Effective Time Management for the Project Manager

TimeManagementIf it is one thing that project managers are overly familiar with, it is the concept of time and scheduling. There are seldom instances where some form of time management, schedule management and general milestone management is not being monitored in some way, shape or form by a project manager.

What is often striking however, is the disconnect that often occurs between a project manager’s effectiveness at monitoring time and schedules for their project, yet concurrently, they often seem rushed or stressed on a day-to-day basis for the simple reason that they are not monitoring their own time effectively. It may seem like a paradox, but it occurs with pretty common frequency in the corporate setting, and is certainly by no means limited to just project managers. The notion of effective time management spans all disciplines and fields.

What is obvious, however, is that from a project management perspective, being able to manage time effectively carries extra weight. A project manager that seems to be always rushing and functioning in a ‘seat of the pants’ fashion is likely not going to be looked upon with confidence if they are being asked to manage a multi-million dollar project with multiple resources and various milestones.

Time Wasters

To understand time management, it is important to first understand those things which conspires against it; i.e. the specific things that occur regularly which cause a project manager to run out of time to complete their duties. These ‘time robbers’, as they are sometimes referred to can consist of the following:

  • Inundation of emails, telephone calls,etc
  • Too many ‘casual’ office conversations
  • Procrastination
  • Too many (and often, unnecessary) meetings
  • Micro-managing
  • Lack of technical knowledge
  • General work overload
  • Conflicting priorities
  • Inability to say ‘no’

That above is just a sample; there are many others. But the point of the exercise is to identify those things which are most troublesome from the standpoint of a specific project manager’s time management. While all factors contribute in little ways, the additive effect of all these time wasters functioning in unison can rapidly deplete the amount of time a project manager has to complete their specific duties.

Arguably, one of the more pervasive time wasters is the inability to say ‘no’. As humans, we are always eager to please. We want to be helpful and we want to be available to provide our skills to someone as needed. Yet success at one’s job can often lead to more and more work being allocated. Once a manager determines you are effective at getting things done, especially in relation to your peers, that manager will look to you more frequently whenever a particular task needs completion. The problem is, not all managers are fully cognizant of how much work they may be offloading on a particular individual at the expense of their regular duties. So from the perspective of the project manager, it is imperative that one provide feedback as needed if you are feeling overloaded. One should certainly not use this as a crutch, but most in the management space will immediately give you breathing room if you ask for it, especially if you have a track record of delivering in the past. The last thing a manager would want to happen is one of their star employees leaving for a position elsewhere because they were being overloaded with work while others seemed to be getting a free pass.

Time Management Techniques

When it comes to being more effective at managing one’s time, there are a variety of different methods that one can leverage to assist in that matter. The first step is to categorize the time wasters (as shown in the example list above). A simple way of doing this is to create a standard checklist and each time a particular time waster rears its ugly head, at a check mark next to that time waster on your list. Continue that exercise during the day and even as long as a week if you feel it necessary. Once complete, you will be able to see more readily which time wasters are having the largest effect on your particular time management woes.

Depending on which time wasters are causing you the most grief, there are a variety of different management techniques that one can leverage in specific cases. The following is a list of some of these techniques (in no particular order) that can be beneficial to the project manager in their quest to become more efficient:

  1. Delegate responsibility – Do not be afraid to pass off tasks as needed to subordinates or members of the project team. Remember, you are not superman and if you attempt to do everything yourself, you will often wind up not doing anything particularly well. Not to mention you will appear as though you lack faith in those around you, which can lead to animosity within the team.
  2. Learn to make quick decisions – It may seem almost obvious, but we often brood over a decision, second guessing ourselves to the point of internal confusion. Any time this occurs, and with each decision pondered, the more time spent on each decision means more overall time used. The best technique is to make a policy to make the trivial decisions quickly. More complex decisions can then be given more time (as they should).
  3. Run effective meetings – By this, do your best to ensure meetings are well organized and stay on topic. Additionally, make sure the right people attend the right meetings. It is a well known occurrence that meetings can sometimes grow organically (Outlook forwarding can be the root of all evil). As such, meeting attendance can often increase to the point of absurdity, where too many voices lead to nothing being accomplished. (If you don’t believe me, watch CSPAN sometime) Keeping your meetings lean and efficient will ensure proper topics are covered effectively and that off-topic conversations are kept to a minimum.
  4. Tackle difficult parts first – By this, it means looking at your task list and trying to get the more complex and difficult tasks out of the way ahead of time. By dealing with them first, you can be more assured that the more easy tasks should not cause you grief if time is beginning to run out. Additionally, more complex tasks are usually the ones most valuable to the upper brass, which means getting them completed ahead of time will be viewed upon favorably and will also mitigate any potential issues of more mundane or smaller tasks being late a few days.
  5. Manage your travel – There are some individuals who feel that they can simply not get things done if they are not face-to-face with another individual. In small settings, that is fine. But in a global scenario, where resources may not only span time zones but continents as well, this is often not feasible. As such, it is important to reduce unnecessary travel as much as possibly. Travel in and of itself, is a time waster. Between airports, security, hotel stays and car travel to and from locations, it is not difficult to see how a HUGE amount of time could be wasted in these situations. If travel is required, try to coordinate travel with multiple meetings and tasks simultaneously so as to maximize that particular trip as much as possible.
  6. Overcome procrastination – It may almost seem like a no-brainer, but this is one of the more pervasive, yet completely controllable aspects of time management. Day dreaming, internet surfing, casual chatting and what not can all add up. Now one does not need to become a robot or a hermit to achieve optimal work efficiency, but it is important to at least reduce those things that may be causing excessive procrastination and cutting into your work time. This is when the log of time wasters will become effective.
  7. Learn to say no – As was mentioned earlier, it is important to understand your limits. You may be easy to please and you may be eager, but you are also only human. As such, recognize the fact that you cannot do everything and that sometimes, you simply have to say you are busy with other things right now. Note that saying ‘no’ does not only mean telling the boss you are overloaded. It also means explaining it to your peers who may be asking for assistance. In most cases, if you give them a valid reason, they will understand. Sometimes, you may have no choice and if that is the case, you will simply need to re-prioritize.

Dealing With Burnout

We’ve all been there. Stress levels have reached their maximum levels, you are in a constant daze and your energy level is zapped. At that point, burnout has been achieved. When this has occurred, you should immediately take a step back and reassess the situation. Remember: in this state, your work is going to suffer and trying to work through burnout will often lead to errors and general low quality of work. If at all possible at this stage, find a way to take a break, even if it means a sick day. An impromptu three day weekend can do wonders for you. Also, if you decide to take a break, unplug yourself immediately, which means avoid email if at all possible and just try to let your mind detach for a few days. Focus on some things you find enjoyable and try to avoid other external stresses (once again, avoid CSPAN) and shut off the 24hr news stations. You may be surprised how a simple few days of relaxation and downtime can refresh you and re-energize you.