In our business, time is of the essence. Everything we do is deadline-driven, and more often than we would like to admit, our workload forces us to be reactive instead of proactive. The Parkinson Principle tells us that our work will expand to fill the available hours in a day; so, if you think you’ll ever get ahead of the curve by just working a little harder, guess again.The goal of this article is not to teach you how to work harder or faster (you’re probably already doing that). Instead, the goal is to teach you how to work “smarter.” You will learn to focus on the most important tasks. Often, we have difficulty focusing on the activities that bring us closer to our goals. Instead, we drift into a state of “mental sleepwalking.” We vigorously attack the tasks that pay the smallest dividends – meetings, e-mail, junk mail, repetitive reports, and unforeseen emergencies tend to fill our time. At the end of the day, we wonder where time actually went.Space (and time) does not permit us to discuss all areas of time management, so following is a focus on two related time wasters: telephone interruptions and drop-in visitors.Telephone InterruptionsThink about your typical day. How many times are you interrupted by telephone calls? Ten times? Twenty times? Whatever the number, the telephone represents perhaps our greatest time waster. When making a call, signal to the recipient that you are busy and have limited time by saying, “Mike, I know you’re real busy, so let me ask a quick question …” or, “Susan, I’m just headed into a two o’clock meeting, but …” You’ll find these two scripts very effective in framing the call as a quick business call and not as a leisurely social call.How many times have you been on the telephone and, try as you might, you can’t find a way to tactfully end the call? Being an effective manager of time does not require you to be anti-social. It does require a measure of assertiveness, though. For instance, when fielding a telephone call from a long-winded colleague, try this: “Mike, before I let you go, let me make sure I understand exactly what you need …” or, “John, this problem warrants more discussion, but right now I really need to get back on this report. Can we resume this conversation over lunch?”Drop-In VisitorsTime management gurus tell us that the average drop-in visit lasts a minimum of 10 minutes. What they don’t tell you is that once the visitor leaves, you waste precious minutes regaining your focus on the task at hand. Respect your own priorities and others will, too.If confronted with a drop-in visitor and you are indeed busy, why not say so? Similar to the telephone interruptions discussed previously, use a tactful script to avoid or reduce the interruption. For instance, “Paul, you caught me at a bad time. Can we talk about this at 2:00?” Or, perhaps, “Julie, I can give you two minutes now or 30 minutes after lunch.” Again, the use of prepared scripts proves to be the most effective way to handle interruptions. Think about your favorites; study them, practice them, and soon they will come naturally.In ConclusionObviously, these scripts are not exactly groundbreaking ideas; in fact, they border on common sense. Why don’t we use them? Usually, we haven’t prepared ahead of time for them and when we are faced with these time wasters, we don’t want to sound pushy – so we allow the interruption. These few scripts represent just a sampling of how you can assertively handle a difficult situation, such as a telephone interruption or a drop-in visitor.Productivity is not limited to how many widgets you can produce; how many sales you can close; or, in our industry, how much property you can effectively manage. It is much more encompassing and reaches all corners of life. By incorporating just a few of these ideas, you will be well on your way to greater happiness and satisfaction.Top 10 Time Management Blunders10. Inability to handle drop-in visitors.(Open door – “always-available” syndrome.) When you allow drop-in visitors to steal your time, you’re not respecting your busy schedule. Determine if the visit is a legitimate, job-related issue. Is it urgent or can it wait? Try these ideas: Remove the chairs from your office or use a script such as, “How much time do you need? I can give you 30 seconds now or 30 minutes after lunch.”9. Inability to limit telephone time wasters.The average unplanned telephone call takes 11 minutes. Most of this time is spent in needless over-socializing. Do the math. Suppose you field just six calls per day and each is 11 minutes in length. You’ll spend over an hour on the phone, with most of the time being wasted. Get to the point and finish those calls.8. Too difficult/not consistent/not customized.If your time management techniques fall into any of these categories, you’ll lose interest. This phenomenon usually occurs when we invest in electronic gadgets for the sake of having the latest tool. Be consistent. Create a “to-do” list each day, not just when you “have time.”7. Refusal to delegate.“Nobody can do the job as well as I can.” Probably true – but this is also the cause of many time management problems (see item No. 6). Decide what tasks are core to your job and focus on those areas. Allow your team to grow by delegating new and challenging tasks to them.6. Perfectionism.“Some jobs are worth doing well, while others are just worth doing.” If you give equal time to all tasks, you’re just not being effective. Save your energy and time for the tasks that pay the greatest dividends.5. Lack of filing system/cluttered desk.What does your desk look like? Can you find that important document quickly? If these problems affect you, make a change. Try utilizing a vertical file rack on your desk that holds the most frequently accessed documents. Try to color coordinate the files. For example:Green: To read Red: Priority project Yellow: To fileOrange: CorrespondenceBlue: Fax cover sheet4. Inability to say ‘NO.’Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to “Go the extra mile … think outside the box.” Saying no is often viewed as a character flaw. You owe it to yourself to say “no.” When your schedule cannot absorb another project, say so. Offer to do the project if another project can be delayed. Delegate. If you find this task difficult, ask yourself: “What is the worst that can happen if I say no?”3. Lack of priorities.If you treat everything as a priority, then nothing will be. Same with a crisis. Try a simple priority ranking system such as “ABC 123.” “A” would be assigned to those tasks both urgent and important. “B” would be assigned to tasks you would like to complete today, but not urgent. “C” tasks would be least critical, could be deferred, or even delegated. Rank the tasks each day (using a to-do list) and concentrate on the “A” tasks first. No exceptions, unless a more urgent (and important) task comes your way.2. Trying to do too much.Concentrate your efforts on the tasks that are core to your job. Don’t take on too much. You’ll effectively make yourself less effective. Never schedule more than 50 percent of your time, and always over-estimate the time something will take.The No. 1 time waster: Procrastination.Whether we procrastinate due to fear of failure, a large project, or an unpleasant task, the results are always destructive. Realize procrastination for what it is and vigorously fight it. Always review your priorities and ask, “Is this the most important task I could be doing right now?” If not, change tasks. Consider this procrastination solution: Create a deadline to start the project.David A. Casavant is president at Lake Worth, FL-based Carlyle Consulting Group, a firm specializing in workplace productivity, process re-engineering, and transition management. Casavant is also a member of the South Florida IFMA Chapter and is a certified BOMI instructor.