Time management in the digital age

Published on April 27, 2022   25 min

A selection of talks on Management, Leadership & Organisation

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This is Alex Edmans. I'm a professor of finance at London Business School, and I'm giving a talk on time management in the digital age.
Now you might think that's a strange topic for a finance professor to speak about, so why am I speaking on it? It's because around 10 years ago I realised that what we typically teach at business school, things like the weighted average cost of capital, those are important. But to be successful in the modern business world, soft skills such as time management are critical. I started researching this myself, and I have to admit it wasn't just altruism, so I could pass it on to students. It was something that I was struggling with myself having to balance research, teaching, policy work and so forth. What I'm going to present today is hopefully an amalgam of all of that research. What I'm going to do is present a range of different time management tips because time management is very personal. Different people have different styles, not every technique will work for every person. What I'd encourage you to do is to try a different range of them. Some might work for you and others might not.
I'll start by talking about how I used to manage my time. Just like many of you, I had a long to-do list. How would I decide which thing to do first on my to-do list? There were two different rules that I would have. First, might be that I would do the low hanging fruit first. Anything simple, like replying to an email. I do that first because once you complete it, you get the satisfaction of crossing it off a to do list. Maybe I got to the end of the day and maybe I'd crossed off 19 things out of my 20 strong to do list. But there may be one really important thing I hadn't attacked because I was just busy crossing off that low hanging fruit. The second rule, that I typically had, was I would focus on the more urgent tasks first. Something with a deadline of Tuesday, I would do earlier than something with the deadline of Friday and certainly something with a deadline of next month. Indeed, this is the time management technique we all learned at school. You'd always do homework due tomorrow over something due at the end of the week. But the problem with that is, again, you might just be firefighting in the short term, maybe something that was really important you never actually got to. Why? Just because it didn't have an urgent deadline. For me, one of the most transformative books that I've read on this issue is 'The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' by Stephen Covey. What he says is, "Rather than stratifying our list into the urgent vs. the not urgent, we need to satisfy our list into things that are of importance vs. not important and do the important tasks first, even if they are not urgent." That sounds a bit abstract. Let me give you an example. It might be that something which is urgent and important is to serve an existing client. But something which is important but not urgent is to develop a new client relationship. Why is that not urgent? Well, there's no deadline. If you don't have that client yet, they're not there asking you to get back to them. But it is important because to be a successful businessperson, you need to develop a broad client mix. Maybe another way of thinking about it is things that you want to do vs. things that you have to do. Things that you have to do are urgent because if you don't do them, somebody will bring them to your attention. If you don't respond to a client request, they will email you and say, "Where's the analysis I asked you for?" But developing a new client relationship is not urgent. If you don't do it, nobody is going to bring it to your attention because there's no new client to tell you, "Why haven't you reached out to me?" This is the secret of time management is to focus on things that we want to do, things that are important but not urgent. Everybody can do the basic time management of doing urgent stuff, meeting deadlines. We learnt how to do this when we were at school and handing in homework. But the important thing is to try to prioritise the things that we truly want to do.