Project Management Institute

Put a time resource leveler on your day (or secrets for surviving the manager's time carrousel)

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Time is the most undefinable
yet paradoxical of things;
the past is gone, the future
has not come, and the present
becomes the past even while
we attempt to define it, and,
like the flash of lightning,
at once exists and expires.
— Colton

The fervent wail of the harried project manager echoes throughout the project office ... “If the day only had 36 hours, I could really get on top of things!”

The project manager’s cry is not without justification as he is probably the most sought-after individual in his county. He’s the project hub spoked by an endless list of subordinate activities including design, project engineering, supply, construction, planning and scheduling and logistical and support systems. He is also solicited by the client, governmental regulatory agencies, emergency situations, special consultants, financing agencies, joint venture partners, local authorities, and anyone else who comes in demanding to see the “guy who’s in charge around here.”

Project managers by nature are highly effective, objective individuals with track records which flash “achievement” — otherwise they would be working in another field! But even the most effective project manager can optimize his output by reviewing his time management program. In most cases the analysis reveals that with a few adjustments the manager can produce even more and expend considerably less effort. Some people might call it “working smarter.”

With organization and time
is found the secret to doing
all and doing well.


This article establishes guidelines for resource leveling the project managers most fundamental resource — his own time! Time management is explored from the project manager’s perspective and includes evaluation of the manager’s present time habits, suggestions for unplugging major bottlenecks, and recommendations for improved time management approaches and practices.

Do You Really Know How You Use Your Time?

The first step for getting on the effective-time-management bandwagon is to determine how executive time is used.

Strangely enough, most managers think they can pinpoint their time usage, but in most cases, when the facts are registered on a time log, the result is virtually a mind-blowing experience for the manager being observed. Typical situations limelighted by the time log are:

  • Snap judgments made on highly important subjects.
  • Telephone conversations that go on and on
  • Periods of incessant interruptions in which virtually nothing of significance is accomplished
  • Dwelling on unimportant subjects which could well be delegated or ignored
  • Periods of paper slavery in which much unnecessary paper is handled
  • No time available to think or plan

Our plans miscarry because
they have no aim. When a
man does not know what
harbor he is making for, no
wind is the right wind.


An effective executive time review involves some soul searching and an attempt to see daily management performance through an undistorted time prism. To help capture your day as it really is, the following guide is presented:

Step 1: Make a time log. Use a desk agenda, a notebook or plain pad and jot down at 30-minute intervals what you have been doing during the previous half hour. Or better yet, have your secretary “or assistant do it. Register your activities for a week.

Step 2: Review the log. Summarize the results. See how much time you spent on really important stuff, how much time was completely wasted and how much was routine.

Step 3: Reflect. Are you really spending your time on the subjects which will bring a quality project home on time and within the budget?

Those who make the worst use
of their time are the first
to complain of its shortness.

           —Jean De La Bruyere

You may well conclude that, surely enough, your time wasn’t spent as well as it should have been, but — there aren’t enough hours in the day and besides people keep interrupting you! To solve that problem, the next effort is to examine the major bottlenecks and attempt to wrench loose some time for the important matters.

Time Bottlenecks — What To Do

Time is what we want most,
but what alas! we use worst.

                         — Penn

Upon registering and analyzing your time use, you may find that the following activities dominate your day:

  • Paper work — requiring signature or reading
  • Meetings — scheduled or otherwise
  • One-on-one listening, problem solving, and coaching
  • Telephone calls — incoming and outgoing

The technique for gaining time involves aiming a steely eye at each item in an effort to sweep away wasted motions and time killers. Here are some pointers for keeping precious minutes from the major time gobblers:

Step 4: Ask yourself if you really need to see all that paper. Just because it lands on your desk doesn’t mean you should spend time with it. With your secretary’s aid, make a list of all documents that cross your desk, and classify the subjects in groups of priorities A, B and C. Then, by delegating, eliminating and condensing, drastically reduce your time spent on C items and, to a lesser degree, on those of group B, thus allowing time for A priorities.

