Tips for the time-poor

Here are some common-sense tips in a guest post from Hayes Knight SA Director Tim Sargent, aimed at improving efficiency in the office and maximising the usefulness of your time, both as an individual and as a member of a workplace team. Time is money, as the old adage goes. But how many of us actually consider what that means to us personally? Well, what it means is this: when you waste time in your business you waste money in your business.


Australian small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) now regard email as their most important form of communication. Email is vital to doing business in the 21st century. This is reinforced by recent surveys suggesting that SMEs in Australia regard a loss of phone service as an inconvenience but regard a loss of email service as business-threatening.

Yes, email is vital for business. But what do you do when email starts impeding your ability to do business?

Does your Inbox look like this?

  • group discussions where everyone Replies To All
  • file attachments that need your edits or comments
  • tasks you've been asked to finish
  • requests for help or info from your colleagues
  • invitations to meetings
  • newsletters you signed up for
  • personal messages
  • sales pitches
  • spam

If you answered "yes", then your email itself has become a task rather than a tool to help you accomplish tasks. You might even be approaching email bankruptcy - the point where you just write off your unread mail and delete all your unread messages, regardless of their content.

There are a number of technological tools designed for people in this situation. But here's a very simple solution that you can use without involving your IT team or installing anything new: set aside time to process your email and do it then.

"But I do process my email!" I hear many of you respond. But here's the important bit: only process your email during that time. Don't do it at any other time.

Nominate one or two times - maybe first thing in the morning and immediately after lunch - and devote those to processing your email. If you're working on a document during the rest of the day and you hear that "New Mail" sound, don't stop! keep working on that document! Even better, close your email program if you can and only open it at the times you've designated as email time. Set up an Out of Office autoreply on your email account at all other times, informing your would-be correspondents something like

"Thank you for your email. I am busy working on other tasks at the moment and will respond if necessary at a later time. If your request is critically urgent, please call our office on XXXX-XXXX and ask for a message to be forwarded to me."

Email should be a tool - not a hindrance.


Even though email has replaced many aspects of face-to-face communication, meetings are still an important business tool. They enable team members to stay up to date on progress, they assist with delegation and decision-making, and they facilitate discussion of important matters.

However, just like email, meetings can get out of control and can be detrimental to your ability to do business. If you are spending more hours per day in meetings about work than doing work, you have a meeting problem. Here are some tips to help keep the negative impact of meetings to a minimum:

Make sure there is a meeting agenda before the start of the meeting and make sure that everyone has it and has read it. If you have been invited to a meeting, request an agenda before confirming your attendance. The agenda ensures that everyone knows what the meeting is about, and what the meeting is not about. No-one likes attending a meeting in which half the attendees are unclear of the reasons for being there in the first place.

Never be afraid to query the duration of a meeting. If you receive an agenda that contains items that can be discussed in 30 minutes yet the meeting is to be two hours long, respond to the meeting organiser and ask why two entire hours are necessary.

If your attendance at a meeting does not appear necessary, decline the meeting invitation. There's no greater personal time-waster than the meeting that you have to attend "just to be across" an issue. If you leave a meeting asking yourself "why was I in that meeting", that meeting was a waste of your time.

Ensure that each meeting you attend concludes with a clear summary of the meeting and that action items for each attendee are clear. This summary is often a brief email from the meeting organiser outlining what was discussed and what the outcomes were. If the outcomes and actions from the meeting are not clear, that often means more emails and possibly another meeting just to establish what happened at the first meeting. When you start having meetings about meetings you know things are out of control.

Self-analysis and self-awareness

It's difficult to identify exactly where your time is being lost if you don't have a clear picture of what you're working on from day to day. It's like keeping track of your vehicle's odometer - it's hard to know where all those kilometres on the clock came from if you don't keep a logbook.

So do the same for yourself at work: keep a logbook!

Record what you're working on from hour to hour as you do it. Obviously the longer you record your work the more useful your data will be, but even a record of a single working week can be of immense benefit to you.

As a rule of thumb, 80% of your time delivers 20% of your effectiveness. And consider the converse: 20% of your time delivers 80% of your effectiveness.

You need to be able to identify that positive 20% of your time because what you do in that 20% is vital to your business. If you're not keeping track of your time, how can you possibly know which activities are your business-critical ones and which aren't?

This is something that you as a SME business operator need to bear in mind: working harder and longer won't necessarily improve your business or your quality of life. Maximising the activities that are of direct benefit to your business will. Keeping a logbook of your time can help you identify those activities that result in revenue-generation - and, more importantly, those that don't.

Be critical of yourself and what you're doing. To say of a task "this is not worth my time" is often difficult, especially when that task may be enjoyable or something you find easy. But if it's not a task that generates revenue for your business, you should be doing one that does instead.

Tim Sargent has over 20 years experience in consulting to small and medium size businesses and possesses formal qualifications in accounting, marketing and human resources. With over 10 years experience as a director of professional services firms, Tim has been consultant to a large variety of business sectors and business structures. As well as being a Director of Hayes Knight SA, Tim is a board member of and Treasurer of Flavour SA and is an associate of the Institute of Chartered Accountants.

This article was authored by of Chilli Chocolate Marketing and Tim Sargent for Flavour SA. Reproduced with permission.