Know thy time

Oct 18, 2020

To manage time effectively, you need to know – not just believe – you are spending time productively.

Remembering the summer camps from my youth, one particular aspect of those experiences sticks in my memory – the movement of time. At camp, time seemed to stretch out ahead of me, but the days felt as if they were flying by. When Friday and the end of camp rolled around, it simultaneously felt as though I had been there for weeks and that it was over so quickly. How? Could it have been the structure and efficiency of Camp Assurance’s well-organized daily schedule? We ate, slept, and packed a lifetime of exploration and adventure into five short days.

I revisit this feeling during a particularly busy and productive week at the office. What is the common denominator? I believe it’s structured time. It happens when I’ve structured my time to do things that matter, purposefully set out to do what matters, and actually accomplish what I’ve set out to do.

In one of his many fantastic books, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker dedicated a chapter to “Know Thy Time.” He recorded countless examples of supervisors, executives, and other knowledge workers – those working with information – spending their time ineffectively.

Drucker quizzed workers about how much time they believed they spent on knowledge work or “primary things.” He had each participant detail their workdays over the course of several weeks and then compared the notes to what they had initially reported. Drucker discovered that there was little correlation between the recorded activity percentages and the time participants believed they were spending on important primary things. Nearly every person had significantly overestimated how much time they spent on primary things. Their time was in fact consumed with less important tasks or “secondary things.”

To manage time effectively and build room for primary things, you need to know, and not just believe, you are spending time productively. It’s too easy to run through a mental list of daily priorities as you head to the office, but you want to compare what you set out to do with what you accomplish. Know thy time.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Bookend your day. Set priorities and “posteriorities,” Drucker’s word for the things that should be at the end of our to-do list. These are the things you make a conscious decision not to do in order to leave room for the things you ought to do. Didn’t read that article that seemed so important two days ago? Let it go.
  • Schedule your day. As I argued in an earlier article for The Zweig Letter, “Get It Done,” break up your day in half-hour chunks, and plan them out on paper. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll be able to stay on task. And if you don’t, that’s OK. Perfection is not the goal but taking control of your day is. Laura Vanderkam, author and speaker on time management, has this easy worksheet.
  • Build time for that two-hour task you know you must do this week – don’t just hope you’ll figure out where to find the time. You have 168 hours each week to use – 168. Doesn’t that sound a little better than 24 hours a day? I think so.
  • Set yourself to the habit of plotting small increments of time to spend on a singular task that adds up to a greater effort over time. Itzhak Perlman, world-renowned violinist and equally gifted teacher, is fond of telling his students “don’t practice so much!” It may seem counterintuitive, but as a violinist of his caliber, his point is don’t sit and practice for hours on end. It’s far more effective to tackle a task by practicing in smaller chunks of time on a regular basis. This works in business too!
  • Determine how much discretionary time you actually have. This is time that is in your direct control and not driven by the daily demands from outside yourself. This will help you fit in those self-directed tasks that are necessary to finishing a project, growing your business, improving a skill, or otherwise growing in your professional life.

Even with the demands of a complex life, we do have the ability to shape our time more effectively. Take time to measure and test your assumptions about how you spend time. Revisit regularly to make sure you’ve made room to pack exploration and accomplishment into one well-organized week. It’s never too late to start managing that gift and making time for what is most important to you.

Ted Ryan is an associate principal at PCS Structural Solutions which provides structural engineering services to clients across markets. Ted can be reached at

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