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THE TIME TRAP

by Alec Mackenzie (1997)


Reviewed by Grady McAllister

Additional material is taken from the audio program, Managing Your Goals by Alec Mackenzie and Melody Mackenzie Brown (Chicago: Nightingale-Conant, 1992) and the article "The Trouble with Time Management Courses"  (Fortune, June 4, 1990, p. 262.)


The Time Trap is not a Star Trek episode about being caught in the a time warp or a space-time continuum. It is the title of Dr. Alec Mackenzie's down to earth book on time in the workplace. The 1972 edition of the book helped spawn the modern time management boom.

Mackenzie ties time management directly to the issue of American productivity:

The U.S. manufacturing sector is showing an improvement in productivity at the rate of 3.5 per cent a year. The service sector, however, has lagged behind at a rate of 0.5 per cent since 1979. And since service industries represent more than 70 per cent of our economy, this is an acute problem indeed.

Therefore our productivity must shift to individuals. If the memo writer, the marketing vice presidents and the finance officers can learn to get better results and do it in less time, the impact on the U.S. economy could be powerful.

Mackenzie may have done the definitive study on time wasters. In The Time Trap, he devotes an entire chapter to each of these topics:

· Management by crisis
· Telephone interruptions
· Inadequate planning
· Attempting too much
· Drop-in visitors
· Ineffective delegation
· Personal disorganization
· Lack of self-discipline
· Inability to say no
· Procrastination
· Meetings
· Paperwork
· Leaving tasks unfinished
· Inadequate staff
· Socializing
· Confused responsibility or authority
· Poor communication
· Inadequate controls and reports
· Incomplete information
· Travel

Mackenzie uses himself to illustrate the problem of procrastination. He tells of the time he kept putting off his calls to sell Celestial Seasonings Tea on his program. When his calls didn't go through, Mackenzie became convinced that the president wasn't interested.

He finally reached him on the seventh call, and Mackenzie felt the "final put-down" when the man called him "Charlie." He had picked up the phone expecting someone else. Mackenzie wearily identified himself.

The president said, "Alec Mackenzie? I've had your name on my desk for months. I don't need any explanation of your program. How soon can you come out to conduct a two-day seminar on time management for all my people?"

Mackenzie asks seminar participants to do "the one thing they'll not want to do," and that is to keep a time log. For at least three days, they must write down every interruption and change of mental attention, "no matter how trivial."

The purpose is to find out where their time is really going and which time wasters need to be attacked. Mackenzie states:

When you grasp the universal fact that there will never be 25 hours in one day.when you internalize this basic truth of contemporary existence.you will have armed yourself with a piece of knowledge you can use as the groundwork for making radical changes in the way you manage yourself and achieve your goals.
He says the time log will create the motivation  leads to change:
The time log is necessary because the painful task of changing our habits requires far more conviction than we can build from learning about the experience of others. We need the amazing revelation of the great portions of our time we are wasting to provide the incentive and the determination required to manage ourselves.
Many of Mackenzie's participants complain that the time log itself will take up too much time. He tells them:
It's something you can't afford not to take. Since you take the log while you are doing the activity, it takes much less time than you originally think. Jot down the entry during the phone call, while a visitor is on the way in, and at the beginning of an interruption.
Mackenzie says a time log brings its own reward:
The most astonishing time saver which results from a time log is the powerful self-correcting tendency which sets in automatically once you start the log. The time log is not only an essential diagnostic tool, it is an extremely effective time management device in itself.
One senior AT&T executive liked it so much that he "never stopped taking it."

Mackenzie also introduces employees to the "ideal day." They decide the best times for various activities and try to do them at the same time every day.

The ideal day is a template, in effect, for your daily plan. It indicates blocks of time for major categories of activities. Then, for each day's plan, you schedule the specifics in those major categories.

Mackenzie asks the organization to set up a "quiet hour," a period when everyone is able, in theory, to work without interruption for 60 minutes. He says that one hour of uninterrupted work is worth the weight of three which are constantly interrupted.

Mackenzie endorses the use of an organizer to plan and keep track of time. His Time Tactics organizer includes "Control Sheets" to track projects and a "Contact Log" to record decisions and follow-up items.  Also available: a "Time Waster Eliminator" form.

When he discusses the problem of the cluttered desk, probably the most prosaic of all time management topics, Mackenzie recalls the story of an executive in Heidelberg, Germany. The man turned to him and said:

Herr Doctor, do you know why we stack our desks? It's all those things we don't want to forget. We put them on top where we'll see them. The trouble is it works too well. Every time our gaze wanders, we remember them, and we forget what we we're working on.
Mackenzie's prescription is to "keep your desk clean for the rest of your life" and never have anything on it but what you are working on at the moment.

Along with the minutia of time management training,  Mackenzie teaches a system to set and manage goals. Mackenzie sees goals as the way to cope with turbulence in the U.S. economy:

People in contemporary society are likely to make at least seven significant career changes during their adult lives--and not all of their own choosing. This is a subject which should be dealt with universally in secondary schools and colleges so that it is less overwhelming when it occurs. The person who has thought through the concepts of success, failure, and change to determine what they really mean will be better equipped to approach change of this kind as learning experiences and as opportunities or challenges.
In 1990, Fortune magazine ran an article that included these remarks: "In spite of the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on it, time management training isn't working."

Surprisingly, these are the words of Alec Mackenzie, who told Fortune: "Managing time is a lot more difficult than what I imagined when I wrote The Time Trap." The problem, he says, is that the techniques go against human nature, like exercise or sound money management.

The Fortune article concluded:

The courses offer wisdom, but you probably can't corral time between cow skin covers. Consider this: When Mackenzie spoke with us, he asked if we had tried his Time Tactics organizer. "You really should," he urged. He promised to mail it the following day. But despite Mackenzie's theories, his best-seller, and his system, human nature intervened. He forgot to send it.

The Vasthead is the professional web site of
Grady McAllister of Houston, Texas.

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