Step 5: Discipline your meetings for more effective results in less time. Go back to the basics! Does everybody know what the subject is — what is the objective of the meeting? It’s amazing how many people don’t know what the meeting is all about (sometimes not even the leader has a clear idea). See that project group leaders know the basics for running a meeting.. Establish the meeting objective clearly on a memo, meeting notice or other written form. Prior to the meeting make an itemized agenda and afterwards register the results with meeting notes. Also ask if the meeting is really necessary — maybe it’s not necessary and just a waste of everybody’s time! Avoid “instantaneous problem solving.” Direct discussion initially toward alternate solutions in order to explore the full potential of the group. Create an “open” atmosphere (all ideas are valid). Once this stage of exploration is completed, have the group narrow in on the solution. The result is normally a better solution obtained by consensus, and paradoxically enough, time is saved as this procedure avoids trenched-in argumentation and stand-off positions.

Step 6: Determine how much time you have for one-on-one listening, problem-solving and coaching; then ration your time accordingly. Do you have to receive everyone who wanders into your office? And for as long as they wish? Obviously not. Many of your visitors will be as well off talking to one of your subordinates. Since you’re the busy man, you have a perfect prerogative to set the time limits on your interviews. Your secretary can help you articulate your interview agenda. (This does not eliminate certain specified periods of “open door policy,” essential for project pulse-taking).

Step 7: Establish a telephone code-of-conduct. Avoid being a slave to the telephone. Group your outgoing calls to get them out of the way. Avoid incoming call interruptions when you’re working on important matters (call back at a specified time). If you have to make daily long distance calls, try scheduling a specific hour of the day. Avoid grabbing the phone on impulse — organize your thoughts and discuss all your subjects in an orderly sequence.

How Should The Project Manager’s Time Really Be Used?

After registering and analyzing time usage (and salvaging precious daily minutes by harnessing major time consumers), the question arises “How should I effectively use the time which has been saved?”

Going back to the basics, the project manager should focus on activities which will assure completion of a quality project, on time and within budget; i.e., subjects which are really important as far as the project’s objectives are concerned. Since the project manager is high on “the-most-sought-after persons” list, it’s natural that he have a sizable “wheat and chaff’ problem — a need for having a filter system to insure that adequate time is spent on “wheaty” subjects. A big system dogger in project management is the abundance of mini-urgencies which pockmark the manager’s day.

How To Prioritize Important vs Urgent Subjects

Urgency engulfs the manager,
yet the most urgent task is
not always the most important.
The tyranny of the urgent
lies in its distortion of
priorities – its subtle
cloaking of minor projects
with major status, often
under the guise of “crisis.”

         — R. Alec Mackenzie (1)

In project management terms, important subjects are those which are relevant in terms of meeting project goals. Urgencies on the other hand are characterized by a pressing need to have a given activity completed in a short time span, yet having no direct relationship with importance. An over-abundance of urgent items over an extended period carries the indelible stamp of sloppy planning and/or poor management.

But you may ask “Aren’t really important matters characterized by urgency and vice-versa?” Let’s take a look and see.

The importance/urgency matrix shown in the book. Manage Your Time, Manager Your Work, Manage Yourself by Merrill C. Douglass and Donna N. Douglass, is helpful for putting the relationship into perspective .(2)

Importance/Urgency Matrix

Figure 1. Importance/Urgency Matrix

The matrix shows four distinct relationships between urgency and importance. Quadrant 1 indicates a situation of “crisis” characterized by a subject which is both important and urgent (a major casting flaw in a critical path equipment item; the client wants to make a major design change). Quadrant 2 represents the planning and control mode — the subjects are important, but somehow aren’t red-flagged with urgency (basic planning, training sessions, development of subordinates). Quadrant 3 encompasses subjects which are relatively unimportant but carry the urgent label. Many telephone calls, one-on-one conversations, and “urgent” pieces of paper fall into this box. The fourth quadrant represents genuine timewasters (items which are unimportant and not urgent). Examples of these subjects are: over-emphasis on procedures, excessive efficiency consciousness in detriment to effectiveness, chats about yesterday’s football game.

A typical time distribution shows crisis quadrant 1 demanding (and getting) its fair share of attention, while quadrant 2 has its rightful share siphoned off by the trivia and time-wasters of quadrants 3 and 4. The result is insufficient planning and control which subsequently produce more crises and urgent trivia. The logical solution for breaking out of this circle is concentration on important matters (quadrants 1 and 2), which will tend to attenuate the effects of time-gobbling quadrants 3 and 4.

Pareto’s Principle

Pareto’s Principle has applications in numerous fields including sales, materials management, maintenance and others. Simply stated Pareto’s Principle says that the significant items in a given group normally represent a relatively small portion of total items in the group.

