How I Learned: Time Management's Soft Skill That Can Change Your Career and Life

Express your values through your actions and watch what happens

Composition by Mariya Pylayev
Time management sounds like such a staid and dull activity. Making to-do lists, keeping schedules, and detailed planning can seem like the dubious forms of personal enrichment and pleasure only felt by type-A personalities. Who wants to look like a fool, walking about with one eye on a check list and the other on a clock?

I do, and if you want a career that will go somewhere, you might as well. Time management may seem dull, but it is a soft skill that can make an enormous difference at work -- and in the rest of your life.

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I learned about the importance years ago, when I was head of product marketing at a small publicly-held reseller of technical products. The department had to get a lot done with a handful of people, including evaluating new products, maintaining an enormous database, overseeing content for multiple catalogs, managing vendor relations, and taking customer calls. Every time I was caught up with one thing, something else came along.

One day I was sitting in the office of the HR person and noticed a Franklin Planner (now known as FranklinCovey) time management package, still shrink-wrapped, that included a planner and training materials. I asked about it and she said, "If you'll actually use it, go ahead and take it."

I did and went through a thin book and multiple cassette tapes of material. The idea was to understand what you valued, express those values through action, break the action down into manageable components, and accordingly schedule your day with both appointments and a to-do list.

The latter used a technique that Bethlehem Steel CEO Charles Schwab used to make his entire management team more productive. Namely, you list what you want to accomplish that day and then prioritize the list so that you do the most important thing first, then the second, and so on. Schwab paid management consultant Ivy Lee, who introduced the idea to him, $25,000. In today's money, that would be more than half a million dollars.

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The instructions said to assiduously work at this system for 30 days, long enough for it to become a habit. I did, and began to notice something surprising. Suddenly, I was no longer caught off guard by things that had to be done. I accomplished more than I ever had before, even though it took me no more time.

I ordered planners for the people who worked for me and insisted that they learn the system and use it. Suddenly, all of them were also far more productive. We no longer needed more people to get everything done (even though unpredictable events could still drive the occasional late night) and the department consistently came in 5 percent under budget.

Ever since, I've used a modified version and have occasionally taught people how to use time management. Even in my current consulting and writing, I manage a large volume of work with a software add-on for Microsoft Outlook that duplicates the look of my original paper planner. Adopting a system burnished my professional reputation and literally helped me handle larger numbers of projects (and make far more money) than I'd otherwise have been able to do.

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Photo source: Getty Images

Check out more quotes on time management here.

Erik Sherman

Erik Sherman

Contributor

Erik Sherman has written for the Wall Street Journal, Inc, Newsweek, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications. He's a regular contributor to CBS MoneyWatch and Inc.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman.

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