A Time Management Primer

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Predictive planning is a key foundation for responding effectively in a crisis. In this interview with Big4, Jack Healey provides insight on the practiced disciplines of time management, and how leaders must not only set the example, but through effective planning, show greater respect for their team’s work product.

What was the best time management advice you ever received?Jack Healey Headshot

While working late one night as a staff accountant at EY (f/k/a Ernst & Whinney), I read in a company bulletin: “Don’t let self-imposed deadlines force us into making hasty, ill-conceived decisions.”  That is a powerful statement and one I made note of. I refer to it often and have taught my direct reports (and children) this mantra and its meaning.

Can you define the term “self-imposed deadline” and the negative effects on time management?

A self-imposed deadline is one established with no real, underlying event driving the deadline.

An example in the Big4 world may be when a partner makes a broad declaration of ‘I want the work papers available for review tomorrow.’  The staff works late into the evening to complete the task and meet the deadline. Once complete, the work papers sit on the partner’s desk (or floor) for days before review.  The deadline given to the staff had no real meaning and the staff sees this. It devalues their work product and decays morale.

By discussing the true external deadline with the team, the team is still able to perform without the morale of the group taking a hit.

As a second year staff, I was told that we needed to wrap up a job on Christmas Eve. We worked late into the evening and met the deadline. Subsequently, our work product sat on the Manager’s desk for two weeks. Everyone on the team was aware of the disregard for our work, and everyone knew that the deadline was arbitrary.

Three years later, when the manager was passed over for partner, the general staff thought was: “Good! He had it coming.” The resentment was three years in the making, and was real and palpable.

Quality of decisions (especially technical ones), affect morale, and may degrade attention to detail and the interest of staff to go ‘above and beyond’ – these are the unintended consequences of those self-imposed deadlines which have no bearing on reality. All too often, lawsuits are the end-product of poor decisions made under capricious pressure.

Time management includes managing outcomes and process. If you’re on the way to a 4 PM meeting and find yourself stuck in traffic, do you drive twice as fast to reach your destination, or address and manage the delay? In accounting, it’s better to be late and right than on time and wrong.

What are some of other time management pratfalls that career focused people fall into at Big4 firms?

Putting too much on a to-do list for a given day; neglecting to block out time for personal commitments and family; working on weekends and through vacations as a normal business practice. One can alleviate stress by structuring the day to address ‘first things first”: return calls at a certain time, email at a certain time, and schedule time for professional reading and education – technical reading is extremely important, and an area many associates neglect.

What are some of best techniques for effective time management?


  • Keep calendars current and review the next day’s calendar the night before. Review the next day’s priority list the night before as well, and modify as necessary as priorities are wont to change;
  • Do keep a personal to-do list to help manage work/life balance;
  • Structure the day to return calls at a specific time, while assuring clients and staftime managementf have flexible access to you as needed;
  • Schedule time for “surprises” recognizing that you don’t solely control your entire day.

When I schedule my day, I often note the time I expect each task to take; if I have ten hours of to-do’s for a ten hour day, even if I worked ten hours, I couldn’t complete my list – I don’t control all of my day.

For parents, balance is critical; have your children call each day when they get home from school or activities, and take the call.  I have never had anyone in a meeting – when I informed them of the expected call – take issue. Although the calls may be short, it can help connect, and relieves stress and pressure.

What are some of the consequences of poor time management?

Feeling overwhelmed.  People who don’t keep documented lists will replay their ‘virtual’ list in their mind and feel overwhelmed.  They may miss client deadlines, personal deadlines, forget meetings, appear disorganized, arrive late for conference calls and meetings, and feel unfocused.  In short, they will stall and may find themselves unable to excel in a Big 4 career – or in business – without excellent time management skills.

Without time management, you also risk the loss of your personal identity.  Time management is for ALL time, not just work.

What other advice can you supply?   

There is no ‘one size fits all’ to time management. Experiment and find out what works best for you.  Once you find what works, stick to it, practice, make it a habit and make it part of your everyday (yes weekends too).  You will find you accomplish more.

We were all given the same 30,000 some-odd days on this earth, how will you spend today?  Without a plan, it may not be as fulfilling.


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