The Time Trap by Alec Mackenzie is touted as “the classic book on time management” and was first published way back in the 1960s.
It has been updated several times since and after Mackenzie died in 2004, the legacy of his work was reorganized and updated by Pat Nickerson in the most recent Fourth Edition (2009), which is the one I am reviewing here. That was over a decade ago, so it’s still relatively old, but certainly much more relevant to the 21st century than the earlier editions.
In this Fourth Edition, Pat Nickerson has carefully considered the information provided in the previous editions and updated it accordingly.
She also offers interesting insights into how technology and changes in work culture have affected how we rank certain time-wasting factors compared with a decade ago.
While it is much more relevant than the earlier editions, it still feels a little dated in the sections discussing technology, but that says more about the speed with which technology has advanced over the last decade than it does about the relevance of the advice.
The Time Trap has been a bestseller in the past, but it doesn’t seem to get the recognition it deserves these days. That is a shame, because it is packed full of actionable advice with real-world examples, which are a little long-winded at times, but useful and insightful nevertheless.
Many of the tips go beyond the realm of time management and offer some solid guidance organization and administration, but not in a way that it feels like we’re veering off-topic since time management is all about how you operate and manage yourself on a daily basis anyway.
I think the reason why the book has been overlooked in more recent times is simply because of the way in which books get marketed these days.
Some of the newer publications addressing productivity and time management, such as Deep Work, Indistractable and The 4-Hour Workweek have received a lot of attention through social media and podcasting, but actually a lot the content in The Time Trap is every bit as useful.
The Time Trap is broken up into four parts.
Part One addresses the various demands imposed on us by our culture, by our workplace and by our ourselves that are essentially the root causes of the problems we have managing our time. It also looks at some common assumptions that people have about time management. For me, this was particularly insightful as it matched with my own observations as to why people often claim that time management doesn’t work. Sweeping away these assumptions with some logical arguments can lead to much better results.
Part Two examines the results of years of surveys and research into the most commonly-encountered ‘time traps’ that present the biggest barriers to achieving goals in business.
Each chapter is dedicated to one of fourteen identified time traps and how to deal with them.
1. Management By Crisis
In the event of a crisis or crises, it is easy to have your time and attention diverted away from your daily priorities. Mackenzie offers seven options for planning for the prevention of crises, as well as some solid advice on how to deal with a crisis when it happens and how to recover from it.
2. Inadequate Planning
This chapter highlights the importance of written daily plans, scheduling and the prioritization of tasks. These are all fundamentals when it comes to time management but it seems that barriers to implementing the basics persist in the workplace.
3. Inability to Say No
The human urges to attempt too much and to say ‘yes’ to all our fellow humans can have a massive impact on our time. This chapter offers advice when we should say ‘no’ and how to ‘no’ across firmly, yet gently. I have written about “How To Say ‘No'” here.
4. Poor Communication
Ineffective communication can waste huge amounts of time in addition to creating all sorts of problems in the workplace. This chapter explores ways to send our message effectively, how to listen properly, handling conflict and the importance of body language.
5. Poorly Run Meetings
Team meetings are often seen as a big waste of time and a major source of irritation for office workers the world over. This chapter provides some great ideas to help re-organize our thinking about meetings and how to structure them in a way that becomes productive and useful.
6. The World Gone Virtual
This chapter looks at how our technology is both a help and a hindrance. Some of the examples used feel a bit dated (e.g. use of Blackberrys), but the principles remain solid.
7. E-Mail Mania
Dealing with the many time management issues that arise from email and how to manage them effectively. I have written about a good way to manage your email here: “Does Inbox Zero Work?“
8. The Untamed Telephone
Despite the fact that email and texting have made communication so much quicker, we can still get bogged down when it comes to dealing with phone calls. This chapter explores some strategies to prevent calls with clients and colleagues becoming a drain on your time.
9. Incomplete Information and the Paper Chase
This chapter examines the handling of information and administration within the office environment and how to create systems that help you to get things done quickly.
10. Confused Responsibility and Authority
This is a time trap that can occur particularly when a business experiences change. Clarifying responsibilities, obligations and authority among employees can prevent chaos ensuing.
11. Poor Delegation and Training
This chapter looks at some myths about delegation, how to overcome reluctance to delegate and some best practice recommendations when it comes to successfully delegating tasks to the right person.
12. Procrastination and Leaving Tasks Unfinished
Whereas the previous eleven traps can be put down to polices and practices, the last three come down to our individual behaviour and habits. This chapter offers some practical remedies for procrastination and getting stuff done.
13. Socializing and Drop-In Visitors
Other people at work can be a huge drain on our time. This chapter provides advice on how to defend our time when we’re faced with the common intruder asking, “Hey, you got a minute?”
14. Attempting Too Much
Overcommitting can be a huge burden on our time and can lead to burn-out and stress. Delegate, learn to say ‘no’ to the boss and become better at estimating your time so that you don’t take on too much at once.
Part Three is a selection of ‘life lessons’ gleaned from the answers to ten time management related questions received from survey respondents. There are some interesting and relatable insights here into the kind of things people do to maintain a healthy work-life balance. This part of the book also encourages us to build an action plan to take control of our time.
The final part of the book is a really useful summary table of solutions to the main issues of each of the time traps covered throughout the book and serves as a good reminder should you wish to refer to the book at a later date without reading through it again in its entirety.
Time Hack Hero Takeaway
The Time Trap is well worth reading.
It’s filled with some smart advice, handy time management tactics and plenty of real-life examples and feedback. The book is definitely targeted towards the corporate world and time management in the workplace, but there are plenty of tactics that can be applied to the work of a solopreneur or a freelancer working from home.
The checklists and prompts to take action at the end of each chapter are a nice touch and a good way to encourage you to implement what you have just learned. After all, just planning to improve your time management does nothing – it’s the action you take that counts.
I have to admit that I did find myself skim-reading quite a lot of the book, but that was probably because I had read the Third Edition only a month earlier and so much of what was written in the Fourth Edition as already familiar to me. (I didn’t realize there was a Fourth Edition when I was reading the Third Edition.
Otherwise, I would have saved myself some time and gone straight for the Fourth!)
Some people may not like the writing style of Mackenzie and Nickerson and the points are laboured in places, but I think that if you have never read any other books on time management before, The Time Trap will provide you with a decent introduction to most of the strategies out there.