5 Facts About Time Management for Project Managers

Hi there, in my work with project managers, you know what’s the one thing they wish they could have more of? Is it resources? Communication skills, or perhaps domain knowledge? Well, those are important to a PM, but the one thing that ALL PMs always want is ... more TIME.

I’m not talking about more time to deliver projects, or having a more relaxed delivery schedule. I’m talking about personal time management. I see scores of PMs, after running five or six large scale projects, being burnt out and switching to other careers.

One thing that’s very clear to me is that juggling personal commitments, intense delivery schedules and other requests take its toll on a person. And the haggard look I see in many of my PM colleagues is testament to that.

In this article, I want to introduce five facts about time management for project managers. Granted, project managers have very little time, but if we apply some solid time management techniques, we can salvage some extra time to lead balanced, meaningful lives.

1. Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

One of the key things I teach junior project managers in my company is to manage their energy, not their time.

What’s that? Managing energy? Isn’t traditional time management - slotting appointments in diaries, allocating tasks and following through on their execution - critical? Yes - those things are still critical, but I feel that your energy level is the basic force that enables you to complete tasks.

Without the energy, all you’re doing is planning fantastic (sometimes unrealistic) schedules and having little hope of having tasks completed.

I’ve written a little about managing energy rather than your time over here. I’m convinced that if you keep your energy levels up - you’ll be able to perform at peak levels.

Case Study: You know, I’ve always been a “night person”. Here in Singapore, I’d go to work in the morning at about 9 am, get through the day and come home at about 8 pm. I’d clock in say two and a half hours with the family, and put the kids to bed by 10.30 pm. I’d then rest for a bit, then drag myself to do a bit of “personal stuff” from 11 pm to 1 am.

For years, I carried on this schedule. And you know what? I was EXTREMELY unproductive. Tasks like estimating the resource loading of a project, which would have taken me one hour, took me up to two or three hours at night.

It was not until I came across the concept of managing my energy that I began to sleep early. Really early, as in 10.30 pm with the kids. I started waking up at 5 am. And I’d do a bit of exercise before launching into doing “personal stuff”.

And guess what? My productivity literally shot up! You see, in the morning, after some exercise, you’re fresh and awake and the entire neighborhood is still fast asleep. Your ability to complete tasks easily doubles or even triples!

I realized then how stupid I’ve been all these years. The lesson learnt is this - tackle your tasks early in the morning when you’re fresh, instead of dragging yourself, bleary eyed, and tackle them at night.

2. Just Do It

The second fact about time management I propose that ALL project managers should know is to just do it. When I was a junior project manager, I’d spend loads of time planning and fine tuning my Microsoft Project plans. I’d even go down to tweaking the fonts, the colors of the little bars indicating how much progress you’ve made on a task.

The net result? Tremendous amounts of time wasted. And meanwhile, project schedules continued to creep up on me!

Now, don’t get me wrong - it’s essential to plan. Planning is part and parcel of a PM’s job. BUT if it is done in excessive amounts, it then becomes paralyzing.

One tip I suggest is to go for the 20 percent. What is the key 20 percent of stuff you need to plan for? Focus on those things and then get out of your chair and start running the project. That means talking to stakeholders, monitoring the team and checking in on them, anticipating risks on the horizon and so forth.

We, as humans, have the capacity to plan - and that’s great. But over planning limits our ability to execute and that’s a bad thing.

3. Delegate Your Work

Another piece of time management advice for PMs? Don’t go it alone. Project managers tend to be very detailed and analytical people. And many of them get so caught up and absorbed in their roles, they don’t reach out and execute with the team.

Case Study: Let me illustrate with an example. Early in my career, I was the project manager for a core banking system implementation in a major Malaysia bank. Those of you in the know will understand that core banking system implementations are MAJOR undertakings. They’re like the equivalent of “heart surgery” for a bank’s IT systems.

Now, there were literally hundreds of tasks I needed to manage - across requirements, testing, deployment and go-live plans, stakeholder management, change management and so forth. As a junior project manager just starting out, I was eager to be involved in EVERYTHING.

I failed to realize that a project manager should DELEGATE. I ended up trying to micro manage every single task and not only did I not succeed, it caused severe irritation in my team members. The lesson learnt? As a project manager, you should delegate and monitor your work. DO NOT do everything yourself.

Some project managers I know are fearful of delegation. And yes, I admit that delegation is hard. It’s hard because you lose control. As human beings, we all want to be under control of things.

When I let my lead BA run the entire requirements work stream, it can be scary. What if he does something wrong, or misses out some key deadline? Or what if my test manager fails to test and resolve a critical bug in the system? As a project manager, we have to learn to let go and just delegate.

