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Eliminating Time Bandits

Time bandits can often come heavily disguised. They attack you when you least expect it, hold you up, tie you up and take your money. They waste your time and are an inconvenience that could easily be avoided. These bandits come in two major classes.

Reactive Time Bandits are those where you accept assignments from subordinates and end up doing their work for them. This practice was eloquently described in the Harvard Business Review article "who has the monkey?" This is an excellent article to read, but can be quickly summarized as follows. 

Proactive Time Bandits are those where you voluntarily carry out tasks that are below your pay grade. This might include things like going to the bank yourself, signing checks, opening the mail and so on. They occur because you haven't taken a step back to ask yourself why you are handling them yourself, and in the absence of that line of questioning, you will continue to do it for ever and a day.

When somebody comes in to see you with a problem, imagine that the problem is in the form of a monkey sitting on their back. As they describe the problem, the monkey metaphorically has one foot on their back and one foot on yours. They hoping that you will say "leave it with me" or "let me think about it and I'll get back to you", and as you utter those magic words, they heave a sigh of relief and the monkey has been transferred from their back to yours. They leave the office unburdened and you have accepted the responsibility.

The best way to attack Time Bandits of either variety is to go through an exercise to identify which of the most common ones are attacking you. Use the attached template and identify whether or not you are voluntarily carrying out any of these activities or allowing others to steal your time.

Most of them are pretty obvious, but merit some comment anyway:

  • Writing and signing checks. There may be some valid reasons why it is a good idea to sign checks yourself, chief among them being that it is a good way to stay on top of expenses. However, it is worth identifying how much time you take doing so because there may be a more efficient way of accomplishing the same thing. One technique in particular is to look at cancelled checks when they are available from the bank and some interesting information can sometimes be gleaned by looking at the endorsement on the back. There is never any reason that I can see for CEOs to hand write checks.
  • Visiting the bank. Again, I see little reason for CEOs to go to the bank, and I'm continually amazed how quite successful people end up doing this. Their rationale when questioned is that they don't want other people to know their business, and my response is always to ask them whether this is real or just paranoia and to look at the real cost of this behavior. With the advent of check scanning machines there is less and less in need for anybody to actually visit the bank at all, and this is a Time bandit that can easily be eliminated.
  • Reconciling the bank statement. Again, this is one where people cite the need for confidentiality, but reconciling the bank statement is probably a $20 an hour activity, and all that the CEO really needs to do is to make sure that the reconciliation has been properly carried out and to look at it to see whether there is anything that is any kind of flag.
  • Creating a financial statements. A number of new clients that I meet argue that the act of creating financial statements gives them a better understanding of the numbers. While again, this is an activity that is way below the pay grade of any self-respecting CEO, the argument is completely false. I firmly believe that you get a much better overview of the numbers if you are reviewing what somebody else has put together then if you are mired in the activity and doing it yourself. Review is always more powerful than the detailed activity -- something about seeing the wood for the trees.
  • Phone calls and e-mails. This is such a big topic that it is the subject of a separate article.
  • Typing and dictation. Generation X and Y may well have learned some awesome typing skills, but that is not typically the case with anybody over 40. The amount of time that is simply wasted by people typing e-mails and Word documents is astounding, particularly in a day and age when voice recognition software has become very accurate and accessible. While the cost of Dragon NaturallySpeaking is very reasonable, it does take an investment in the right hardware to make it easy to use. It is well worth making the small investment in a powerful machine and a wireless headset so that you can simply pick it up and start dictating whenever and in whatever document you want.
  •  Poor computer skills. Many people have never received any formal training on even Word, Excel or Outlook let alone some of the less mainstream products. It is almost impossible to gauge the amount of time wasted by not using these products to their full potential, and the time and money required to learn enough to make them considerably more useful is infinitesimal in relation to the value that would be received.
  • Poor organization. There are statistics out there that people spend a surprisingly high proportion of their life looking for documents that they have lost. It is well worth taking the time and money to put together a filing system that means that everything has a place and that you can find it when you want it.

