Have you got the time?

May 2011

Close up of a clock faceInnovators use time well and probably don’t multitask. BCS author Pat Brans, passes on tips from a high-flyer.

Scott Goldman was the first CEO of the WAP Forum, the standards body that made it possible to browse the internet from a cell phone. He has also started several companies capitalising on mobile technology and he now runs an SMS gateway and software company. But Scott isn’t just a businessman - he’s also a technology and time management fanatic. It’s no wonder his friends call him ‘The Wireless Wizard’.

Even though he spends much of his time working with cutting-edge technology, and finding ways to change the world with new handheld gadgets and wireless networks, Scott thinks one of the best uses of a smartphone is as a simple time management tool. The idea is to get an objective view of how you spend your time and how your moods and energy levels vary throughout the day. With this knowledge, you can make changes in how you plan your day.

You don’t need a fancy device for this - in fact, it works for anybody who has a cell phone with a minimal set of features. The method involves tracking what you do over a period of three days. You shouldn’t worry about small things - just try to note the approximate start time and duration of all activities that take more than five minutes.

At the end of the three days, you can look back at your notes and see what you’ve done. You can get a pretty good view of where you waste time, and you can spot where your mood changes. Most people don’t need to actually note their moods - they usually remember how they felt when they carried out an activity. If this is not the case for you, go ahead and record something about your mood as it evolves throughout the day.

There are several ways of implementing this technique, depending on the type of handheld you have. If you have a smartphone, you can use the notes function to jot down what you do, or use the calendar function to maintain a basic diary of activities. You can even use a spreadsheet. At the very least, you can record voice memos: simply speak memos to yourself throughout the day, then go back later to listen to what you’ve recorded.

There’s no need to worry about details. Just put down enough information to allow yourself to recognise each task. You should include things like drive time, eating time, the time you spend getting dressed, and the time you spend chatting at the water cooler.

Note in particular interruptions - experts have estimated that so-called multitasking can be a distraction and the effort required to re-focus one’s attention back to a specific task often mitigates the advantages of doing several things at once.

Lump it

As a result of this exercise, you might notice where you get distracted. Instead of looking at your email and making phone calls throughout the day, you might find ways of lumping these activities together to free yourself to move other things forward. If you aren’t blocking off chunks of time for focused effort, it will show up through this process.

Some successful people, like Scott, tend to block out time for phone calls and emails during the day, letting calls go to voicemail and emails collect in the inbox for a while. ‘It can be much more efficient to run down a list of 10-20 emails in one sitting than to handle them in real-time as they arrive,’ says Scott.

Look for ways you might schedule tasks to fit your mood. For example, some people experience a dip right after lunch and are not in the mood for rigorous intellectual activity. These people should try to schedule mentally-intensive work at a different time of the day. Scott has discovered that his most effective focusing time is very early morning before the flow of communications picks up speed.

You don’t need to do this all the time. Just repeat the three-day process every couple of months. After looking over what you do, note what you decide to do differently and keep track of those notes over the year to make sure you’re making progress. Sometimes we make huge leaps without realising it, because we have no way of measuring change. When this happens, we deprive ourselves of the satisfaction of having accomplished what we set out to do.

‘The trick is to use the technology to control the ebb and flow of your work instead of allowing it to overwhelm you,’ says Scott. ‘Wireless technology helps keep me connected but I’m not averse to using the Off switch when appropriate.’ A wizard’s point of view, indeed.

Pat Brans is the author of the BCS book Master the Moment.

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