But delegation does not mean you lose accountability for the tasks. I’m still accountable for a successful requirements and testing sign-off. So what I do is to give clear expectations and outcomes to my Lead BA and Test Manager and schedule regular checkpoints to see how they are progressing. If they are off track, I give them feedback immediately on how to mitigate risks.

Over time, your team leads will learn and you will be able to let go more and more, until eventually they run the entire work stream on their own, with minimal prodding and guidance.

It’s a little like raising a child. You got to let go, pull back, then let go and pull back again. Until one day, your child learns to survive on his or her own and then you can totally let go.

4. Identify Core Tenets

As a project manager, I also subscribe to a personal ritual of identify core tenets. What do I mean? Well, I’m convinced that in life, we need to be guided by principles. The late Stephen Covey was a strong proponent of principles *** and so are many other business authors.

Principles give us a framework from which to execute our daily task. So it’s useful to sit down on a quiet Sunday afternoon and just list down the core tenets or principles which should guide your life. And all the activities that you do each day should be aligned to these principles.

For example, my list of core tenets are:

  • Hour of Power. Each day, devote an “hour of power” to doing the things that bring you closer toward your goals.
  • A positive attitude, healthy mind and body - devote yourself to seeing the positive side of things. Work on being healthier in both the mind and body.
  • Be contented - everyone on earth can carve out his or her piece of success. Some have more and some have less, but there’s enough for everyone, so learn to be contented with what you have.
  • Respect for all human beings - treat all humans the way you’d like to be treated.
  • Define happiness in your own terms - don’t let your happiness be defined by what others say, do or think.

Each day, I “anchor” myself by reading this list of core tenets before I start my day. This sets the tone for the day and is a great start. However, the problem with core tenets is this - over time, we tend to forget them or lose focus.

That’s why I recommend we don’t just stop at reading the list each day. Go so far as to re-write them each day - to burn them into your subconscious. And every once in a while, review your principles and make sure they still reflect the current circumstances in your life.

5. Hour of Power

The fifth fact about time management for project managers I’d like to share is that of the “Hour of Power”. This concept was first conceived by Anthony Robbins. Now, many years ago, when I first read some of Anthony Robbin’s material, I was quite turned off.

I remember he proposed some stuff about “mimicry” - essentially, behaving like how others behave so you can gain their approval. I thought that was hypocritical and deceitful, so I wrote his books and CDs off.

Now, more recently, I’ve told myself that, besides my day job as a PM, I wanted to find some time to write. Specifically, to write about project management and several other topics that were of concern to me.

I told myself that given my work schedule and three young kids in the house, the only way to find time to write was to (a) run away from my family or (b) run away from my job!

Outrageous thoughts, you think. But think about it again - a man with three young kids and a full-time job as a project manager, often traveling for work within Asia - how is he supposed to find time to write? I was convinced that I had to find a way of extracting time out of each day to do my writing.

So I scoured the net and guess what? I came across Anthony Robbin’s concept of the “Hour of Power” - devoting an hour each day to read, exercise, or do whatever you need to do to propel yourself further towards your goals.

And this time, I DID subscribe to Mr. Robbin’s concept. For me, the “Hour of Power” made total sense. Wake up early, get one hour of solid “personal stuff” done, then move on with the rest of your day.

And I’ve tried this - I literally woke up at 5 am, clocked in two hours of work until 7 am - every day, for three weeks. And my productivity skyrocketed! Coupled with the fact that in the morning, having exercised, you’re two to three times more productive on your tasks - and you can imagine what kind of efficiency I’m talking about.

I guess the key thing here is to devote a bit of each day to your own goals before doing ANYTHING else. You owe it to yourself to work on your dreams. If you don’t do it, who will? And that’s the other thing - usually we put our own dreams behind the daily vicissitudes of life.

Get the work done, get your family sorted out first, THEN work on your own dreams.

That, to me, is flat WRONG.

I’ve learnt, over the years, to give my dreams priority first, then work on the other stuff. Learn that and apply that - you’ll see your quality of life improve by leaps and bounds!

Wrapping Up ...

Ok, I’ve said a lot about the facts behind time management for project managers. Project managers are so busy in their day jobs, it’s very tough to extract time from each day to work on their own dreams and goals.

What I’ve realized over the years as a project manager is that time management is a personal decision. You have GOT to make the decision to manage your energy rather than your time, to just do it, to delegate, to synchronize with your core tenets and to devote a bit of time daily to work on your goals.

Too many times, we let work get in the way. We let life and family get in the way. And we forget the key time management concepts which I’ve described above. Trust me, if you apply the above concepts well and on a consistent basis, your ability to manage your time and your quality of life will be improved significantly.

That’s all I have for now. Until next time, have fun managing your time and here’s to a more well-balanced life, where we can find the time to smell the birds and the bees, and also work on our own dreams!

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