Time management used to be so straightforward – do the things that are important first, before they become urgent and that was about it. Some people – usually swots who had their homework done early – were very good at it, with ruthlessly managed ‘in’, ‘out’ and ‘action’ boxes. A few were diabolical at it, forever pulling ‘all nighters’ to try to catch up and the vast majority were basically okay and muddled through – unless there was a crisis that couldn’t be solved in the pub.

Now we have all these handy time-saving productivity tools but if anything, time management has become much more difficult, so that only the truly brutal few or those protected by hawk-like PAs manage their time effectively.

Hindering technology

It began with email and has mushroomed with the arrival of hardware like laptops, mobile phones and BlackBerrys. With all this additional help and information, we seem to be losing the ability to step back and figure out what is important, urgent or just dross – and act on it accordingly.

What we have done instead is to pander to our own – and our colleagues’ – egos, and now we are all simply ‘too busy’ taking calls, emails and conferencing to pay attention to a lot of the basics.

Everyone is busy. Everyone. I long to speak to a contact and find they are on top of all their work and, in fact, so chilled that they were able to have half an hour for lunch this week.

But is everyone really that busy and badly organised or are we just trying to do too much?

I think in today’s frantic business world, where we humans are the slowest link in the communications chain, the game is almost certainly up and we need to start being a bit more selective about the aids we use and how we use them.

Making excuses

Here is the other thing, being busy is now all too often used as an excuse to get out of a meeting or appointment, that frankly, isn’t important enough or that we would rather avoid. For goodness sake people, let’s tell it how it is – if you don’t want to talk to someone just say so.

Another lame excuse being used more frequently is ‘travelling’. We live in a global networked economy, where it is pretty difficult to find places where mobile phones can’t get a signal or email is impossible to pick up.

A CEO I know has been forced to learn to sail in order to make sure he isn’t interrupted with trivia while he is on holiday – tough life I know.

One PA whose boss works in one of the world’s largest branded corporations doesn’t seem to be able to communicate with him very often because ‘he is travelling’.

The fact that they are often in the US – Atlanta to be precise – not known for its poor communications infrastructure, makes the excuse even more irritating. If they don’t want to do the meeting or speak to someone, just say so, instead of using what is a really transparent, not to mention hugely annoying excuse.

Ruthlessly efficient

Some organisations are really good at sifting important business and dealing with the non-important stuff, quickly and honestly – oil and petrochemical companies, for example. ‘Look I’m very sorry but we don’t consider this core business and would rather not take it any further,’ no waste of time on your or their part. Excellent. By comparison many of the companies in the financial services industry are pants. For ‘I’ll get back to you as soon as I have a minute, we’re really busy here today’ read three months later and you will still have heard nothing.

There may be help at hand from some quarters as instant messaging and Web 2.0 techniques offer some respite from the left message or email and the usual pathetic recourse – ‘oh no I haven’t seen/heard it must have been bounced/deleted’ – that may mean having to be a bit more honest, but hey that is no bad thing surely…