Stopwatch“Remember that time is money,” said Benjamin Franklin, statesman, philosopher and one of the founding fathers of the US. Maybe it’s because he made this statement nearly three centuries ago in 1748 that many of us don’t remember it. Capital, people and even technology can be obtained by debt or equity, hiring or licensing. However, the one thing that no entrepreneur can get more of is time. Yet most of us treat our own time as a fungible commodity available in endless supply. Bankruptcies, broken marriages, debt traps and nervous breakdowns have not cured many of this fallacy. To be successful as entrepreneurs, it is critical that we recognise time is a perishable commodity.

Just as our favourite foods are probably the least healthy, we will discover that many of our favourite activities as founders and entrepreneurs are the biggest waste of time. Even as crash diets don’t work, and diets have to be combined with exercise, using our time effectively calls for both a balancing of our activities with objectives and a good deal of self-discipline. Self-discipline, in particular, is not a strength of many of us entrepreneurs. At times, we even wear our lack of it as a badge of honour, mistaking ad hoc behaviour for freedom and lack of discipline for being creative and unfettered.

At the other end of the spectrum, young or first-time entrepreneurs and particularly Indian entrepreneurs are loathe to appear rude to elders, be they advisors, board members, customers or suppliers. Neither of these behaviours contributes to success at work.

If time is indeed our most precious resource, how do we save and deploy it better? And how do we find the time for this new “time-saving” project? Much like brushing your teeth, make planning your day a daily habit, done before you embark on anything else. And here is one way to go about it.

Measure it

Even when I have walked for just one day, I find myself checking my weight. (Okay I admit, more than once a day). And the reason I do that (and am pretty sure I am not the only one) is we can only change what we measure. If your plan is to save time (or lose weight, or make money) if you don’t measure it, you cannot address it, let alone fix it. So right after reading this article, take a piece of paper and once every hour write down what you did. You don’t need software or a PDA — a pencil and a sheet of paper are sufficient. Begin with your workday — say 9 am to 5 pm and do this for the next five working days.

Be honest with yourself — write down “read the newspaper” if that is what you did, or “idled in the cafeteria,” “worked on Jameson proposal,” “weekly staff meeting,” or “browsing the Internet”. Even this exercise will show how much time is unaccounted for. As with taking antibiotics, if you miss one dose (or hour), continue with the subsequent dose (next hour) and write down your hourly activities for 40 hours.

As with exercise, let a colleague or an administrative assistant or if you are bold enough your spouse, know about the little project you are doing and they will ensure that you follow through.

Once you have a week’s worth of data, analyse it. This again does not require college math — just break it down into simple categories relevant to your business. For instance, it could be simply high-level categories of what you deem are value-added activities — customer contact time, employee contact time, planning, product development and activities such as lunch, entertainment, travel, other phone calls and meetings. Alternately, if you are analytical, you could break this down into greater detail. Either way, the idea is to first identify where your time goes and what activities cumulatively consume how much of your time. Most people report that meetings and interruptions are the biggest thieves of time. Depending on your business and your personal style, you may find other categories of activities to be your largest time sinks.

Prioritise it

Assuming that you have not keeled over in surprise to see where your time truly goes, you are ready to take charge of your time budget. Stephen Covey, author of First Things First, narrates the story of a speaker who walks his audience through the process of filling an empty bucket, first with rocks, then with gravel, sand and finally water. When he first fills the bucket with rocks, the audience responds positively to his question whether the bucket is full. But watching him pour gravel into the rock-filled bucket, they realise the bucket can take more. Only when he finally fills it with water and states that the bucket is full, do they agree it truly is. The insight from this exercise, Stephen Covey narrates, is that if they had tried to fill the bucket in any other order, not as many of the large rocks would have been accommodated. In this story, your day/time is the bucket and the truly important things that you want to get accomplished, the big rocks. All the other stuff — browsing the Internet, reading the newspaper, tea breaks — are all water and sand taking up space that should have rightly gone for your important tasks.

So having analysed how your time is being spent, you need to prioritise what is important — for the week and for the day. Begin by doing those that are of the highest priority first. Then move on to lower priority items. This is harder than it sounds as all too often something of a lower priority will be (or at least seem) a whole lot easier to get done — make that phone call, pay that bill. So it takes self-discipline (there’s that word again) and focus to ensure that time does not get away from you. But once you make it a habit to work on the high-priority items first, you will find it easier and the time you save will be reward enough to continue the practice.

Value it

If all of us worked by ourselves, measuring and prioritising would be sufficient to deliver significant time-saving and productivity gain. However, few of us have that luxury (in my case punishment, if I had to work by myself) and this brings us to a large source of time wastage — meetings and interactions with other people. Contrary to popular belief, it is not others who cause us to waste our time but ourselves. How often have we communicated how valuable that new iPhone is or how precious that autographed book? Yet, we rarely assert that time is precious.

So this source of wasted time can only be tamed by us valuing our time and demonstrating that we value our time. This begins with being punctual, staying on schedule and demonstrating through our actions that we value our (and others’) time. This is the hardest of the three steps I have outlined. If not done right, you will at best come across as insensitive or at worst insufferable and self-important. In that event, it might not hurt to have a bucket, some rocks, and sand handy or at least a copy of this article.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.