The Time Trap: The Classic Book on Time Management / Edition 3

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One of the all-time bestselling books on time management, The Time Trap has shown countless readers how to squeeze the optimal efficiency—and satisfaction—out of their work day. Based on decades of research with businesspeople around the world, The Time Trap shows readers how to:

• avoid so-called “time savers” that don’t really work

• set realistic goals and make commitments they can keep

• juggle multiple demands

• estimate time needed on new tasks

• pinpoint and combat the most tenacious time-wasters

• protect their priorities

• upgrade personal productivity for professional success

Filled with smart tactics, revealing interviews, and handy time management tools, the fourth edition has been extensively revised to include technology-based solutions to the challenges and opportunities we all face in the virtual world. For those who feel swamped by work and overwhelmed by information, this is the proven guide they need to get everything under control.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814479261
  • Publisher: AMACOM Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/1997
  • Edition description: REV
  • Edition number: 3
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.11 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Alec Mackenzie was an internationally known speaker, consultant, and expert on time management.

Pat Nickerson (San Diego, CA), founder and president of EBI, Inc., is the author of Managing Multiple Bosses (978-08144-7025-1). A corporate trainer, she has trained more than 180,000 managers and professionals in time management.

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Read an Excerpt

The Time Trap

The Classic Book on Time Management
By Alec Mackenzie Pat Nickerson


Copyright © 2009 Pat Nickerson and Alec Mackenzie
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8144-1339-5

Chapter One

Why Time Still Baffles the Best of Us

We've all heard ourselves say it: "There's never enough time!"

Maybe Noah and his family said it, too, as they hurried the paired animals aboard the ark. But, like our forebears of long ago, we all get the same twenty-four hours, the same 1,440 minutes daily. Noah's advantage? His team got a precise deadline, clear consequences, and detailed instructions from a Higher Authority on exactly when and how to proceed.

If you don't feel similarly advantaged, the progress you can make in your allotted time will vary with your culture, your circumstances, and, especially, your choices.

Certainly, having fewer choices would simplify your life. If you've ever lived through a natural disaster, or even a lengthy power outage, you know how it feels to be flung back to fundamentals. Intensely involved, you labor from dawn to dusk on essential survival tasks; you make further progress if you can, by moonlight, firelight, candlelight, or battery power, until well-earned sleep overtakes you. Later, you may remember your effort with pride, but you won't want to repeat it.


Why do we seem able to master our time during a crisis, but not on ordinary days? Because of the trio of overarching "supertraps," from which all the other time traps descend. These are:

Trivial Distractions Undue Expectations Urgency Trumping Validity

How Distractions Drain Our Time

Let's think about your work/life situation today, especially as it affects your time. If you're like most people, your home, car, and office are loaded with modern tools and data resources. You can stay on top of world news at every moment, reacting quickly to any problem or opportunity that may arise. But, should you?

How Crucial Is Connectivity?

How was it that our forebears, unacquainted with high-speed tools and twenty-four-hour connectivity, were able to research, invent, and achieve so many wonders—from cave paintings to cathedrals, from empire building to electric power, from railroads to radium, from gold panning to trepanning—all between sunlight or candlelight, in the "lands before laptops"? Were they gifted with more grit and intelligence than we? Were they stronger, smarter? Or were they blissfully free of the first great super-trap, Trivial Distractions?

Does Multitasking Save or Waste Time?

Look at your situation today. Everywhere, people try to convince the working public that multitasking is a duty at all times. You've seen those drivers in the next lane, commuting to work. If they're multitasking to save time, they use their GPS and radio traffic alerts to enable a last-minute diagonal dash for the nearest exit. They may try to save even more time by tapping out a text message or returning phone calls, all while slurping their Starbucks and negotiating the off-ramp at 70 mph. Will the time they save by multitasking pay off? Or will it vanish in a cloud of sparks when another driver, similarly engaged, suddenly makes contact? What was their hurry, you wonder, shaking your head as you drive smoothly past.

More and more researchers dispute the notion that multitasking saves time: the human brain cannot actually process two opposing thoughts simultaneously, without loss of quality on both streams of thought. Instead, we do better when we handle mental tasks singly and sequentially. We may improve performance by using visual reminders to stay on track and—with practice—we may accelerate the transit from one task to the next. But even then, focus is easily lost.

