The Time Trap

The Classic Book on Time Management

The Time Trap

Authors: Alec Mackenzie, Pat Nickerson
Pub Date: June 2009
Print Edition: $18.95
Print ISBN: 9780814413388
Page Count: 320
Format: Paper or Softback
Edition: Fourth Edition
e-Book ISBN: 9780814413395

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When AMACOM Senior Editor Jacquie Flynn invited me to write this

new edition of The Time Trap, I felt honored to help keep Alec Mackenzie’s

groundbreaking ideas current. A longtime hero to me, Alec was instrumental

in the early success of EBI, Inc., our family-held training company—

though he didn’t know it until years later.

Why The Time Trap Inspired Us

In our first decade in business, based in London, our company came up

against stiff competition from the hundreds of organizations flooding the

hungry training market there. Our edge? We were marketing the best of

American engineering know-how at a time when the British government

had mandated training for engineers.

But very soon, political upheaval in Britain caused wildcat strikes that

shut down electric power for weeks on end. The next year, the gas industry

went out—then the railways. Finally, the Post Office shut down for more

than three months, cutting off both direct mail and telephone service—

isolating every business in those days before smartphones and laptops.

These catastrophes shook everyone . . . our customers, our competitors,


Working like demons whenever we could get power for lights and office

machinery, we used newspaper ads instead of direct mail advertising.

Like every business, we labored to stay afloat. In our own case, forced by

circumstance, we opened EBI partnerships in other European countries—

not part of our original plan at all. Those excellent partners taught us that

a crisis can sometimes hide a blessing.

During those challenging times, we read Alec Mackenzie’s first edition

of The Time Trap. It gave us new energy, new ideas, new tools and, above all,

encouragement to persevere. Recovery took us five years; success took eight.

Thanking Alec Mackenzie “Live”

Well into recovery, with our business going steady at last, my husband and

I traveled to Schenectady, New York, to attend a Mackenzie seminar on

Team Time Management. Walking across the campus with Alec that day,

we thanked him warmly for the helpful influence he had long been in our

lives. He was modest and unassuming in accepting our thanks. In person, as

in his books and seminars, he stayed totally focused on helping all of us escape

from our time traps. To influence so many, so well, he drew on his deep

ethical sense for answers that were as pertinent then as they will always be.


In this edition, when you read suggestions from “us,” or when “we” tell

war stories and offer solutions, the messages will be coming from both

Alec Mackenzie and me. For this new edition, you’ll also glean ideas

from dozens of managers and specialists from every walk of business who

have escaped their time traps. Of course, you are invited to interact, too,

by sending questions and your own ideas for future editions to us at


This is a not a book of light reading hints. Many people tell us they have

tried for years to apply “helpful hints” gathered from here and there, only to

find themselves ensnared again—out of time, out of resources, drowning in

a flood of demands. With that in mind, the opening chapters help you focus

first on those human habits that sabotage everyone’s best efforts. If you can

examine your day-to-day work habits with some humor and compassion,

you’ll construct a more dependable escape from whatever practices are keeping

you ensnared.

Why We Stay Trapped

In Part I we unravel the tangled pressures that drive us—the many demands

imposed by our culture, our workplace, and ourselves. If you read

these five chapters thoughtfully, you’ll derive a uniquely personal view and

build a more reliable exit strategy.

1. Why Time Still Baffles the Best of Us

2. Time Traps We’ve Been Taught

3. How to Connect Goals, Objectives, Priorities

4. How to Set Priorities and Hold Them

5. How to Tame the Time Log

You’ll glean from these chapters a serious probe of root causes, with options

for permanently avoiding some of your time traps.

The Time Trap Lists: Old and New Traps:

In Part II of the previous edition, Alec Mackenzie reported on twenty time

traps that blocked business people and technologists from achieving their

goals. Because so many readers could relate, the book became a best-seller.

Here’s the list:

The Original Twenty

1. Management by Crisis 11. Meetings

2. Telephone interruptions 12. Paperwork

3. Inadequate planning 13. Leaving tasks unfinished

4. Attempting too much 14. Inadequate staff

5. Drop-in visitors 15. Socializing

6. Ineffective delegation 16. Confused responsibility and authority

7. Personal disorganization 17. Poor communication

8. Lack of self-discipline 18. Inadequate controls and progress reports

9. Inability to say no 19. Incomplete information

10. Procrastination 20. Travel

For our current edition, we took a new survey, sending out the same

list, in its original order, knowing that the order would have changed, but

wanting respondents to show us precisely how. Respondents soon erased all


A Glaring Gap Surveys came back, citing omissions that did not surprise

us. The Internet, e-mail (including instant-messaging), and cell

phone use/abuse needed to appear on the new list, everyone agreed. But,

while respondents spoke of these tools as “all one phenomenon,” we

needed three separate chapters just to scratch the surface of what’s so timesaving,

yet time-wasting about our new “virtual” lifestyle.

