A vital time management skill that is easy to learn

Time management is a skill that many people lack – you probably know people who continually break their promises and deliver late (or not at all).

Perhaps you have even fallen into this trap yourself.

At the core of time management is a very important skill: estimation.

The impact of poor estimation skills

It’s hard to overstate the impact of not being able to estimate effectively. It shows up in so many ways:

  • Overspend
  • Lateness
  • Letting others down
  • Over-runs
  • Inefficiency

What are poor estimation skills?

It is the lack of ability to work out how long a task will take, how much something will cost or the level of resources are required. When you get this wrong it is almost always an overly optimistic guess.

You think something will take half the time it really does, or be the real cost. Sound familiar?

You see it everywhere. Building projects, research projects, overspent budgets.

How to make your estimates more accurate

The silly thing is that improving your estimation skills is incredibly easy. And the benefits are enormous.

All you have to do is make your estimate, for example how long you think it will take to complete a task, or how much your supermarket bill will be and write it down.

Then, compare it with what actually happens. Next time, make another estimate and adjust it according to what happened last time. Very quickly you will start to improve.


You will immediately find that your plans become much more accurate.

A great starting point

This is just one step in effective time management but it is one that gives benefits very quickly and is really easy to implement. Just have a go.

For more help with time management, go here.

What are poor estimation skills?

Do the police need time to reflect?

The Royal Society for Arts (RSA) has produced a report suggesting that police officers should get 20 minutes of ‘reflection time’ each week and that this would improve communications and efficiency.

I could not agree more. In fact I think we should all be doing this, not just police officers. (It’s rather worrying to discover that they do not currently have time reflect.)

It’s all about learning

Just fire-fighting

Taking some time to review what you have been doing, the results of your actions and what you could do differently next time is a vital activity for anyone who wants to improve in any way.

If you don’t do this, you end up fire-fighting.


It’s all about using all the feedback you can get to its maximum advantage.

Don’t just review things that went wrong

So often you hear people talk about ‘learning from your mistakes’. This is of course useful. However, you can also learn from what went well. Any good coach will help you to do both. However, you don’t need a coach to make the most of these experiences.

Ask yourself these questions

  • What happened? (Stick to the facts in your answer.)
  • What were the results?
  • Why did I get those results?
  • What could I do differently another time?
  • Where else could I apply this?

Make sure you spend enough time on the facts

Many people rush through to the ‘why’ part before really going through the facts. But it’s often by carefully considering all the facts that you get the really useful information.

An example

I remember running a one day course with two colleagues. We ran it every day for two weeks.

The fourth was significantly better than the previous three; the participants grasped the concepts much more quickly and their results at the end were of much higher quality.
I asked my colleagues why they thought this was, but they weren’t really interested. (A bit disappointing for trainers, I thought.)

My reflections

As I drove home that evening I went through the workshops in my mind. The material we used the same on each workshop. There was just one difference I identified. The example I used to illustrate a key concept on the Thursday morning.


I tried this same example on the Friday and again, things went much more smoothly.

The following week

On the Monday the following week I shifted back to my original example and the results were the same as those on the first three days.


As a result of this reflection I used the better example for the remaining workshops.

Long term

Since then I have always made sure I have several examples to illustrate each point and often try them out before hand. I am also constantly trying out new examples so that, over the years, I keep my results improving. All this came from reflecting for probably a lot less than 20 minutes.

This is just one way to keep learning all through your life. For others go here.

Scrapping the annual appraisal

I heard last week that Adobe Systems is scrapping their annual performance appraisal (though pay reviews will still take place once a year).

Why is this? It turns out that Donna Morris, senior VPHR at Adobe Systems noticed that there were may grievances about appraisals each year and there was also a tendency for managers to focus on just the most recent examples of performance instead of assessing performance using achievements throughout the whole year.

To replace the system, managers are going to be giving real time feedback.

What are performance reviews and appraisals for?

Organisations use them in many different ways. Many use them, as the title suggests, to review performance. However, reviewing performance is only of benefit if it makes a positive impact on future performance.

The real purpose of appraisals

In my view, this should be to enable an individual (the appraisee) to achieve the coming year’s objectives and goals. So the focus should be on what a person needs to do differently (as compared to last year) in order for this to happen.

You can include some review of performance and behaviour in the previous year, but it’s only worth it if doing this will add value in the coming year.

Simply raking over past events that should have been dealt with months ago is rarely a benefit to anyone.

How accurate are your records?

