Sometimes it all just comes down to personal productivity.
"Okay," you ask, "why would I want to read yet another article on time management?"
Because you're still struggling with the task of controlling your time. According to a lot of journalists who write on practice management topics as I do, the number one complaint they hear from advisors is that they wished they could manage their time more effectively.
Well, most of what I know about time management I learned from Peter Drucker (no post-primate relation, as far as I know), the renowned management consultant who died in 2005. So if you'd rather get what I know directly from the source, pick up a copy of The Effective Executive (HarperCollins Publisher, 1967). Although written 40 years ago, it's one of those timeless books that is just as valuable today as it was then. Another bonus is that it dates back to a time when Drucker wrote books short enough to be read from cover to cover in one or two sittings.
Modern time management is a blend of the fundamentals espoused by Drucker and today's technology, including Web-based application service providers, desktop information management systems, and handheld devices. First, I'll walk you through the fundamentals; then I'll discuss how to execute them.
Step One is to put down on paper your ideal time allocation. Yes, this is a lot like developing a client's ideal asset allocation, except we're talking about your life -- and time--as its essential element. How much time would you like to ideally spend each day on things of importance to you? What does your list look like if you convert it to one of those pie charts you show your clients?
Step Two is to keep a diary, sort of like what you have your clients do to bring their expenses under control. For at least three days that are representative of your life, or a full week if possible, keep a log of where your time goes. I don't mean just time at your desk, but all of your time. At the end of the week, you should have a fairly good idea of how many hours you spent:
On work-related activities, such as.
On non-work-related activities, such as...
Now, do another pie chart and compare your ideal and actual time allocations. Alarmed by the disparity between the two pies? Then read on. Like the client who is shocked to learn for the first time how much money his family spends frivolously, you will probably be surprised to discover the amount of time you spend on tasks you neither enjoy nor greatly value.
Step Three is to take a hard look at why you're spending time on activities to which you've assigned a low priority. Be honest with yourself. For example, many advisors do administrative chores when they know they should be marketing or spending time with class-A clients because those chores give them the satisfaction of a job completed quickly (unlike the care and feeding of clients). Others do administrative work simply as a psychological escape from more-demanding work.
Get Control of Your Phone
Another game we play is to take every phone call that comes in, no matter how much it interrupts our priority work. Most of us are outgoing. It's part of what makes us successful. We want that social contact--by phone if not in person. (You know you're a member of this category if you consider your cell phone an item of clothing.)
Some people might argue that phone calls and social contact are necessary. I say everything in moderation. If you rationalize overly long conversations with this line of thinking, you just may be borrowing time from what you know are your higher priorities.
Yes, I am subject to the same temptations as you. It's hard not to answer every call: from would-be clients, actual clients, wannabe financial advisors, friends, family, doctors' offices, charitable organizations, brokers, even wrong numbers. The phone will take over your life if you let it. Is it really your desire to let anyone who calls have that precise moment of your time? If so, you've just ceded control of your day to every mutual fund wholesaler who just happens to be in your neighborhood next Thursday, convinced you'll clear your calendar for him without hesitation.
Clients don't care as much about a human voice as you think they do. Are you impressed when a live secretary channels your call to the voicemail box of the person you wanted to speak to? No, but you are impressed if that person gets back to you without delay.
If you're a sole practitioner, get caller ID. Whomever you are, use the phone judiciously.
Often, the high-priority work that contributes directly to our own financial success is work that requires blocks of time when we shut our doors and turn off our phones and e-mail. We all know what it's like to land a new client or start a big deal, to get involved in the many attendant details, and then to get sidetracked by something else. If we don't get back to our client or our deal for a couple of days, we will probably have replaced all the pertinent data that was firmly lodged in our short-term memory with different information. That means we'll waste time reviewing information we already analyzed and processed once.
In a perfect world, work would flow in a linear fashion and new opportunities would arise just as past opportunities were fully exploited. There would be little need to manage time. But we know life doesn't work that way. To achieve the same efficiency that would naturally arise from a perfectly linear work flow, we must create blocks of time in every chaotic day when we can minimize interruptions and maximize our attention to priorities. Am I advocating that you not immediately return calls from important clients? Maybe. Your secretary's sick and the bills haven't gone out; should you let them go until tomorrow? Perhaps.
Prioritize and Delegate
Make an honest assessment of just how important each of your typical day's interruptions really is. Would anything suffer if you did whatever is necessary to free up180 consecutive minutes? Could you make serious progress on a critical project, a new business opportunity, or on your next marketing triumph if you could just get this time to yourself?
"Yeah, but what happens if some of those other things don't get done?" you ask. They won't, at least not by you. You're either going to learn to be a better delegator or these things will assume the lower priority they probably deserve. Most of us are high achievers and, therefore, guilty of scheduling more than we have time for in a day. We're not going to get to everything, no matter how we structure our time. So why not structure it to do the important things?
In reality, nothing has to get lost completely. That's where technology comes into the picture. Whether you prefer to run your sedentary life from a desktop computer, or assume the more mobile style of a smartphone, begin to keep your to-do lists in only one place. No more Post-Its, no more multiple calendars, and no more trusting your memory.
My life is in my CRM, the conduit for every task or event important enough that it must not be forgotten. If you want a useful gauge of whether you are achieving this level of organization, look around your desk. If there are a few neat piles of paper representing current, high-priority projects you are working on, that's fine. If you can't see your desktop and you have sticky notes on your computer monitor, then you're treading water. That stuff is a distraction; get it off your desk and into whatever device you've chosen for prioritizing your life and ensuring that your actual and ideal pie charts stay within reasonable proximity of one another.
Another key to time management (and most of us have heard this before, but may not be practicing it) is to review your calendar first thing each morning before doing any work. (Type A people will do this the night before). Review your day's goals and re-prioritize items on your list, as necessary. If the list is too long, then re-prioritize by moving tasks into the future until the list looks like something that can be realistically completed in the number of hours you care to work that day.
Having established your priorities, decide when you want to do the high-priority work. I'm a morning person, which is great since most people aren't. I'm also an early riser. I've had breakfast, reviewed my priorities for the day, and am ready to isolate myself for the day's most important work by 7 a.m. most mornings. At that hour, I don't have to worry about many interruptions. I find that if I can get a three- or four-hour block of time set aside for my highest priority of the day, I can pretty effectively manage my entire work life (a small number of clients, monthly article deadlines for five financial planning publications, and a monthly newsletter).
None of this is to say you shouldn't take breaks. I hate being chained to a desk. But you have to develop discipline in the types of breaks you take. If your idea of a break is taking that ill-timed call from your chatty client, then you're giving up control of your time. But if you take a break to read an article or two you've set aside from your required-reading pile, then you can be reasonably assured you will remain in control. I knew one planner who would reward himself with 10 minutes, several times a day, to play Solitaire. (He remembered to stop after 10 minutes by setting a timer.)
Sure, all high-priority items on your list must eventually be attended to. And most of the time, these tasks seem darned important, even reaching crisis proportions on occasion. Practice putting them aside. Reflect on each new day in which you've managed to insert a block of productive time. By the end of the day, did you really regret having to put off until tomorrow a lower-priority task? Hopefully, you will feel more satisfied because you accomplished more of the things you consider truly important.
Time management is a lot like financial planning. You have to start out with a close look at where your time goes. Then think about where you want your time to go. Finally, develop a plan to get from here to there. Create blocks of time, while identifying and controlling time-wasters. And let some dust collect on that telephone while you're at it.
Get practice-building tips and information from our team of experts delivered to your e-mailbox every Thursday. Sign up for our free Practice Builder e-newsletter.