, a production manager, a museum director, a logistics manager and a development engineer; we got on very well indeed.

We came at the time management problem from different perspectives and arrived at different answers.

How about you? What are your experiences with Time Management? If you’re feeling bogged down with tasks, I hope this post at least gives you a direction to search in. If you’ve been through all of this before, let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!



Nicely done article. I appreciate that you didn’t just put out another article on effective time management, but wrote about the real-world struggles of trying to make different management approaches work for you.

But enough about you, let’s talk about me.

I’ve certainly done my share of trying to be more productive. I’ve had great success, and you mention this, with writing down very plainly what the problem is, what the effect is, possible solutions, and so on. As a way to trick myself into writing as objectively as possible, I always do this type of writing in the third person, as if I’m telling it to someone else. And to make it all the more realistic, I do much of it in complete sentences.

Another idea. Several years back, I got so frustrated with my inability to focus on my work, and so, being completely fed up with all the BS excuses I always made about why I should procrastinate, I put the words DO IT NOW all over the place. The idea was an extension of my personal interest in reading books about advertising, the effect of seeing certain words/imagery repeatedly. So I was programming my subconcious, just like Budweiser and McDevil’s does so well.

How bout one more idea. Around this same period, I had the idea to have a certain dedicated light that I’d turn on when I really needed to focus for a specified amount of time. For example, if I knew I wanted to remain in hyperfocus for, say, one hour, then I’d turn the light on. This wasn’t a piddley mood light, either. This was a glaring overhead lightbulb, with no shade. I’m a sucker for great lighting (my feminine side, okay?), so I made sure to pull out a light that meant one thing: WORK BEING ACCOMPLISHED HERE. Basically, you could conduct major surgery by that light if necessary. The original idea for having a light at all came from the practice (to some, not me) of lighting a candle during meditation/prayer. I decided to steal the idea, but decided to amp it up a bit.


Another general acronym is from a good book called The IDEAL Problem Solver (the first edition was a little book, the second they bulked it up with more examples and exercises).





Look back

@ William – ah, there we go! That’ll be the English version of SAULUS, though I like the FMEA way of *D*efining the Effects and Causes of the situation.

@daniel: during my searches I saw a couple of ideas for visual cues to show that you’ve entered the monastery and don’t want to be disturbed (big headphones on, flags on monitors, that sort of thing). I prefer the amazing disappearing engineer method, as I can go into a meeting room, close the door and slide the label to “busy.”

The downside is, I can’t take my two monitors with me. If I really need them both for whatever I’m working on, then it’ll be a case of “call you later” and hope they go away.

So – I’m still searching… Good luck with your own focus!

Dear Mr Abbott

I read your article on the management of time itself and found it enlightenment. I support a group of 200 engineers and believe they need time management. Can you recommend a trainer on time management?

Thank you for your time.

Brendan Fitzgeralkd

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