Donna Morris cannot be alone in her observation that most managers consider the most recent events and exclude (or perhaps “forget” would be a better word) events in the more distant past. Let’s face it, not many managers keep accurate records of what their team members do over the year.

So in most cases an appraisal that purports to review the previous year is basically flawed.

What to do if you really want to improve performance and achieve goals

There is a much more effective way. Make sure people get the feedback they need when they need it.

It is quite obvious that receiving feedback about what you have done 11 months later is at best frustrating and at worst, useless.

It's great to have a back-seat drive

Imagine you make the same journey by car every day for a year. Then, in December, someone tells you that you have been taking a route that is 10 miles longer than it needs to be.

Clearly if you had checked the map before making your journey you could have picked this up and altered course accordingly.

It’s the same with everything you do. The more immediate the feedback, the more useful it is.

Don’t wait for your manager to give you feedback

It is a misconception that you need to wait for your manager to give you feedback, or, if you are a manager, you need to give all the feedback.

The important thing is that I find out what the best route is as quickly as possible. It doesn’t matter how I get that information.

Get the system right

More than just the skills of giving feedback, you need to set up systems to make sure you get the information as well and you also need to be able to ask for feedback, instead of just waiting for it.

This is the difference between driving you car with a ‘back seat driver’ telling you where you went wrong and using your own eyes and ears.

Drastic improvements

If you can do this, you will be able to make drastic improvements to your performance and the performance of your organization. And then why would you need annual appraisals?

For more on feedback

Feedback for the Faint-Hearted – a booklet explaining how to give and get feedback

Double your Profit – my interview with Mel Stephenson who has doubled his profit every year for 5 years using these simple but effective systems


People who work 9-5 and take an hour for lunch

If you read this last week, you’ll remember that I was told by someone that you couldn’t write meaningful objectives for people who just work 9-5 and expect to take an hour for lunch.

I dealt with the first part of that statement last week. This week I’d like to address the concept of people who “just work 9-5 and expect to take an hour for lunch.”

The true story of a 9-5 worker

Many years ago I had the pleasure of working with a delightful client at a university.
One day he asked me if he should give his secretary a pay rise or not.

She was a very senior secretary, responsible for the running of his office and at least four other secretaries. I asked him what his concerns were. It was just one thing:
“She never stays late.” He told me.
This was true. I had never seen Avril in the office after 5pm. So I asked:
“Has anything ever been late or unfinished because she would not stay late?”
“No.” He responded immediately with absolute certainty.
“So are you saying she is so efficient that she gets everything done during the normal working day and never costs you any extra money in overtime?” I asked.
“I think I’d better give her that rise.” He responded.

Political overtime

I came across this phrase when I worked in a company where it was seen to be a good thing to stay late. People thought it correlated with commitment. That may have been the case. In my view it also correlated with poor efficiency, low levels of organisational skills and a need to impress the boss.

My colleagues would sit around chatting about all kinds of things during the day and then start doing serious work at about 5.30.

The trouble with this kind of behaviour is it leads to massive inefficiencies. It’s a system where it is in the interest of people to stretch out their work.

What you need is the complete reverse: a system that encourages exactly the opposite kind of behaviour.

People who just work 9-5

Now, when I hear someone describing colleagues in this way I regard it as more of a comment on their own failings. It usually indicates that they think long hours in themselves are beneficial, no matter what is achieved (or not achieved).

They are often incapable of measuring achievement and find it easier to measure value by the amount of time people spend on the task or keeping a seat warm. The more you think about that the more stupid it is.

Who are the people who work 9-5?

I have worked with many of these people and they are the salt of the earth, in my view. Many of them are skilled, highly committed employees and members of a team.

They often have to leave at 5pm to pick up children or catch a bus. This does not make them any less committed. And it often makes them more efficient.

A question for you

Imagine you need to have an operation. You have the choice between Sam and Charlie. Sam’s operations take on average 8 hours. He always stays late and works long hours. Charlie usually completes her operations in 4 hours and, although happy to stay late, rarely has to do so.

Do you want a surgeon who is tired, inefficient and possibly incompetent? I imagine not.
I know of one surgical unit where the situation I have described exists (I have changed the names.) The reason Charlie is so much more efficient is that she has spent years improving her technique and learning better and more effective ways to carry out her operations.

It is not surprising that she is much more popular as a surgeon than her colleagues (who have put in very little effort in this area).

We should be rewarding people for finding quicker, easier and more efficient ways of achieving their goals, not for incompetence and the lack of willingness to make improvements.

Get help with time management here.