Managing Your Time

The power to shift how you utilize yours is where the results begin

brown-and-white clocks

This is an excerpt from The Little Book of Big Ideas for Construction Professionals (and those who work with them), Michael Riegel

It’s how we spend our time here and now, that really matters. If you are fed up with the way you have come to interact with time, change it.

—Marcia Wieder, CEO and Founder of Dream University,

Do you wonder how other people get everything done? Do you find yourself saying, “I can’t fit another thing on my plate!” and then working to squeeze more on anyway? If so, you’re like most people—but you don’t have to continue to be like most people. Anyone can develop better time management habits, but you have to be willing to get focused, get honest, and get ready to have more energy at the end of (and even the beginning of) each day.

1) Upgrade your to-do list beyond “what” and “when.”

We all spend time thinking about what we need to get done. Not everyone writes their tasks down, and even fewer people write their tasks down in their calendars! A list can serve as a brain-dump, but scheduling those tasks in your calendar—along with where you’ll get things done and who else needs to be involved—can catapult the effectiveness of your to-do list. And don’t forget to schedule this item in your calendar: Compose tomorrow’s to-do list today!

2) Don’t confuse urgent and important.

In construction, everything can seem urgent—from returning a call from a client, to contacting a supplier, to preparing pay applications, to estimating the next project. However, just because something feels urgent doesn’t mean that it is important. Categorize your tasks into four groups:

  • Urgent: time sensitive and pressing tasks

  • Important: these tasks are at the core of the long term strategy and success of your work

    • Urgent and important: deal with these tasks first to make time for the activities that aren’t urgent but are important

    • Neither urgent nor important: these tasks are filler and are first up for being delegated and eliminated from your list

    If you’re not sure how to categorize your tasks, ask your boss, colleagues, or clients for their input and get everyone on the same page. You don’t want to delay a task that everyone agrees is urgent and important. Remember, as construction professionals, our

    projects start off as planned activities (important and not urgent) but as they move forward and we hit the critical deadlines the activities will become both urgent and important. The longer you can remain in the planned work phase, the more effective, efficient, and productive you will be.


    3) Minimize distractions.

Every new gadget and app makes the same promise: This will make your life easier! Many of them can, but they can also be huge attention grabbers. How many times have you picked up your phone to check your appointment schedule and ended up checking Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and your inbox? When you have important deadlines and you are feeling overwhelmed with work, set an amount of time to unplug from your phone and e-mail. Turn off your ringer and the automatic notification on your e-mail. Tell your Facebook friends that you’ll check back later (and you can tell your real friends the same!). Close your door and put a note on it saying that you are working on a deadline. Work in a cubicle? See if you can find an empty meeting room, conference room, or dark corner for an hour. You may think that you can’t slip away—but you’d be surprised at how people respect the choice you’ve made for the quality of your work.

4) Think before you act.

Before starting any task, ask yourself, “Am I the only person who can do this?” If your answer is yes, take a moment to challenge your thinking.

  • Are you the only person because you’ve always done it? It may be time to think about letting someone else do it.

  • Are you the only person because you’re the only one with the skills? It may be time to teach those skills to someone else.

    • Are you the only person because you have a lean staff? Perhaps see how you can tap into some other teams or resources in your office or on the overall project team.

    • Are you the only person because you’re the only person you trust to get it done right? Then it’s time to let others prove to you that they are competent and capable and for you to show others that you value their contributions.

    Are you the only person because this is the core of your job and the expectation is that you were hired to do this work? Then work away—it’s yours.

    5) Don’t accept other people’s monkeys. In his classic Harvard Business Review article, “Who’s Got the Monkey?” William Oncken and Donald Wass wrote that monkeys are a metaphor for tasks or responsibilities that require attention, care, and feeding—a “next move.” Monkeys are everywhere and everyone has them. The most important thing to remember is that we should only take on those monkeys that belong to us. Far too often, we try to be helpful by taking on the care and feeding of others people’s monkeys at the expense of the care and feeding of our own. (“Sure, I’ll take a look at that. Leave it on my desk.” Or “I’ve done that before so let me just take care of that for you.”) Before you let a monkey leap from its rightful owner’s back onto yours, think about how you can be helpful without taking the monkey. Take a coaching approach instead of a hands-on approach and ask, “What else do you think you could do here?” instead of saying, “Let me think about what else you could do here.” Look at your to-do list and see how many monkeys you have that shouldn’t belong to you. Give them back to their rightful keepers!


    6) Delegate respectfully and responsibly.

    Delegation can be hard for both the delegator (“It will just be easier for me to do it myself!”) and the delegatee (“What if I mess this up?”). When you delegate, you’ll need to:

    • Decide what you are going to delegate.

    • Pick the right person to delegate to and explain why you have chosen them.

      • Clarify the responsibilities you are delegating, as well as which ones you aren’t.

      • Describe the results you are looking for as specifically as possible while leaving wiggle room for the other person’s input.

      • Establish how much authority you are giving.

      • Agree on checkpoints, milestones, and feedback.

      • Create a motivating environment.

      • Get out of the way until or unless you are needed.


      7) Organize your workspace.

      If your workspace looks like a tornado hit, chances are it will create anxiety for you. You’ll also waste time looking for items, even if you’re sure you know where everything is! A messy workspace also makes others perceive you as disorganized, out of control, and unprofessional. Carve out a few hours to file and organize your paperwork and toss the junk. Keep the projects that are most important for that day right in front of you. Out of sight means out of mind, and it’s hard to keep procrastinating when your task is staring right at you. Once the clutter is gone, you can focus on getting tasks accomplished. You’ll be in control of the work; the work won’t be in control of you.


      8) Break everything down.

      Large projects can be daunting, and large projects involving multiple stakeholders can be downright overwhelming. First, make a list of everything that needs to get done and note who needs to do each activity. Second, break down each piece into small, “bite-size” chunks. Work backward from your deadline, and for each task ask, “What needs to happen right before that?” To complete your project on time, just follow the schedule. Remember to use the RACI framework to ensure that once you have broken it all down you also know everyone’s role.


      9) Handle mail, paperwork, and e-mail strategically.

      How many times have you read an e-mail and closed it with every intention of dealing with it later never to open it again? From now on, process every e-mail right away. Delete it if it’s junk, move it to a “deal with this today” folder if it’s urgent and requires more than a quick response, send a response if you can, or flag it and schedule a time to deal with it and make a note on your calendar. Whatever you do, don’t just leave the message in your inbox, hoping you’ll remember it later. For old-fashioned paperwork, separate items into piles or folders as you receive them. Decide what needs to be handled now, later, or never. We are moving to a more paperless environment as field staff have tablets to write and file reports. Just because you may in fact be paperless does not mean the rigor of completing paperwork goes away.


      10) Set boundaries.

      If your office is a turnstile of people coming in to chat, clarify your boundaries and give clear signals when you’re

      busy. The balance between wanting to be friendly and available and not being the office chatterbox is delicate. Put a sign on your door that says that you’re working on a deadline or close your door halfway. If someone comes into your office or cubicle at the wrong time, try saying, “I can give you five distracted minutes right now, or I can give you ten minutes of my full attention later. Which do you prefer?”


1) How do you feel when you are procrastinating when deadlines are approaching?

2) What are some of the reasons that prevent you from delegating effectively? How can you overcome those reasons?

3) What opportunities do you have to hunt down and eliminate the “zombie” tasks that require more time than the benefit they produce?

Michael Riegel is a coach, speaker, trainer, author, and a technical professional who has built and led project teams to deliver large-scale projects and programs. He advocates for enhancing leadership and management skills with technical professionals.

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