I don’t know if it’s because I work in the pool and spa industry or if this is common to other fields, but I know a great many people who run businesses who are ill-prepared to do so.
Architects and landscape architects might have taken some classes that introduced them to basic business principles, but their counterparts in the pool and spa trades are far less likely to have taken such classes and tend to run things by the seat of their pants.
In my case, I’ve learned what I know about business through seminars and business-oriented reading. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way and wish I’d had formal training that would have simplified things for me, but I’ve been diligent about trying to catch up and improve my business skills as I go.
Two huge topics I’ve been focusing on lately are time management and goal setting, which is what I’ll be discussing in this column and the next.
PLANNING TO PLAN
Time management and goal setting are interrelated: The goals you set will dictate many of your priorities, which in turn guide you in planning your time. By the same token, efficiently managing your time enables you to pursue your long-term game plans on a daily basis.
Although they are interrelated, I still place time management first on my chart of priorities.
When you manage your time effectively, you have more time to think about what you’re doing, both day-by-day and over the long haul. You have time to reflect and plot your course and decide where you want to go and what you need to do to get there. This is important in so many ways that I’d think it would be self-evident to everyone, which is why I’m amazed by how many people I met who appear to have little or no control over their own time.
For me, resolving time management issues all flows from the ability to visualize how you get things done. In this, business owners and managers aren’t unlike championship athletes in the degree to which visualization keys success. In fact, if you take nothing else away from this column, I urge to recognize that when you can visualize something, you stand a far greater chance of seeing it come to fruition.
In practical terms, time management begins with the simple recognition that each day is made up of a list of things we intend to do. Some people keep their lists in their heads, while others use calendars. Some use elaborate scheduling programs in their computers, while others cram all they can into handheld data assistants.
For my part, I use a combination of pen and paper and a handheld device that carries my calendar, key contacts and other important bits of information.
I bring up hardcopy methods vs. digital technology early on because it’s important for everyone to find their own comfort level with what’s available today. In my case, I don’t need to be in constant communication with my e-mail, nor do I need up-to-the-minute stock prices or to be in contact with the outside world 100% of the time. As a result, a whole lot of intriguing technology is just over the top and not worth the time it would take me to integrate it into my working life.
That said, I would be lost without my electronic organizer, which I use to schedule events up to two years out. It’s very helpful with details, although I’ve learned the hard way that it’s important to back it up on my desktop computer back home.
I’ve come to depend on this device, but a far more ordinary system guides me daily: I make lists. I use a clipboard and pads of legal paper for listing everything I need to do in a given day, business and personal. And as I progress throughout the day, I take pride in crossing items off of my list.
Keeping lists is one thing, but assessing the importance of various tasks and prioritizing what you do can be quite another.
We all know how easy it is to get wrapped up with the small things and never get to the major projects at hand. For myself, I consciously assess the relative importance of smaller tasks and the benefit or payoff they provide, then select a handful that I will take care of before jumping on a major, more time-consuming job. My desire here is to keep the small tasks from piling up and getting to a point where they provide all the distraction of a much bigger task.
Business educators offer a variety of techniques for prioritizing. Some praise numeric systems in which a “value” is assigned to each task based on its benefit relative to the time it will take. To me, that seems like yet another time-consuming task all by itself, and I’m perfectly fine with being more subjective.
However you choose to proceed, the key is remembering, first, that you need to have a list of some kind in order to prioritize tasks at all and, second, that you need a system for assessing the importance of the things you put on your list.
This same “sorting principle” also works when it comes to keeping paperwork straight. Most busy people I know have piles of papers in their offices, and I’m among those who is comfortable with a moderate level of clutter around me. Some people work with extraordinary piles of stuff around them at all times. It’s all about finding a comfort level and having some way of working through the clutter to accomplish tasks that need to be accomplished.
Through the years, I’ve developed a simple filing system. I have two rolling cabinets in which I keep all of my active job files in alphabetical order. The files contain all information relevant to the project, and they are always within easy reach from a project’s earliest phases through completion. When a job is finished or appears as though it’s not going to move forward for whatever reason, I transfer those files to a less accessible storage area.
In addition, I maintain on my desk two key piles to which I am constantly adding and subtracting. One is a pile of items that I will “get to, time permitting” that are not on my to-do lists. The other is a stack of things that I will need down the road at some point. These piles are diverse and range from information about items I’ve ordered to notes about some sort of correspondence I must compose or just something I need to read or act on for some reason or another.
