Improving your time management skills means being aware of the things that eat into your time and prevent you getting on with the important and urgent tasks.

We all have strengths and weaknesses in dealing with these time stealers – some of us are great at dealing with those people who just drop in for a chat when there’s a report deadline looming, but not so good at starting work in the morning. Check the list to see how your time gets stolen, and how you might deal with in a better way.


Email can be a great time saver, as it cuts out the need for writing letters or lengthy phone calls, but the ease with which we can all write emails means that the number of mails received rises all the time.

Dealing with email

  • Turn off the new mail alert and schedule times through the day to check your mail, maybe in the gaps between tasks, or in your low energy times such as after lunch.
  • Use filters to automatically put your mail into folders according to who it’s come from. That way you can avoid the temptation to read personal mail or news list items when you need to be working.
  • Give yourself a set amount of time to deal with email, and make sure you respond to those ones that need an answer straight away, so you don’t have to think about it again.
  • Help others to manage their email by obeying the rules of netiquette. If you want someone to do something – send a mail directly to them alone, not as part of a circulation list. If you really want them to do something, cc it to someone important. If you just want to give someone some information, mark it FYI (for your information) so they know that they don’t have to do anything about it. Think before you copy people into an email. Do they really need to know about this, or are you just filling up their inbox?
  • If you receive useless, unsolicited email, delete it straight away and forget about it.

Personal Callers

People will often drop by just for a chat, or to ask your opinion about something. This can be very disruptive when you’re in the middle of something, especially as it breaks your concentration. However, you don’t want to appear as unfriendly, miss something which could be useful to you, or be unsupportive.

Dealing with Personal Callers

  • Look up and smile if someone interrupts you – you need to acknowledge their presence.
  • If they ask you if you have a minute, say that you’re really in the middle of something right now, but you’ll have it finished by a certain time and could you chat then. This accomplishes three things: it lets them know that you are interested but busy rather than putting them off, it makes a definite time for you to talk (so you don’t lose out), and it gives you a deadline to make sure that you finish what you’re doing (so you have to do it).
  • Make sure you do make time for them when you said you would.
  • If someone just starts talking, be assertive and interrupt them to say you’re busy but you’ll be free at a certain time.
  • If you are working at home, make sure your friends and family know that this is still real work and that they can’t just drop by for coffee when you’re working. You will need to be assertive about this.

Phone calls

We all sit down to do something, get all the bits of paper out and start work, just in time for the phone to ring. Obviously it’s bad practice to never answer the phone, but if you’re always on call it can mean that you never get any concentrated working time.

Dealing with phone calls

Different working environments call for different ways of dealing with phone calls. In some situations you will be expected to take calls whenever you’re at your desk, and whilst you are teaching you will be able to rely on an answering machine or someone to screen calls for you. Beware of giving out your mobile number to everyone, as being constantly on call can hugely raise your stress levels.

  • Find another venue to do the work that requires uninterrupted time; some people will book a meeting room for an hour, while others will sit in an empty classroom to escape. Make sure someone responsible can contact you in case of a genuine emergency.
  • Practice being assertive in dealing with people – use phrases like “what can I do for you?” or “is there something you need?” to appear helpful while encouraging people to come to the point.
  • If you have something that you need to work on, politely tell the caller you’re on deadline and arrange to call them back.

If you can put off calls until later

  • Schedule times that you will take calls (when you can be getting on with smaller tasks which require less concentration).
  • Use an answering machine to screen calls, so you don’t miss important calls.
  • Make sure that you do return calls when you’re able to.
  • If you can’t bear the sound of an unanswered phone, switch the answering machine to mute, and check it later.
  • Remember that there are few things of such importance that they cannot wait for an hour.


Many managers spend much of their lives in meetings, often because it is assumed that they will be there, rather than that they have to be. Try this quick exercise:

  1. Calculate your annual salary, divided by the number of hours you work in a year. This is your hourly rate.
  2. Calculate the cost of you spending 1 hour in a meeting.
  3. Then calculate the total cost of all the people at the meeting being there for 1 hour.
  4. Use this thinking to work out if it’s really cost effective for you to be at that meeting.
  • Do you have to go? Can you delegate this to someone else, spending 15 minutes briefing them fully on the meeting, and 15 minutes debriefing them afterwards? The advantage of this approach is that you can give someone else the chance to work at a higher level than they would normally.
  • Can you go, stay for the part that is of use to you, and then make your excuses?
  • Try changing the sort of meetings you have. If you have sufficient power, try to steer the meeting towards making decisions and agreeing actions.

Going off on a tangent

Many of us use up time by going off what we’re currently doing to do something that is easier or more interesting instead. When you find yourself doing this, try to:

  • Make a note to do whatever it is you’ve been tempted into, so you don’t lose what you’re doing.
  • Make a note of the article/website or whatever you’re reading so you can go back later.
  • Schedule some time to do that.
  • Give yourself a deadline to finish what you’re supposed to be doing and motivate yourself to meet that deadline by allowing yourself the more enjoyable activity as a reward.

Wasting time looking for things

We all spend time looking for bits of paper, phone numbers, website addresses, and sometimes this can be both time consuming and frustrating. Invest some time in order to save time, and get into some organized habits.

  • Review your current filing system, and see how it could be easier to use.
  • Ensure that you have a good system for recording people’s contact details, and make sure everyone’s details are in there. It doesn’t matter what this is, as long as you know that you can find someone’s phone number. This is also vital for networking, otherwise you end up thinking that someone you have just met would be useful, if only you could get in touch with them.
  • Keep your desk relatively tidy, otherwise you spend too much time looking for papers etc.
  • Adopt a rigorous file naming system and ensure that you use it, to avoid having to reproduce work or spend precious time searching for where you saved that document. Invest time in setting up folders for your electronic files and be consistent about where you save a document.

Try identifying your own time stealers and how to deal with them. Let us know your tips for gaining extra time to do something more important instead. This article has been reproduced with permission from More tips, techniques and advice for managers can be found at

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, September 2004.