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Three steps to make the best of your time Add to ...

The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment

By Elizabeth Grace Saunders

(McGraw-Hill, 255 pages, $24.95)

When we think of investing, we think of money. But the biggest investment we make is our time. Every day, we choose how to allocate that resource between a range of alternatives.

“Everyone – rich or poor, young or old, male or female – has 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week,” writes Elizabeth Grace Saunders, a Michigan-based time coach, in The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment.

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“The difference in whether people achieve more success with less stress comes down to how they choose to invest that time. Since time is a finite resource, by definition, using more of it for one activity decreases the amount that you have for another.”

In grappling with how to invest your time, it helps to keep your time “personality” in mind. For example, some people are planners, carefully plotting what they will be doing at specific times. Others are spontaneous, preferring to go with the flow. Some people are moderators, who can only do a bit of one thing at a time; others are abstainers, with an all-or-nothing approach.

Finally, there are people who embrace change, happy to add five new routines at once; while others prefer to build change, like bricklayers, one element at a time. These personality types are helpful to keep in mind as you adopt new time habits.

Ms. Saunders also sets out three time “secrets” for success:

1. Own your priorities

Too often we are robbed of our time by others who choose to invest our time as they please. Co-workers schedule unnecessary meetings; we say yes to anything our boss requests, even at the cost of weekends and evenings; family members have permission to organize us as they please; and we accede to requests from volunteer organizations. Instead, Ms. Saunders says, we must clarify what is important to us and allocate time accordingly.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of ensuring that you honestly define and ‘own’ your true priorities. If you live your life according to someone else’s definition of success, you will feel absolutely miserable no matter how much you seem to achieve,” she stresses.

Open yourself up to the possibility that you can have priorities. Ponder them, make a list, rank them. Consider the benefits you will have by acting on these priorities, such as the contentment you might feel at week’s end. She urges you to remember that while overall time capacity is static, life is dynamic. So the time invested in various priorities will fluctuate from day to day and week to week. Be careful that your top priorities are not shunted aside in the ebb and flow of your days.

2. Set realistic expectations

Too often we don’t acknowledge the reality of our situation, assuming we can get out of the house quicker in the morning than we have for the past six months, or imagining we will finish a project in half the time it really takes. Instead of learning from reality, we avoid facing the truth, and assume everything will be smoother next time. The result is that we are perennially flailing away, unable to complete our work.

Ms. Saunders tells her clients to follow an approach she calls INO, in which they decide whether an activity fits into one of three categories: investment, neutral, or optimize.

Investment activities produce a higher rate of return when you invest more time in them, so if they are part of your personal priorities you will want to maximize the time you spend in them. Neutral activities (such as exercising or doing paid-by-the-hour work) provide a return that correlates with the amount of time invested; you don’t want to minimize the time put into it but you also must be wary about over-indulging. Optimize activities don’t produce any greater value when you invest more time in them, so the faster you complete them, the better.

3. Strengthen simple routines

Getting through life will be easier and more productive when you develop habits that can take you productively through the day. Ms. Saunders has a series of habits to make best use of her early morning hours, including meditating and exercising. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., is known for her habit of leaving work at 5:30 p.m. (unlike many executives who aim to go home at a reasonable hour but always delay to squeeze in more work).

Routines require deliberate practice, and can be draining at first. But they will give you a sense of control, Ms. Saunders counsels, and help you to gain momentum on big projects. You will also find yourself better able to handle requests for your time.

The book devotes nearly 60 pages to outlining sample step-by-step routines you might follow for planning, dealing with e-mail, managing meetings, and handling relationships. It also provides guidance on how to use others to keep yourself accountable for achieving your priorities. I found the book a bit slow to get into, and meandering at times, but it does offer many useful ideas.

Postscript

In Where Winners Live (Jossey-Bass, 226 pages, $30.95) Dave Porter, CEO of a financial services firm, and consultant Linda Galindo, argue that the secret weapon for sales staff is personal accountability.

The Startup Playbook (Chronicle Books, 290 pages, $34.99) by David Kidder offers advice from a legion of successful tech companies.

Can’t Buy Me Like (Portfolio, 229 pages, $27.50) by Bob Garfield, co-host of National Public Radio’s On the Media show, and creative agency head Doug Levy, explore how marketers must deliver authentic customer connections.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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