If I had to point to a weakness in my behavior, it’s that I need to do a better job of putting things in files, particularly items that don’t go in job folders but are either personal in nature or relate to some general aspect of the business. I tend to allow these items to accumulate so that I can “do all my filing at once” – the ultimate procrastinator’s excuse.
In addition to your own “stuff,” other people have an obvious role in your ability to manage time.
One of my favorite old sayings is, “If you want something done, find a busy person.” It underlines the fact that there are certainly people who will accelerate your progress and those who will just as certainly waste your time.
If you’re an employer, you have the wonderful opportunity to delegate activities and distribute tasks among your staff. I don’t have a staff any more, but when I did, I was well aware of the advantages and disadvantages that came with working that way: Some will help in managing time effectively; others will drain away your ability to work with any efficiency at all.
As a manager, you need to step back, assess priorities and evaluate the talents of employees to be able to delegate tasks effectively. As a rule, if you can assign a task and know that it will be done reliably and finished to your own standards, then the job is well assigned. If you can’t delegate with that degree of comfort, you’ll almost certainly find yourself thinking that you’re better off doing something yourself – and a new time-management crunch is born.
Employees aren’t the only folks who will waste your time. When you meet vendors, clients or colleagues, there’s a natural tendency to engage in discussions that are not directly related to business. This is ultimately a good thing that makes doing business enjoyable, and I fall into it easily because I’m an affable guy.
Even so, I’ve come to realize that I need to keep things moving when I meet people face to face, and I’ve hit on a couple tactics that help me do just that. When I need a discussion to take place with a minimum of extraneous conversation, for example, I stand during the meeting, either next to my drafting table or someplace else where the discussion can comfortably take place. I do so because when people sit down, they tend to settle in and ramble on.
I also listen carefully in meetings, and when I feel we’re drifting I’ll speak up and say what I think is on the other person’s mind. If I’m on target (or even if I’m not), I find that it spurs the conversation back to a constructive direction.
I also like to schedule my meetings in bunches – for two reasons: First, the fact that there’s a “next” appointment gives me a reason to speed things along or wrap them up. Second, I find that moving through a sequence of similar tasks is more effective than constantly changing gears.
(Similarly, I prefer to work to completion of a given task when I’m on my own. If I’m doing design work, for example, I find that I’m better off finishing a certain phase of the work rather than leaving it for later. It saves time in transition and lets me use my own momentum to accelerate the work.)
Of course, the dynamics are different if more than two people are involved in the meeting. You need more patience and persistence to keep things on track, and often your best efforts will fall short. In a nutshell, this is why agendas are so important: They’re designed to remind groups that there really is business to be done in a systematic way.
I’ve often heard that some people in positions of responsibility feel guilty about time they feel they’ve wasted. It’s certainly true that successful people often get that way because they get things done and don’t let time get away from them. Still, I think we all need to keep things in perspective.
Almost all of us can afford to improve our time-management skills, but every day is different, every project is different and everyone you meet brings a different set of skills, interests and personal characteristics to a given situation. As a result, it’s only reasonable to expect that you can never be completely in control of your use of time when other people are involved.
I’d even argue that it’s silly to think you should eliminate all the “time wasters” from your life, because some of them are good for you. Just as you prioritize the items on your to-do list, I believe it’s important to weigh the value of those things that you can readily identify as time wasters.
On a personal level, I often challenge my own policy of returning all phone calls on the same business day whenever possible. In strict time-management terms, I recognize that not every call I receive qualifies with same-day priority and that I could probably put off a great many of these calls.
Just the same, because I believe that promptly returning calls is important for the message it sends about the way I do business (and because I believe it’s the courteous thing to do), I hold fast to this sometimes-inefficient use of time. I can’t, however, say the same thing about my habit of occasionally playing a game of computer solitaire while I wait for my dial-up modem to connect to the Internet – and promise myself once again to sign up soon for DSL.
As I mentioned at the outset, time management is a personal issue that requires you to strike your own balances and establish your own routines and methods of organization – things that work for you in your own circumstances. I don’t think it much matters what those measures are, so long as you make an effort.
As I also mentioned, the most important point in all of this is that you need to step back and take the time to assess what you do and how you do it. I’ve been asked from time to time how I manage to keep all the plates spinning and all the balls in the air. No matter the metaphor, my answer is always the same: I take time to think.
If you allow yourself that space, then you’ll be able to make good use of the many educational materials available about management. If you don’t, then all the advice in the world will do little good because you’ll always be rushing from one task to the next.
Next time: Using the time you spend thinking about what you’re doing to set goals that will help you keep time on your side.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].