Peter Drucker on Time Management

Time. It’s the one unique resource that we cannot replace or replenish. Every minute that we spend doing one thing, is a minute that we cannot spend doing something else. We cannot go back to yesterday and change the way we spent our time, and neither can we look into the future to see how much time we still have in this life. Realistically speaking, the only time we have is now, so if we want to accomplish something we are going to need to optimize for it.

As with so many things Seneca stresses the urgency and waste of time best:

‘We are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Just as when ample and princely wealth falls to a bad owner it is squandered in a moment, but wealth however modest, if entrusted to a good custodian, increases with use, so our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.’

Napoleon understood time (“Space we can recover. Time, never.”), Charles Darwin understood time (“A man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life.”), William Penn understood time (“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.”)

So how we can optimize our time spend, and how can we spend our time more effectively? Enter Peter Drucker.

Peter Drucker on Time Management

Most famous as the founder of modern management, Peter Drucker provides the basic principles of good time management in his book The Effective Executive. The book is full of good advice on how to become more effective, more productive and how to make good decisions. However, even for those not inclined to become executives or productive workers, his advice on time management is applicable to everyone – no matter your profession, industry, or lifestyle.

The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker.

His basic process to increase the effectiveness of our time is simple: record it, manage it, and consolidate it.

Step 1: Record it

The very first step to managing your time is knowing how you spend it. So keep a basic log or calendar, and simply record how long you spend doing what activity.

If you’re trying to record your time for your professional life, it can be revealing to see how much time you spent on less-than-useful meetings or answering emails. Likewise, you might be shocked by how little time you actually spend on “work.”

If you’re doing this exercise in different setting it can still interesting to see what things you spend time on. Especially if you’re trying to do things next to your job, say launch a start-up, you need to make sure that the limited time you have is going towards the right activities. And the only way to do that is to start tracking it.

Step 2: Manage it

Having recorded your time log for a while you can start to tally up the numbers and see how you spend your time on per day or per week basis. You might want to do a small analysis and make categories. For example: meetings, reporting, work on project X, briefing person Y, et cetera.

Then, you can start to manage it.

The first thing you can look at is activities that add no, or limited value, and start to remove them completely from your calendar. Peter Drucker’s advice is to ask the question: ‘what if nobody would do this?’ If the answer is along the lines of ‘nothing would happen at all’ then stop the activity all together.

The second thing to look at, especially in a professional context, is to see which activities can or should be done by others. Oftentimes people are in the habit of doing all the activities themselves, while there might be persons better suited to do it, or when delegation might be better. If you’re not adding value, or if someone else adds just as much value as you do (for example: a subordinate) then consider delegating it.

Finally, check whether you’re the one creating time waste for others. Are you the one scheduling needlessly large meetings? Or are you the one requesting detailed reports you never read? Time you force others to waste is still wasted time, and not something that is very effective for your team or organization.

Step 3: Consolidate it

Being effective equals possessing consolidated stretches of time. What this means is that you should schedule, and block, sessions that are exclusively devoted to (what Cal Newport has dubbed) ‘deep work.’ Uninterrupted, unconnected time where you can truly focus and do the work. If you only have time available in little bits (15-30 minutes each) or you’re constantly interrupted by phone calls, emails, or colleagues you will not be productive or effective.

To be effective and productive you need consolidated blocks of time. That way, even if you don’t have a lot of time in absolute numbers, you can be sure you will be more effective than most people. Small bits focus time every now and then is not nearly as effective as a consolidated uninterrupted period of time.

In the book, Peter Drucker gives the example of Harry Hopkins, advisor under President Roosevelt in the Second World War. He was ailing, dying even, and could not work ‘normal’ hours. He was restricted to only a few hours of work, and not even every day. This meant that he had to remove all of fluff and time wasters, he had to become truly effective in the limited time he had. Was he a bad advisor, did he lose track of his goals, or complained about the lack of time? No. In fact, he probably was one of the most effective time managers and accomplished a great lot during the wartime.


“Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed” is how Peter Drucker put it, and it is a lesson we should all take to heart. Too often we think we have loads of time. But the reality is that we don’t. Our time today is limited, our time tomorrow is limited, and before we know it our time as a human being is over. That is why we must be ruthless with our time if we want to be effective and accomplish something. This does not mean that we should not spend time on hobbies, friends, and family (even though it is arguable how ‘effective’ or ‘productive’ that is). Rather, we should optimize the time we have – whether it’s for work, projects, personal life, or other matters.

The only thing that matters is that we avoid spending our time on unplanned, ineffective things. As long as the activity is planned, or it’s something you enjoy, or it helps you in some way, then it’s effective. So record it; manage it; and consolidate it.

Interested to learn more? View The Effective Executive on Amazon.

Photo credit: Eder Pozo Perez (Unsplash)

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