Making Every "Business Minute" Count: Maximizing the Dollar Value of your Time

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”

William Penn

Two things that business owners have in common are that (1) we survive by translating our time into dollars and cents; (2) the clock is more often an enemy than a friend. There are ways, however, to rethink how we look at both our priorities and our time that can help. The rewards for those who are willing to do so include better efficiency, less stress, and last but not least, improvements on the bottom line.

Some months back, I ran a seminar on time management sponsored by a local chamber of commerce. A full contingent of participants, all professionals, had registered to attend and had paid for the session up front. All of these people were interested in discovering ways of using their time more effectively and avoiding the problems associated with falling behind in their busy schedules. 

Interestingly enough, all of the attendees except two were late. The latecomers trickled in one by one, sheepishly voicing apologies and excuses for their tardiness. I found the irony of that situation to be humorous, but also informative. It suggested that the inability to manage time itself can take on a life of its own, actively thwarting efforts to change it.

Effective time management:  A prerequisite for success

Success in any domain is all about using one’s time in ways that are conducive to the accomplishment of one’s own predetermined goals. If you closely observe people who are successful in their professional activities, you’ll see that they are very attuned to the passage of time and are finicky about how they use it. To quote Ben Franklin, “Time is money.”

Even their leisure time is not squandered— it’s invested. They use it to reward themselves for past successes, to relax, recharge, and to prepare themselves for future constructive efforts. In contrast, their less successful counterparts treat it as “downtime” and often squander it.

Adherence to a clear set of values

Whether the domain is athletics, science, art, or business, high performance starts with an active awareness of one’s values, and an unwavering commitment to acting in ways that are consistent with them. 

Most experts agree that written mission statements, complete with specific goals and action plans are highly conducive to success. Likewise, businesses that adhere to well defined written strategic plans invariably outperform those that “fly by the seat of their pants.”

Deciding what we’re not going to do

Success in any domain also means eliminating a lot of possibilities. In a society that has gone overboard with the concept of positive thinking and “can do” attitudes, many people have lost sight of one of the most important foundations of success— a proper regard for the concept “can’t.”

Acting in accord with deeply held values means avoiding activities that are not consistent with them. Many people repeatedly fail in their attempts to manage their time better because they focus on “to do’s,” but then omit the important practice of clearly articulating the “don’t’s” that make the “do’s” possible.

More often than not, it’s a failure to consider the “don’t’s” that derails you.  Procrastination is generally thought of as failing to do what one should, but it usually consists of engaging in activities of low value rather than simply doing nothing.  Articulating what we’re not going to be doing is something that can be highly beneficial, but is generally overlooked when we think about time management. 

Time management vs. self management

If you stop and think for just a moment, the term “time management” is probably a misnomer. The late, great Steven R. Covey, master of personal effectiveness, recommended that we get rid of it altogether and think in terms of “self management.”    

He’s right— we can’t do anything to time. We can’t control its passage, nor can we really create more or less of it. We can however, regulate ourselves relative to it. Not just our behavior— we can rethink how we look at ourselves, how we decide what’s important, and how to prioritize our activities.

The error of equating “urgent” with “important”

According to Steve Covey, one problem a lot of people have is that they confuse what’s “urgent” with what’s “important.” People who make the most effective use of their time are keenly aware that these are two different dimensions along which priorities may be evaluated.  

Urgent pertains to windows of opportunity— ”do it now or it will be too late.” An open window is closing, but does it matter? A lot of things are urgent, but not really important (e.g., “If I drop everything and leave now, I’ll get home in time to watch “The Kardashians”).

In contrast, some things are very important, and yet not urgent. For example, filing your income taxes is important, but if it’s only January or February, it’s by no means urgent—yet. 

If you put it off until the second week of April however, it suddenly becomes both urgent and important, not to mention a lot more stressful than it needed to be.

Applying this to business activities

Having a good sense of your business activities as well as what’s important can be a good guide to understanding how you currently use your time and how to put it to much better use. 

Try this. Start with a detailed and accurate accounting of your time during your work days. If you’re like most people, such an account will shock you in terms how much time you waste and what might actually have been accomplished.  

You can then use both the shock and your findings as the basis for making your days more productive and less stressful by applying the following steps:

• Clearly distinguish between the urgency and importance of each of your activities (be honest and put your 20/20 hindsight to good use— God gave it to us for a reason).

• Prioritize your activities in terms of their importance (one way to do this is to think in terms of how much each one contributes to your bottom line. If you can convert them to dollars and cents, do so— in business, that’s as good a metric as any).  

• Put all “low importance” (low value) activities aside. You may have to reevaluate your use of email, social media, and a host of other indulgences, to decide what can go. Remember— success is more often about what you decide not to do than is often thought.

• Next, use the time you’re reclaiming from the “low importance” activities that you’ve put aside to address the “high urgency,” “high importance activities” first, but then:

• Systematically alter your plans to focus as much time as possible on activities that are characterized by “high importance” and “low urgency” (e.g., it’s only January? Do your taxes now while the urgency is low— you’ll be much happier later).

Maximizing efficiency, minimizing stress

Realize an essential fact— your best business efficiency derives from those activities that are of high importance, but low urgency. These might include upgrading your strategic plan, improving customer service, expanding your skill set, focusing on new business development, etc.

Doing so will eventually reduce the time spent on high urgency, high importance activities (a.k.a. “putting out fires”), since a percentage of them are the results of procrastination and poor planning. By minimizing them, you’re doing yourself as well as anyone served by your business activities a favor. 

The only ones likely to be unhappy will be your competitors.

Don’t forget to delegate

Entrepreneurs tend to be people who take responsibility, often taking it to extremes.  If you’ve got employees, it only makes sense to determine which of your activities might be safely delegated to others. Always keep in mind that there is a big difference between taking responsibility and being a “control freak.” The former is fine, the latter is to be avoided at all costs.

If you do have employees, this can serve more than one function, if done prudently. Research shows that good employees frequently value increases in responsibility. It’s certainly an option worth considering, in any case.

Work / life balance

One problem that plagues many professionals goes beyond their work activities. Managing family responsibilities and contributing to their communities is also important to many. By more effectively managing your time and energy at work, you’ve made more available for use in other domains.

There is simply no downside to being in touch with important principles and values and dedicating one’s time to living in ways that are consistent with them. It pays dividends in terms of relationships, life satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment. 

If applied properly in the world of business, it can be pretty darn good for the bottom line as well.