Retaining Concentration

You've probably noticed that you make most errors in those closing moments of a task when your mind has moved on, before your fingers can finish the typing, or your hammer can connect with the final nail. Ouch! If we can hold focus on the first thought, wrap it up quickly, and then move on to the next, we may gain some value. If we list our upcoming tasks in writing or on a screen, keeping it always visible before us, we can accelerate when ready. But, meanwhile, we should give each task our single-focus intensity, not split attention, to save time effectively.


At our Time Management seminars, we often ask frazzled attendees how they would use the magical gift of a free hour per day. The majority of respondents sing out "Sleep!"

Does that response surprise you? Sadden you? Or sound just like you?

According to studies by various sleep researchers, American adults now average only six hours and forty minutes of sleep per night—not the eight hours recommended to earlier generations. (Indeed, mattress advertisers tell us to maximize a mere six hours by buying better bedding!)

But how do we spend our time preparing for sleep? Many working adults admit to collapsing after dinner, numbly decompressing in front of the TV, while their kids toggle between social web sites, Instant Messaging, combat games, music players, and homework. Ah yes, homework. For too many kids, physical exercise is taken indoors, using only their thumbs! No wonder they're too spent to get up in the morning!

Joking aside, what would most working adults do with that magical twenty-fifth hour? Let's look at some effective escapes from our time traps.


If you imagine your "gift hour" given to you at a time of your choosing-not when you are fatigued (as might have justified the sleep response) but at a high-energy time—your best time of day—you might have answered differently. Let's ask the energetic you: How would you use your twenty-fifth hour?

Work on your latest invention?

Play a sport, or exercise?

Visit with friends?

Play ball with your kids?

Clean up your room?


Read, study?

Meditate, pray?

Paint a picture?

Visit a gallery?

Learn guitar?



Repaint a room?

Get a spa treatment?

Volunteer for a cause you care about?

Add yours here.



Whatever you selected, one thing is sure: you would hold that gift hour strictly for that goal, not permitting any random distractions or subtractions. You'd insist on staying focused on your chosen goal. You'd be clear about your motive for managing that rare gift of time.

If, before going on with this book, you focus on an important personal or life goal currently out of reach, you'll gain a strong impetus to escape any time trap that frustrates you now. So, before proceeding much further, picture that valued goal, keep it modest enough to build or savor in the single saved hour per day ... something that would keep repaying you with pride or serenity, not just once, but many times over, in the next few weeks or months. Imagine that hour, reliably yours, every day. Keep it in sight.

What About a Gift Hour at Work?

Suppose people in authority gave you the same option at work—the gift of an hour each day—not to handle their work priorities but to handle yours? What high-value task, important to you or your career, eludes you now because of time demands from customers, colleagues, or bosses? How often have you heard yourself say, "It's just my stuff. I'll get to it when everything else quiets down around here."

But that quiet never comes during working hours, so you squeeze in unpaid overtime to work on it, unobstructed. Perhaps as you ponder this book, you can add that task to the list of goals worthy of your best time-management resolves.

Expectations: What Should We Do at Work?

"Choose what to do at work? Who is free to think that way?" you may ask.

You! Yes, you have not only the freedom but the duty to choose what to do at work No matter how sincerely you want to excel at service, no matter how customer-focused your company's policies—everyone must, sooner or later, stake out some criteria that will validate the work they are doing eight to ten hours per day.

Consider the following criteria for accepting a new task, and you may realize that you have been using some or all of these measures, all along. Perhaps these criteria have brought you a modicum of the success you now enjoy.

Picture this: an unusual request comes in when your work schedule is already full. A conflict is apparent. You must consider the following questions:

What is the validity of this new demand? (Its impact or importance, overall?)

What is its political sensitivity? (Is it coming from "on high"?)

What is the complexity of the demand? (Are multiple elements involved?)

What are the costs, risks, or opportunities?

What options would produce what kinds of distinct outcomes?

Whose consultation must be tapped for approaches or approvals?

Finally—what is its relative urgency, compared with tasks on the front burner?

What you are doing here is making a decision: should this task be allowed to compete for your time against other tasks already booked?

When a request is sent to you because you are the "house expert," or Subject Matter Expert (SME), your expertise may allow you to process those questions so rapidly, easily, and instinctively, that requesters are awed. Soon, however, they'll come to expect your instant response on all topics, familiar or not. Once that happens, you have been typecast; you have stepped unwittingly into the second of the three supertraps, Bowing to Undue Expectations.