Reordering the Traps In twenty years of writing and presenting seminars

on time and priority management (first for Dun & Bradstreet and

later for American Management Association), I’ve worked with more than

180,000 time-hungry managers. Their issues and solutions appeared in my

earlier AMACOM book Managing Multiple Bosses.

In Alec’s earlier editions, he repeated his conviction that time traps

were enmeshed with one another. We warmed to his conviction that eliminating

one trap might cure several at a stroke. So, with Edition Four, the

time has come. The new list seeks to untangle and reconnect related traps,

offering escape plans for a multiple gain in a single leap. Still, we followed

the order proposed by our respondents.

Today’s Top Five Traps as Respondents See Them

Trap 1: Management by Crisis—still ranks Number One!

Trap 2: Inadequate Planning—formerly in third place, it now includes

the former Trap 8: Lack of Self-Discipline as part of this mix.

Trap 3: Inability to Say No—this has risen from ninth.

Trap 4: Poor Communication—shows a dramatic rise from former

slot seventeen.

Trap 5: Poorly Run Meetings—formerly twelfth, it now joins the

top irritants.

These top five traps reflect the pressures brought by the rapid, worldwide

change that roils every corporation and every government entity. In

follow-up discussions, we learned that respondents defined all five traps as

corporate or systemic traps, not simply personal issues that people could

correct by solo effort.

Communication Took the Steepest Climb As you see, this trap now

enters the top five list, moving from its old rank, seventeenth out of

twenty. Many respondents explained its new prominence in their view:

• “We’ve got great tools: e-mail, voice-mail, IM, etc. But so does

everyone else. So we can never get away from the fray. Worse,

e-mail style produces message fragments—everything sent in

haste, with little forethought.”

• “Even small businesses have gone global, so we lack the multicultural

awareness and long-distance negotiating skills to connect

with people, on the first try. With our partners continents away,

we make mistakes, without realizing that we’ve damaged trust.”

• “We isolate ourselves in front of one screen or another for hours

per day. Why do we put everything in writing, even to people in

the next office?”

• “We’re losing our face-to-face skills. We see a lot less patience,

tact, insight, compassion. People don’t know how to coexist in

a room anymore.”

It’s small wonder that “Poorly Run Meetings” followed “Poor Communications”

on the list. If you agree, you’ll be interested in the tools we’ve

embedded throughout the book—including many visual tools—to help

you get your points across to coworkers, bosses, and customers, with economy

and humanity, no matter which medium you use.

Second-Tier Traps: 6–9 Electronics and information issues led off the

next group of traps. Though respondents replied from scattered companies

and locations and at different times, with no group contact, their rankings

produced a consensus.

Interviewees clarified that all felt drowned by information. At whatever

level of management—experienced or new to business—everyone

now gets easy access to data that would have been out of their reach in the

rigid business settings of a decade ago. But this “infoglut” has stretched our

critical thinking skills to the max. Which data matters? Which data is correct?

How and why should it be used? So the second-tier traps were seen as

mixed blessings:

Trap 6: The World Gone Virtual (new)

Trap 7: E-Mail Mania (new)

Trap 8: The Untamed Telephone (new)

Trap 9: Incomplete Information and the Paper Chase (formerly

Traps 13 and 19)

The irony of Trap 9’s position blew us away! With all our newfound

electronic data gathering, how can we lack complete information? Easy:

Traps 6, 7, and 8 represent the deluge. Trap 9 represents our failed strug-

gle to wade through it all. More ironically we are still encumbered by paperwork

and surrounded by filing cabinets, long after the pundits promised

we’d be paperless! Using solo solutions, we can barely dent Traps

6 through 9, so we’re going to need an “all-hands” effort, and a systems


Still Buffaloed by Succession Issues The next two traps were an obvious

pair, at least to our survey respondents:

Trap 10: Confused Responsibility or Authority (formerly in

sixteenth place)

Trap 11: Poor Delegation and Training (descending from its former

sixth position)

Respondents saw a close cause/effect linkage between these two. They

intertwine horribly, but our insightful respondents insisted that we must

settle Trap 10 before we can do a decent job with Trap 11. In both cases,

much of the fault lies with corporate policies that often confuse and confound

the best managers’ attempts to develop and promote people fairly.

