Productivity and effectiveness are themes running throughout Peter Drucker’s management philosophy. He made it plain that neither could be achieved without properly managing your time. One of his most important and popular books, The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done, expresses this in the chapter “Know Thy Time.” Time management becomes a fundamental building block to goal achievement, gaining meaningful results, and making decisions on how you can discover and act on the important things in life.
We are undeniably in a different era than 55 years ago, but Drucker’s 26-page chapter on time management remains powerful. He expresses that the effective use of precious, irreplaceable time also encompasses larger themes, such as taking a wider view of yourself and your role within an organization, thinking bigger, acting responsibly, and striving for personal/professional development.
This means maintaining a holistic view of how your work affects other people inside and outside an organization. Being holistic also means setting priorities and being sure that you engage in self-reflection, part of his contention that management involves balancing action and contemplation. In our 2005 interview, he remarked that “the effective people I know simply discipline themselves to have enough time for thinking.”
Drucker writes in The Effective Executive: “Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed. The analysis of one’s time, moreover, is the one easily accessible and yet systematic way to analyze one’s work and to think through what really matters in it.”
Using time more effectively
Time management in Drucker’s common-sense view rests on the pillars of recording and analyzing your time use and minimizing time-wasting, especially by curtailing activities that don’t contribute to your effectiveness and personal or organizational goals. He returned to these themes throughout his life. For instance, in a 2002 interview, he remarked, “Learn to manage your time. The secret is not to do the five million things that do not need to be done and will never be missed.”
He advised each person to delineate everything you do and how much time each individual activity takes. That helps you see how you actually spend time, as opposed to how you think you spend it. He said that there was usually a mismatch between how people judged the percentage of time they spent on various activities, versus what was revealed in the analysis.
Starting out with an awareness of your time helps you gain understanding about your present reality, and therefore aids your ability to tackle anything new or different. As you develop ideas about new activities and assess the time needed to accomplish them, the time analysis can help you determine how best to express your talents and ideas, and how much you want to, or are able to, involve other people in your endeavors.
Drucker realized that it was impractical to think that you had sole discretion over how you would spend your days. He remarks in the “Know Thy Time” chapter that “The executive’s time tends to belong to everybody else.” This plays out in constant interruptions, some frivolous but others important.
Once you’ve properly analyzed your time and current tasks and tried to eliminate waste, the final step in Drucker’s plan is to consolidate the available time that really is under your control and discretion. He points out that in order to get the right things done, effective executives need “large chunks of time and that small driblets are no time at all.”
Drucker was ahead of his time in calling for the need to be serious about developing a systematic approach to the use of time. One of today’s most important authors on productivity, Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport, in his 2020 book The Time-Block Planner: A Daily Method for Deep Work in a Distracted World, calls The Effective Executive “one of the first professional productivity books ever written.” Another contemporary productivity expert, Laura Stack, noted that The Effective Executive was the inspiration for her 2016 book Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time.
The Effective Executive in Action: A Journal for Getting the Right Things Done is a workbook written with the late Joseph A. Maciariello, Drucker’s longtime friend and Drucker School teaching colleague; it was published in late 2005, not long after Drucker’s death at age 95. Themes about time management and more from The Effective Executive are explored in one- or two-page segments, with a brief aphorism, quotes from the original book, new questions posed by the authors, followed by blank space, and finally, action prompts, also followed by white space. Working in this format thus becomes similar to developing your time log, with the resulting priorities and decisions that arise from your analysis.
Maciariello returns to the time management theme in his 2014 book A Year with Peter Drucker: 52 Weeks of Coaching for Leadership Effectiveness. He combines excerpts from various Drucker books, with insights and reflections on distinguishing between the urgent and the important, asking yourself what needs to be done versus what you want to do, and the constant trade-offs between the short term and the long term, the present and the future.
Time management has perpetual relevance because it is a fact of life with which nearly everyone struggles. There are, and will continue to be, many aids to the process, both on paper and digital. There is no reason you can’t pair these systems with Drucker’s pioneering fundamentals to use your own time as effectively and productively as possible.