Dealing with time

Time plays a central role in self-management. Efficient time management not only protects the project manager's health, but also the company's finances. Poorly organised employees tend to work inefficiently. They waste paid working time and thus create costs for their employer for which they receive nothing in return.
The following three success factors summarise the basics of effective time management:
  • Setting priorities
  • Being able to say no
  • Being able to delegate 
These skills can be learned. There are a number of tools available.
A pocket watch


Setting priorities

Setting priorities means separating the essential from the non-essential. In project practice, no one can accomplish everything that would be desirable. Usually there is only time for what is absolutely necessary. Excessive perfectionism tends to be a hindrance in project work. However, project managers need a lot of experience to be able to decide when a task has been worked on thoroughly enough.
Those who still find it difficult to set priorities can create a matrix in which they assign priorities to all tasks per time unit (e.g., the next day, the next week or the next project). It should be noted that tasks can be prioritised according to a content-related performance reference (importance) and a time-related reference (urgency). Tasks can then be dealt with as follows:
  • High urgency and high importance: complete immediately and by yourself,
  • high urgency and low importance: delegate,
  • low urgency and high importance: use the resubmission system and re-sort,
  • low urgency and low importance: take task off the list. 
Based on the so-called Eisenhower matrix, you can set priorities per task:
Prioritisation matrix

Saying no

Many people find it difficult to say no because they are afraid of making themselves unpopular with colleagues and superiors. They fail to realise that being able to say no is essential for survival. Those who cannot do this will eventually suffer from burn-out syndrome: Body and mind fail, and serious physical and mental damage is imminent.
Saying no is not only allowed, but a sign of sovereignty and demanded of project managers. It is important to be friendly and firm. A short explanation such as "Unfortunately, I don't have time for this right now because I have to work on task X" should suffice. It is best to suggest an alternative date or a colleague who can step in to competently handle the task to the person who wanted to give you the additional task.


Delegating tasks is not a sign of weakness, but of (self) management and leadership. If you do everything yourself, you may get things done faster because you save yourself the trouble of explaining and correcting. But at some point, doing everything yourself becomes too much for any project manager - and people get frustrated because they feel they are not trusted to take on these tasks.
Delegating tasks benefits you in many ways:
  • You have more time for the tasks that no one else can do.
  • Delegation is a driver for employee motivation and skills development
  • The productivity of the organisational unit (e.g., team, department) is increased
  • Fewer absences due to overwork of high performers
  • In case of absence of high performers and knowledge carriers, colleagues can easily take over the tasks because they have already been trained.
However, you should be careful not to overburden your employees with tasks that you are unable to complete yourself due to personal time pressures. They may also suffer from a heavy workload. It is therefore best to distribute tasks jointly. You need to make it clear to your staff that they can say no if they feel overworked, without expecting restrictions. Fairness also dictates that you should not delegate tasks that you do not want to do yourself to people of lower rank.
To identify which tasks can be delegated, simply add two columns to the priority matrix.
Matrix for the delegation of tasks
When delegating tasks, you need to
  • explain the task in detail to your employees,
  • make the purpose and objective clear
  • ask questions to make sure they understand
  • set a deadline jointly with your staff
  • check progress and give feedback at agreed times
  • make it clear to employees that they must submit status or immediate reports in the case of extraordinary events,
  • leave room for people's own ideas and ways of working (it's not the style that matters, it's the result that has to fit), and
  • inform the other employees to whom you have assigned which task.

More tips for better time management

Here are some tips on how to manage time. Wasted time is irretrievably lost, so it makes sense to invest time in planning tasks and identifying potential time thieves. Large, unwieldy tasks become manageable when they are broken down into small, manageable bites. How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece! Concentrate on one task at a time, i.e., work on one topic only and switch off sources of interference. For example, switch on the voice mail so that you are not interrupted by incoming calls. Further tips can be found below.

Time inventory

By taking a time inventory, you can find out how you really use your time. The results usually differ from how you feel about your time management. You can work with a table for this purpose:
Matrix for time inventory
First, make a list of the activities carried out for a realistic period of time (e.g. one week). Fill in yes or no in columns A, B, C and D of the table. When you have done this, write down the total duration of all activities. Then add up the durations of the activities that were answered with "No" in each of these columns. For the evaluation:
Are more than ten percent of all activities (column A) unnecessary? Then you should delegate more tasks and set priorities. Is the time spent on more than ten percent of the activities (column B) too high? Look for the causes and try to reduce the time spent in the appropriate places. Is the performance of more than ten percent of the activities (column C) inappropriate? If so, you should revise your planning and (self-)organisation. If the timing is inappropriate for more than ten percent of the activities (column D), you should change your work schedule.

Time planning

Realistic time planning is important because it helps you to structure the time segments sensibly and to keep track of the project work. As a result, you can work more concentrated, put off less and are less stressed. For time planning, the ALPEN method is a good choice. ALPEN is an acronym made up of the following keywords:
  • A = Write down activities, tasks and appointments
  • L = estimate length (duration) of activities
  • P = Plan buffer time
  • E = Establish decisions about priorities, cutbacks and delegation options
  • N = Note down the level of success (transfer unfinished tasks to the plan for the next day) 
In detail, the method is as follows:
Collect all the tasks you want to do in one place. An analogue or digital to-do list is suitable for this. Then realistically estimate how much time you need for each task. To compensate for unforeseen events or delays, plan enough buffer time between tasks. Next, prioritise your tasks and decide which tasks you want to do first. At the end of the day, check that you have completed all the planned tasks and consider whether the estimated time was realistic and what improvements you can make in the future.
The ALPEN method can help you to plan and complete tasks systematically in order to use time more efficiently and reduce stress.

Time management tips

The following tips should help project managers to manage their working time:
  • Think first, then act (aim: you don't have to "row back")
  • Set priorities
  • Take time to stay productive
  • Be punctual to keep track of appointments
  • Keep a calendar with a schedule
  • Organise your desk and keep it tidy to avoid searching for information
  • Start the day early
  • Work through tasks in small steps instead of constantly seeing the huge pile of tasks in front of you
  • Avoid over-researching before making decisions
  • Set a time limit on tasks
  • Plan the next working day the night before
  • Allow 40 % time buffer per day for unforeseen and spontaneous activities
  • Eliminate interruptions (e.g., close door, switch off phone)
  • Use checklists for routine tasks (e.g., preparing a presentation)
In general, it is helpful to write down things that are on your mind at the moment - for example, upcoming tasks, solving a problem, hiring a new colleague, or anything else from the wide range of tasks in the daily project routine. Thoughts that are only in your head keep you busy, and once you have written them down, you can move on to other things.

Concluding words

Time is a project manager's most valuable resource. How you use your time has a significant impact on your happiness, success and overall well-being. Your time management is the key to your personal and professional success. Invest your time wisely, make the most of each day and achieve your goals. It is worth taking the time to reflect on how you use your time and then develop professional time management skills.
As Lucius Annaeus Seneca once said, “It's not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it.” Consider for yourself whether he was right.

Dealing with time - A picture of the author
Author: Dr. Roland Ottmann
Keywords: Project management, Self-management, Time management

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