Project managers (PMs) manage time for a living, so it’s ironic that so few of them manage their own time with the organization and discipline they bring to projects.

I don’t think the occasional daydream or extended trip to the coffee pot is what’s causing your time crunch. The things that can sabotage your effectiveness over the long run are the habitual behavior patterns that most of us never think about.

Here’s a list of some routine time-wasters that we all fall prey to and some ideas for how to break these bad habits.

Develop the master project plan

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Misplaced items
No organization I’m aware of actually approaches the dream of a paperless office. Missing documents will continue to be a problem until someone invents a way to search for and locate paperwork by content.

My advice: Delegate the search
Rather than searching for documents yourself, delegate this task to a diligent employee. When confronted by that bulging in-tray, be ruthless in scanning each item, once, to assess its importance. If it has a high priority, deal with it now. Otherwise, delegate or archive it.

Interruptions and distractions
Unforeseen and last-minute interruptions are often inevitable.

My advice: Learn time triage
Don’t just assume that all interruptions are equally worthy of your instant attention. Instead, learn the art of time triage. Ask yourself: What do I have to deal with now? The essence of personal time management is to be able to distinguish between the urgent and the important. We’ve all been distracted by an interesting conversation or e-mail. The point is to make sure these distractions don’t become a part of your day or force you to work overtime.

It’s human nature to want to put off projects that are especially tedious or difficult.

My advice: Prioritize
For me, the best approach is to clearly state my two or three priorities for the day. Then I break them into digestible subtasks and work on them until they’re complete. Flag or bypass emerging large-scale roadblocks; these growing problems might be your top priority tomorrow.

Reverse delegation
If you frequently tell team members, “Just leave it with me,” that’s a sign you don’t trust them to do a good job.

My advice: Clearly define your responsibilities
Develop a clear concept, either in your head or in writing, about what tasks are specifically your responsibilities. Delegate other tasks.

Perfectionists often have a difficult time deciding how good is “good enough.”

My advice: Don’t gild the lily
In all of your projects, there will be a quality system that should let your team know when to stop. Other activities require more personal judgment. Sometimes, you may be asked to perform an extra task with no warning. Resist the urge to provide superfluous detail or put polish on noncritical objectives—it’s a sign of lack of confidence and perspective.

Meetings can be time-wasting juggernauts.

My advice: Focus on the specific agenda
When you receive a meeting invitation, politely ask what your role will be and how much time is slated for that in the meeting. It might be possible for you to attend the meeting for a particular time slot rather than the entire event. On the other hand, if you’re running a meeting, assume that all attendees are as busy as you and prepare to answer these questions yourself.

These are what can occur if you miss or underestimate one of the aforementioned roadblocks.

My advice: Put out that fire!
Focus all your attention on extinguishing or controlling the “fire.” The upside of a crisis is that you immediately know how to manage your time.

Practice what you preach
When my day begins, I ask myself these two questions:

  • Is there a published structure to my day (e.g., a shared Web diary)?
  • What times do I not want to be disturbed?

Answering these questions allows me to create a mental outline of the day. I find that this simple exercise helps circumvent many of the bad time management habits I’ve listed—especially procrastination.

Throughout my day, I try to keep my eyes open for times when I’m being busy rather than effective. When I catch myself wasting time, I scribble a note about what the time-waster is and then visualize the many benefits of not doing it. After a couple of days of this, it becomes easier to spot time-wasting habits and think of creative ways to correct them.