An effective public works manager...manages time

John Ostrowski
Management Consultant, JOMC
Vancouver, Washington
Member, APWA Leadership and Management Committee
Speaker, 2005 APWA Congress

Note: The APWA Leadership and Management Committee has developed a set of core competencies for public works managers. The series of articles in the APWA Reporter based on these competencies—entitled "The Baker's Menu"—is designed to help public works professionals recognize and develop managerial talent. Included in this issue is the fifth in the series of competencies recommended by the committee. For more information please contact Ann Daniels, APWA Director of Technical Services, at (800) 848-APWA or at

Have you tried all those time management techniques and still find yourself pressed for time and stressed? Maybe they don't work for you. Maybe you need something else. But what else is there? Maybe the problem is you. Maybe it's not. Is any of this helping so far?

Most of the people who give advice on how to better manage one's time tell you how to do what they do. They know what works for them and they attract people who want to be like them and think that following their formula will work for them. The problem is that we're all different and one size doesn't fit all when it comes to time management.

There are, however, several things related to time management that are common to all of us. The trick is to understand those commonalties and apply them in a way that works for our personality type. We need to experiment a little to find the right techniques for us. Unfortunately, if we're the type of person who doesn't like to experiment, this probably won't work. The good news for this person is that they'll only try something once and then discard if it doesn't work and then not waste any more time trying time management techniques. The bad news is that the right technique for them is probably in the pile they didn't investigate.

So what do we have in common regardless of personality type? First of all we all need to know what it is we're trying to accomplish. Why do you want to manage your time better? Do you want to manage your time better? Maybe you say you do, but not having enough time has been a convenient excuse for you for not getting things done or not getting them done on time. Do you always finish things at the last minute so that your boss doesn't have much time to review your work? Could you have finished it earlier allowing your boss to make all sorts of picky comments you don't want to hear? In other words, is late completion of assignments an actual time management technique you're using to avoid doing work you don't want to do?

If you really do want to manage your time differently (you'll notice I didn't say better), why do you want to do that? Do you want to spend more time with your family? Do you find yourself not having time for the things you think are really important? All of these are good reasons for changing the way you behave. Of course, if you're happy with the amount of time you spend at work and how your time is allocated, you're probably already following a system that works for you or won't stick with some new system because you're really not that motivated to change. You're also not reading this article because you don't see the need and want to spend your time on something else.

The second thing we need to understand is that we can't do everything and something has to fall off the table. That means we need to prioritize. Some of us are better at this than others and may even do it intuitively. Some of us need help. One of the main reasons small businesses go out of business (after undercapitalization) is that they fail to prioritize. They don't focus on their main business and spend a lot of time working on things that don't have a high return. Working very hard at the wrong thing is the secret of failure. We don't learn this lesson as well in government because we can work very hard at the wrong thing for a very long time before anyone notices and reassigns us to some other wrong thing. I'm not saying that's ever happened to you, just that it could.

If you understand those two things about time management you should be able to manage your time by focusing on what you want to get out of life and only doing those things that fit that mission. Only a small percentage of you will be successful with no more help than that, however. Most of us have personalities and those personalities can get in the way of the best mission statement.

If you have a very directive personality, you might have no trouble setting priorities but your priorities will take precedence over your customer's priorities. Start by asking what's important to your customer and then use that to guide your priority setting.

If you're a very analytical person, you might spend most of the rest of your life analyzing and reanalyzing your priorities. Use one of the techniques that appear later in this article and then stop. You'll come back later and reevaluate everything anyway and there's nothing I can do to stop you. So just do it and enjoy it but only do it on weekends so it doesn't interfere with real work.

If you're a very sociable type, you might find it hard to set priorities that leave someone out. You're probably okay if you do that but don't keep adding stuff to your priority list. Remember when everything has priority, nothing does. The way to catch yourself is to keep track of what you actually work on and then make a new priority list based on the amount of time you spend on different competing interests. If that list doesn't match what you originally thought was the right list, you have to develop a plan that gets you back on track but doesn't offend anybody. That's going to be your biggest challenge and I don't have great hopes for you unless you learn how to say no.

