One of the first directors I worked for at Coopers & Lybrand, Peter Burnham had many attributes, but time management was never one of them. I remember his secretary, Vivien, telling me that a 9:15 meeting was going to be delayed because Peter was already running an hour late. How he managed to lose an hour so early in the morning I didn’t understand nor did I have the energy to ask how.
Peter’s problems with time management did help me improve other consulting skills.
One day Vivien asked me to stand in for Peter because, as always, he was delayed on something else and overrunning. She said I was to go to the Ministry of Defence and stand in for him at a meeting with an Under Secretary.
There were obvious questions to ask such as, what were we meeting about, what were the expectations of the meeting, was Peter going to join us later, and what authority did I have to commit to anything?
‘No idea,’ she said. ‘he just gave me a name, an address and a time. Now off you go.’
She shuffled me out onto Gresham Street, where the taxi she had booked was waiting for me, making sure I had my pad, pen in pocket and the address. Fear was already growing. I can’t remember the outcome, but I survived, and I learnt the lesson of flexibility and phlegm. Thereafter, the prospect of very few client meetings has phased me.
I can’t be sure if it was these experiences but throughout my working career not being late has become important. Simply, it is just impolite to be late for anything, I would much rather be early and wait than be late. If I had planned my time sensibly and all went to plan, I could use the unneeded contingency as extra time for research or go and have a coffee.
Sometimes even contingency doesn’t help. If I am going to be late, I try and phone in my apologies as early as possible to give the other party a chance to reorganise their time and even cancel the meeting.
I am not as manic in my planning as brilliant Scottish comedienne, Susan Calman, who will rehearse a journey a day early by making it. Although catching the bus the day before may be pushing planning, she has a good point. A mental rehearsal doesn’t just improve planning and performance but also time management.
The art of management, I was once told is like the circus skill of juggling. The skill is to quickly throw all the tasks back from where they came, but each time higher and higher. Sadly, what no one ever tells you is that the further and higher they go, the faster they come back.
More so than ever, juggling is a key and essential life skill.
I was thinking about this today as I faced the numerous projects that I have underway. There is this essay to write, two books to edit, one to finish, a final book of children’s poems to get illustrated and a letter to Sasha. There may be enough hours in the day but not enough creative energy.
However, my task list is nothing compared to that of many especially those working mothers who have to juggle complex home and work schedules. It is one of the male stereotypes that we can’t multitask and when I hear what some women have to manage I can understand how right that may be.
This is not one of those pieces that reveal the top ten life hacks to manage your time better. Those are all over the internet and you can waste your own time finding them.
On the other hand, let me give you one thought.
A computer is said to be thrashing when the memory becomes so overloaded that it is paging all the time. It brings applications into memory and then immediately moves them out without doing anything. It spends its time preparing to work and never doing any. Computer performance collapses.
There are times in our life when the to-do list becomes so overwhelming and there is so much to do that we end up doing nothing. Don’t recast your list but just sit down and do something. There are always times when something is better than nothing.