Once you have been through this exercise, add any other time wasters of which you are aware, and then look at the items that you said you wanted to change. This change will not happen by itself, and you need to be proactive if it is to happen.

In order to do this you should use the activity in elimination plan which forms part of the Time Management index.


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Time Management Tips

  • When somebody interrupts you when you are busy, don't let them interrupt your train of thought. Ask them to come back and see you at a specific time – you may be surprised that they actually figure out the answer and don't come back to ask you.

  • Everybody has about three hours during the day when they are at their best. Figure out what your "Prime Time" is and then plan your day around it. Make sure that you dedicate that time to focus without interruptions on the activities that are of most value to you.

  • It is all too easy to waste time on phone calls. Keep an egg timer next to the phone to keep track of exactly how long you are talking. It will keep the time you are spending in the forefront of your mind and will help you handle the call more efficiently.

  • Never go to the bank to deposit checks, it is a Time Bandit way below your pay grade, and claiming it is therapeutic and gets you out of the office is deluding yourself. Send somebody else!  Better still, get a check scanning machine...and make sure the bank pays!

  • Organize your office so the door isn't in your immediate line of vision. The big payoff is that people can't appear at your door, hover, catch your eye and distract you. If you make it harder to interrupt you, people may figure out answers themselves rather than asking you.

  • When you have to give out an e-mail address to somebody who's going to send you things you don't want in your inbox, give them a special "junk" e-mail address. Then set up a rule so that everything to that address goes to a folder you review on your timetable.

  • When somebody interrupts you to ask you a question always reply with a question back. Ask them how they would deal with it, and make them think proactively rather than just relying on you. A good technique is to ask: "If I wasn't available today, what would you do?"

  • If your key customers expect you to answer the phone at all times, get an Internet phone line and give them a "VIP" phone number to call. Set it up with a unique ring on your system and you'll know that calls on that line are from your most important customers.

  • Most people have a “To Do” list to record the tasks they need to "Get Done", but it doesn't help identify what you shouldn't do yourself. For that you need a “To Don’t” list. Identify the culprits, put them on the list and defend your time by assigning them elsewhere. 

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone now as the most dangerously effective of all Time Bandits. Turn off your e mail alert and check your e-mail only four times a it on your schedule not the schedule of the people who are interrupting your more productive work.

  • E-mails have overtaken the phone as the most dangerously effective of all time wasters. The worst thing is the e mail alert that pops up on your computer screen. Don't let other people interrupt you in this way and take back control of your time by turning the alert off

  • When somebody interrupts you while sitting at your desk, stand up. It changes the pace of the interaction and sends a message to the interrupter that they have invaded your time. The more you can send this message, the more effective you will become at protecting your time.

  • When somebody comes to you with an issue they should figure out themselves, don't allow yourself to relieve them of the burden and take it on yourself. Instead of saying "leave it with me" when this happens, say "never delegate upwards" and ask them for their solution.

  • Entrepreneurs wear so many of the hats in their business that many of the tasks they carry out are at a level way below the real value of their time. Are you working below your pay grade by not handing off menial tasks that should be done by others?

  • When you are hiring new employees, ask candidates about their time management abilities. The best employees are those that can prioritize their work and handle interruptions, so be sure to ask relevant questions to probe in those areas so that you hire somebody who has those skills.

  • Email has become a huge time-waster and taking control of your Inbox is becoming more critical than ever. The ideal state is only to have things in your Inbox that are important, urgent or time sensitive, and to put everything else automatically into folders using Rules governing what happens when they come in. I’ve been using Outlook Rules for a number of years to sort specific topics, but I recently came across a new rule that makes a dramatic difference.

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Did you know ?

Most people have a “To Do” list to record the tasks they need to "Get Done", but it doesn't help identify what you shouldn't do yourself. For that you need a “To Don’t” list. Identify the culprits, put them on the list and defend your time by assigning them elsewhere.