The Final Tier:The Challenges Get Personal At last, we come to traps

we can escape through our own efforts. The final three combine several

from the original list, to offer some “winner-take-all” solutions.

Trap 12: Procrastination and Leaving Things Unfinished. Blending

former Traps 10 and 11 made sense to all of us.

Trap 13: Socializing and Dealing with Drop-Ins. Combining former

Traps 5 and 15, respondents noted that the loss of face-time has

dragged socializing to a low spot on the list, making us less adept at

handling it when we actually need it.

Trap 14: Attempting Too Much (formerly Trap 4). That this final

trap has fallen so low, was a frightening sign. Formerly Trap 4, the

habit of “attempting too much” may escape our notice because

expectations have grown so unreasonable. Workers productivity is

high, but so is unemployment. In America today, earned vacation

time piles up until it expires. We now surpass the fabled Japanese in

time spent on the job. With massive off-shoring of both manufacturing

and service jobs, our audience members tell us: “Unless we stay

and do the work—they’ll find someone else who will. Warranted or

not, that’s our fear.” Read this chapter carefully, if you feel on the

brink of burnout. Regaining your balance is an inside job.

Two Issues No Longer in Play Garnering so few votes that they

dropped off the lists were these two traps:

1. Inadequate Controls and Reports (former Trap 18). Thanks to new

electronic tools, respondents cited automation as the new source

of controls and routine reports, even in small companies. Today,

data on a single event, recorded when it occurs, can be “sliced

and diced” according to preference; then, transferred to a variety

of subsidiary reports, and recalculated, automatically.

2. Travel (former Trap 20). Today’s “road warriors” seem hardened

to security hassles and chaotic flight delays. Fully equipped with

our electronic gear, we stay amazingly productive on the road.

No matter what the delay, we connect with our companies and

our customers more effectively than Alec had dreamed possible

when he wrote earlier editions. Still, you’ll find some practical

comments on controls and travel, dispersed throughout the text

wherever they can be helpful.

Life Lessons

Part III: Parting Advice consists of two chapters, the first—Life Lessons in

Time Management—offering inspiring personal histories from people who

are making more time for their lives as managers, technologists, parents,

family members, hobbyists, and community activists. They share the secrets

they’ve learned that continue to inspire them. Perhaps you, too, will recall

those people in your own life who’ve helped you move toward time mastery.

The second chapter—Where Do We Go from Here?—provides a brief

roadmap of some concrete steps you might take in your struggle to escape

the traps you are enmeshed in.

Tools to Fight Hidden Resistance

In Part IV, you’ll find a set of Quick Solutions Summaries to help you persevere

should your old time habits sneak up on you again. Drawn from our

many conversations with intelligent and witty people, these Summary

Charts reveal the ten most common excuses that people use to avoid

changing their well-worn habits. We hope you’ll smile—and benefit.

Expressed with openness and humor, these “confessions” fill one column

per page, while the “recovery tools” fill the opposing side. If you feel a strong

tug of resistance when you try a new time practice—turn to these pages for

support, before you backslide. They will refresh your resolve to recover.


Throughout the book, you’ll enjoy two new features designed for practicality

and fun:

• Human Comedy: Ironic confessions from time-taxed people just

like us who tried oddball fixes that failed. We hope you’ll laugh

along with them.

• Real Voices: Testimonies and tools from ordinary (and extraordinary)

managers who are building new time practices that you

might want to borrow. Adopt or adapt the ideas you like, with

their blessings.

Previous editions drew comments and scenarios from manufacturing,

education, government, and small-to mid-sized businesses. Currently, we

meet bigger populations of managers from finance and investment, biotech

and health care, energy, aerospace, and information technology.

You’ll read their cases and scenarios in every chapter, gaining new solutions

from their ideas and insights. Of course, we still work with government

and military populations, with public servants, and with small-business owners,

so you’ll enjoy a wide range of views.


Today, as a manager or technologist, you may boast an excellent education

and strong motivation—but you also face unprecedented demands from

yourself, your company, your customers, and your community. If the obligations

of your work and life are keeping you awake at night—take heart!

Enjoy this book, write in it thoughtfully, try some of the tools, and return

to it in thirty days for a self-check. Construct a set of simple time

strategies that make sense to you. From the wide array here, you’ll be able

to select tools you can easily fit into your work and life.

All of us who worked on this book—Alec Mackenzie, my survey respondents,

my many mentors and teachers—we all wish you a rewarding

return on your investment.

More power to you!

Pat Nickerson

San Diego, 2009

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