So, how can you pull people's expectation into line with reality? You'd need to figure this out:

1. On what proportion of all incoming work do you need to stop and assess validity?

For senior managers, who handle mostly decisions and far fewer routines, the sum of incoming tasks that need validating could exceed 80 percent.

For mid-level managers and specialists with a lot of precise but repetitive work, some validity questions may have been settled earlier. But you must still reassess incoming tasks when the size of your workload threatens feasibility. If a demand suddenly balloons your workload by more than 20 percent, you need to question the feasibility of that demand. Except in brief emergencies, you cannot add to a full workload by more than 20 percent without risking blind errors. (You'd be talking about moving to a six-day week for the duration of that task—and we know where that leads.)

2. As a second step, answering the other validity questions—political sensitivity, complexity, cost and staffing—will complete your analysis of task validity.

3. Only now, with incoming tasks validated, should you take up the question of urgency. Unless you're running the Emergency Room, the urgency of a task should not influence you as a first consideration. Confirm this, to avoid entering the third of the supertraps, Letting Urgency Upstage Validity.


Only after validating expectations as realistic would you allow urgency to enter your mind. The new rule goes like this:Urgency is a tiebreaker only between two tasks of equal validity.

This is how field hospitals perform triage, not on how fast they can get all patients into surgery but, by determining the seriousness of the damage and the likelihood of each patient's surviving surgery. For example, several wounded are brought in to a field hospital. Two have life-threatening injuries. (They are "A" patients.) Several others have less serious injuries and have been stabilized. (They are "B" patients.) If there is only one surgeon, urgency is now used to break the tie between the two "A" patients: equally serious but with one stronger than the other, the more fragile case will go into surgery first. The stronger patient will go in next. But the "B" cases may have to wait indefinitely, getting attention and care, but not surgery. They are not in the "A" contest at all.

In similar ways, the triage rule follows for business. Urgency is used to tiebreak between two business issues of equal seriousness. If you work to categorize tasks in terms of their objective importance, you will not be overwhelmed by all those requesters who consider themselves to be "Number One." You'll have a firm grasp on the following rule: Urgency cannot overrule validity. Give some calm thought to this as you review your current and expected workloads.


Your goal in pursuing better time management is to reach the end of any challenging day, and ask yourself:

How many minutes or hours was I able to focus, undistracted? (If you were able to beat the average manager's eight minutes of peace and concentration, celebrate!)

How often did I insist that validity trump apparent urgency? (If your answer makes you proud, celebrate!)

What proportion of my work added value for those I am here to serve? (If your answer pleases you, celebrate!)

Was I able to negotiate realistic expectations (quantity, quality and time) in order to validated some tasks? ( If yes, then celebrate!)

How often, today, did my decisions fit my sense of ethics? (Celebrate!)

Did I work hard, meet a lot of my goals, and have some fun, too? (Celebrate!)


Excerpted from The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie Pat Nickerson Copyright © 2009 by Pat Nickerson and Alec Mackenzie. Excerpted by permission of AMACOM. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface to the Third Edition
Pt. 1 Time Management in the Year 2000 and Beyond 1
1 Why Is Time Management Still a Problem? 3
2 New Perspectives: The Real Purpose of Time Management 14
3 Planning Puts You in Control 29
4 Making Changes: Start Where You Are 46
Pt. 2 The Twenty Biggest Time Wasters and How to Cure Them 61
1 Management by Crisis 63
2 Telephone Interruptions 71
3 Inadequate Planning 81
4 Attempting Too Much 96
5 Drop-In Visitors 103
6 Ineffective Delegation 114
7 Personal Disorganization 121
8 Lack of Self-Discipline 131
9 Inability to Say No 136
10 Procrastination 141
11 Meetings 149
12 Paperwork 157
13 Leaving Tasks Unfinished 166
14 Inadequate Staff 170
15 Socializing 174
16 Confused Responsibility or Authority 179
17 Poor Communication 184
18 Inadequate Controls and Progress Reports 190
19 Incomplete Information 197
20 Travel 201
Pt. 3 Using Time to Live and Work Better 209
Sect. A Successful Top Time Managers Reveal Their Biggest Challenges and Their Biggest Secrets 211
Sect. B Your Action Plan 233
App. A Escaping the Time Trap: Summary of the Twenty Biggest Time Wasters and Their Causes and Solutions 247
App. B Electronic Time Management 268
Index 275
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