Being Too Busy: Have You Looked at How You Manage Your Time?


By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC 

As I wrote in a prior article, Does Busyness Really Mean Productivity, some companies encourage expanding workloads, creating questionable tasks, or keeping people occupied under the pretense that their actual activities provide real value. What is the meaning of busy, really? And how are outcomes from efforts measured for value?

Part of the illusion of being busy is that you can master many things at the same time. It certainly would keep you busy (or occupied) but you won’t nurture new skills and discover what your real aptitude is to help yourself and/or your organization.

But what about focusing on fewer activities or functions and perfecting your approach to accomplishing them?

Skill is not created by constantly switching to new things. Skill is created by focusing on a small number of activities and doing them repeatedly. This is what is meant by core competencies.

Consider the basketball player who wants to be the “go to” player in the waning moments of a close game. He or she does not reach this level without each day shooting 250 foul shots or 250 shots from each elbow (Note: for those not into basketball, the “elbow” is the area of the court where the free throw line meets the lane line). He or she does not become the star by practicing 10 or 20 different shots; this is achieved by practicing three shots 250 times each. This thinking can be applied to how work is approached each day to gain an optimal level of time management.

Fundamental Steps in Time Management

Just like in basketball, where there are a few key steps, such as a stutter step, a pivot, a stop and go, a crossover dribble, etc., there are some key steps in time management that can make your work day more manageable. They take only five minutes each or so to complete, but can result in twice as much work being completed every day. Like anything you want to perfect (whether in work or recreation), you have to stay committed to following through on them daily.

First Step: Make your list but limit it to the four or five most important tasks

Usually when you ask people to make a list of tasks for their day, they will come up with 15 or 20 items. We cannot begin to read their minds as they create the list. How do they define what is important and what has to be done that day? Have they simply done a brain dump of what they think has to be done, or did they take prioritization into consideration? Is there really a badge of honor in having a long list?

Long lists go back to my thesis of whether more “to dos” evince “busyness” or real productivity. Sure, you can be busy, but will it result in productivity and, more important, accomplishments? If you spend each day trying to whittle down the list, it does not mean you are being productive; it could mean you are expending needless energy on actions that in the scheme of things should have been back-burnered or simply eliminated. Instead, develop your priorities, identify the four or five items that share the same level of importance, and work to complete them by the end of the day.

And by the end of the day, I don’t mean 11:59 pm. If you have to work 14- or 16-hour days, then you will have to re-examine the items you selected as priorities.

Second Step: Address it only once 

There are all sorts of correspondence we receive each day, and some are even paper-based. Every day we look at the same email(s) or drafts and know we have to address them, but realize they don’t fit within our time schedule or priority list. What is one to do?

If it becomes normal for you to review what’s in front of you twice each day for a full year, this could amount to a complete month or more of rereading and touching the same information without ever taking action. You have a choice if you look at the same item(s): take it to next step, delegate to someone, or simply get rid of it. If you choose the latter, there is a sense of relief, of freedom, of sheer control over your schedule.

There are some time management consultants who have offered the advice about each time you pick up something or read an email or any other correspondence. They advise putting a red dot or some type of indicator on the item. Once you have made three dots or marks, you start to feel some action must be taken. So, if you touch it or read it, then deal with it, delegate it, or discard it. Your psyche will thank you for it.

Third Step: Determine the amount of time to address each item

You began your day by spending a few minutes identifying four or five items you considered to be priorities. Take one more minute to assess the time that will be required to complete each item, or perhaps set a certain limit on how much time you will allocate to each item, irrespective of whether you finish them.

Fourth Step: Plan when you will address the items on your list

After calculating the time you plan to spend on each task, you have to plan when you will address them. To be realistic, you have to pad in some time because nine out of ten times there will be that pesky little matter that unexpectedly pops up screwing up your momentum; and of course, it will (surely?) need your immediate focus.

There are times that you can counteract the unexpected. If someone asks you for a minute or two to chat, politely convey that it will have to wait because you are on a deadline. The person need not know what your priority is; all that is required is the respect accorded the individual and the courtesy the individual provides in return.

For most practice or company leaders, their day is scheduled down to the minute: priorities are allocated a certain time limit so “have a moment to chat” possibilities are factored in. The key, however is the creation and adherence to a schedule to optimize time management.

Fifth Step: Evaluate the results of your planning

Few people are productive in the truest sense of the word; most people are just busy. People live with lists so that they can cross off items to give them a sense of accomplishment. But what are the items being crossed off? My guess is they are not the most difficult and will not yield the biggest bang for the buck. They either get pushed down on the list or postponed to the next day, or day after that. This cycle will continue unabated until the definition of priority is clear.

Challenge yourself. Schedule the most important items at the start of your day to maintain your focus. At the end of the day, you can see what is remaining. If those items don’t reflect the same level of importance, then employ the three-option approach: address it, delegate it, or discard it.

Make Discipline a Habit and Maintain It 

Your mindset or attitude can be influenced by repetition (e.g., foul shooting) or direct action (even if it involves delegation). Consistent practice will enable you to alter your behavior when it comes to productivity and managing your time.

Some studies have shown that developing a habit can take as little as 21 days or it can take up to 66 days. It depends. It can also take years depending on the individual. The bottom line: identify what you want to improve. If it is managing your time: plan it, execute it, monitor it, and modify it if necessary.

The more you think about the why rather than the what of a task, the more you will be in control of your day, and your life.

Workplace stress is common. If you want to lower yours, here are some simple tips to stay focused and calm:

–       Learn to say “no.” Not every request has to be accepted, so in a diplomatic way indicate the organization’s current priorities. Your direct reports and bosses will (should) understand.

–       Ask for assistance. Seek help from your co-workers or colleagues to help manage the workload. As an added bonus, this collaboration can help reduce everyone’s stress.

–       Take time to plan. Plan your day according to priorities rather than jumping to a last-minute demand that is not in alignment with your plans.

–       Rethink preconceived notions. Not all tasks have to be handled just because they always have. Don’t waste time on tasks that are not relevant to your organization’s objectives.

–       Streamline meetings. Start with a clear agenda and invite only those people who are integral to accomplishing the tasks.

–       Achieve those things only you can do. Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. You may be able to do the work better than others, but that’s not the point. Limit activities to what you are responsible for.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at