If you're a very expressive person, you're wondering why we're still talking about this. You set your priorities and started working on them a long time ago. You might have set them too quickly, however, so now is a good time to go back and see if you need to adjust anything. Fortunately, you have plenty of time to do this because you never get into too much detail anyway and don't have a problem with time management in the first place.

Now that you know what not to do, let's look at some things you might find useful.

A Personal Retreat: I once went to a seminar during which the speaker told us how to find time to read more. He had a 4-15 reading program in which you spend 15 minutes a day reading something in each of his 4 suggested subject areas. His contention was that you can always find 15 minutes somewhere in your day to read and if you set aside those 15 minutes, you'll find yourself spending longer at it if you're reading something you enjoy. The same idea works for planning how to get control of your time. If you just can't find the time in your day to do the necessary planning, set aside an hour on a Saturday morning and go somewhere to figure things out. If that somewhere is work, don't start by looking in your in-basket or using the time to catch up on some other things that need to be done. If you just can't resist the temptation there, take a notepad and go to a park and start making lists of what you like to do and don't like to do and estimate how much of your time you're spending on different activities now. In other words, make a bunch of lists to figure out what your priorities are and what they ought to be.

Ignoring the C drawer: There's a book that's been around for ages called How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, and in it is the suggestion to put incoming items in your A drawer if your job depends on getting them done, your B drawer if they're not quite that important, and your C drawer if they don't belong in the A or B drawers. What you find is that you can pretty much forget about the C drawer. Periodically you will have to empty the C drawer because it gets so full. This is a good time to look at what's in there and see if there's anything that's somehow graduated to the A or B drawers. What you'll find instead is a bunch of stuff that isn't very important and that could have taken a lot of your time if you'd put it on your checklist and made yourself do something.

The Type "A" advantage: I used to think I was a procrastinator but now I just think I have good timing. Actually, I usually try to do two or more things at once when I can and this can require actually putting things off to when they can be done together with something else. When I was a public official, I never answered phone calls immediately unless I knew it was something really important or it was an old friend that I really enjoyed talking to. Sometimes I knew that there was a pretty good chance I'd see someone who called that same day at the coffee shop or at a meeting. People usually came to City Council workshops a few minutes early and I was always there then, so I could talk to anybody who'd been trying to reach me during the day. This only works if you have a pretty good idea that the person you want to talk to will actually be there.

The other phone call return technique that accomplishes more than one thing is to return citizen complaint calls (not the "we need service right now" calls) around dinner time if you're still at work. It does three things. First, it returns the call. Second, it shortens the call because they want to get back to their dinner. Third, it lets them know that it's after working hours and you're still there. That last thing might seem devious but people need to know that you're not a 9-5 person, and telling them you put in a lot of hours doesn't mean as much as showing them that you do.

Creative Procrastination: Do the things you like to do first and find a way to break down the things you don't like to do so that they start with fun. For example, if you don't like to talk to people on the phone find all you can about them at their website first. Just doing other things on your checklist first can build momentum too, so don't worry about whether they're easy or not. If you tend to procrastinate, starting is more important than where you start. Also, spend time planning how to be more efficient at the things you don't like to do.

Creative Procrastination 2: Question all urgency. Experience says hurrying isn't always necessary, just the anxious response of people who don't really know what needs to be done.

Hope you found something you can use in all of this because this is all we have time for.

John Ostrowski is a member of the Leadership and Management Committee and a past member of the Engineering and Technology Committee. He can be reached at (360) 573-7594 or

"The essence of time management is to set priorities and organize around them." - Stephen Covey

"Time makes more converts than reason." - Thomas Paine

"It is the hour for drunkenness! If you would not be the martyred slave of time, drink without stopping! Drink wine, drink poetry, drink virtue, drink as you wish." - Baudelaire

Core Competencies at a Glance

  • Encourages Team Building
  • Involves Others
  • Possesses Oral/Written Skills
  • Builds Trust/Respect
  • Prioritizes
  • Sets Realistic Goals
  • Helps Others to Succeed
  • Resolves Conflict
  • Manages Time
  • Manages Workload
  • Develops Staff
  • Anticipates Future Needs
  • Is Flexible