Pareto’s Principle establishes criteria for discrimination when confronted with a large number of items. Arranged in groups of A, B and C (group A representing the most important subjects), application of Pareto’s Principle, to the manager’s time yields a distribution as shown in fig. 2.

Chart of time allocation per Pareto’s Principle

Figure 2. Chart of time allocation per Pareto’s Principle

The 70-20-10 percentages reflect a generally accepted rule of thumb for Pareto distributions.

Figure 3. Graph of time allocation per Pareto’s Principle

Figure 3. Graph of time allocation per Pareto’s Principle

Pareto’s Principle applied to time management basically says that unequal treatment should be given to the various subjects with which we deal. Seventy percent of executive time should be applied to “A” subjects such as:

  • Selection of key staff members
  • Developing project plans
  • Establishing overall project relationships
  • Review of project budget requirements
  • Decision regarding project control systems
  • Establishing reporting criteria
  • Developing and motivating staff

B and C subjects representing lesser priorities should be put into proper perspective with corresponding allocation of only 20 percent and 10 percent of management time.

Schedule Your Time Or Your Work?

How many times have you ended a frenzied day asking yourself “What did I really accomplish today?” when deep down inside you knew the answer was “zilch.” How does this happen? Simply because we let ourselves be battered about by the whims and urgencies of others, even though the subjects involved may or may not be of importance to the project.

We must ask where we are and whither we are tending.

— Abraham Lincoln

Peter Drucker(3) takes the position that we don’t accomplish what we should because we go about it backwards; i.e., we try to cram an ever-expanding mass (all the work which comes at us from sundry directions) into a limited unstretchable compartment (our working time). It’s no wonder that no matter how hard we drive ourselves, we still find ourselves up to earlobes in work and still complain that 24 hours a day are not enough!

A few more pointers for staying on top of the time tightrope:

  • Accept the fact that you can never get all the work done.
  • Keep on the offensive — “pro-act” as opposed to reacting.
  • Concentrate on those items which are really important.
  • Delegate, condense or ignore subjects of lesser importance.
  • Plan the working day in terms of given tasks to be done during specific time periods. For example, on a given Monday:

07:30-09:00 Review paperwork, issue the day’s instructions to secretary and assistant

09:00-10:30 Walk the job

10:30-12:00 Staff meeting

12:00-01:00 Lunch

01:00-02:00 Discretionary time (thinking, planning, reading, researching, writing)

02:00-03:00 Review of overall personnel requirements for upcoming peak period.

03:00-04:30 Return telephone calls, receive contractors and other visitors

Drucker says plan your time first, then plan your work; i.e., lay out your day in terms of specific blocks of time, then fit your priority items (relevant important subjects) into those time periods. For the lesser important subjects figure out another way to get it done (delegate, reorganize, eliminate, etc.).


The project manager occupies one of the most demanding of positions. His time is sought after by all parties involved in the project; consequently, he has a need for managing his time on an effective basis to insure project success.

For the project manager to dominate his time troubles, step one is the time-size up: how is it really being used? This can be done in a week with the help of a secretary, and after analysis of the log, the more obvious time wasters can be eliminated. The classical time-gobblers of paperwork, meetings, interviews and telephone calls can all be brought under control once the manager decides to discipline these activities so that he is using these instruments in an “active” manner rather than in the reactive mode.

Time should always be spent on the important matters — those that will contribute toward results. Many “urgent” subjects take up time but are not really important. Time being a limited inelastic element, planning of the manager’s work must be subordinate to the time available and performed in coherence with project priorities.


1. Mackenzie, R. A., The Time Trap, Amacom, USA, 1972.

2. Douglass, M. E. and Douglass, N. D., Manage Your Time, Manage Your Work, Manage Yourself, Amacom, USA, 1980.

3. Drucker, P. F., The Effective Executive, William Heinemann Ltd., London, England, 1967.

4. Archibald, R. D., Managing High Technology Program and Projects, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., USA, 1976.

5. Dinsmore, P. C., “Time Management and the Project Manager,” Boletim de Engenharia de Custos, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Dec., 1980.

6. Junqueira, L. A. C., “Como o Executivo Deve Utilizar Seu Tempo,” Treinamento de Executivos, PNTE/SEPLAN (Brazilian Government), Brazil, 1980.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.



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