Is Time a Scarce Resource?

We regularly survey emergency managers to identify the training they feel is most important for success. This year, we again noticed a puzzling trend. Nearly all emergency managers continue to say they have far too much work, but about forty-percent say time and quality management is “not important.”

We discussed the lack of interest in time-management training with several emergency managers and noted four explanations for this response:

  • Many emergency managers believe they are good time managers and dismiss additional training as unnecessary
  • Some emergency managers only have difficulty managing indirect work assigned by supervisors – work they feel precludes success and is difficult to manage
  • Time management training, as it currently exists, is ineffective
  • Some emergency managers are just not good at managing their time

During our conversations with emergency managers, two separate notions of time management became apparent. Most emergency managers believe time management is mostly about placing limits on activity (i.e. only answering email once-a-day for an hour).  Doing so reserves time to accomplish other important work. Others believe time management is more about setting priorities so the most important work is accomplished first.

The practice of limiting time spent on certain activities is now the focus of most time management training. It helps people limit distraction, including unnecessary website visits and unexpected conversations. The most recent results of an annual survey indicate 89% of employees admit to wasting time at work. Websites – especially social media sites – appear to be the primary distraction. Contemporary time management training can help people and organizations prone to these distractions but implementing this training requires setting clear limits on certain activities and summoning extraordinary discipline to adhere to those limits.

Priority setting is less often the subject of time management training because priorities and the process of setting, managing and achieving them are different in almost every organization. This condition severely limits the appeal and utility of this form of time management training.  Priorities are often unique to individuals and organizations. Establishing and accomplishing priorities also require more effort than merely limiting time spent on certain activities.

Nevertheless, priority setting is a critical program management technique, especially for emergency managers who address dozens of program risks, relationships, capabilities, inter-dependencies and requirements. It is nearly impossible to accomplish these 150 or so outcomes without first setting priorities.

Thinking for a moment about emergency managers who believe they already have plenty of priorities, it also important to remember this aphorism: If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

From our experience, we know it is quite possible and even practical for a typical emergency manager and program to recover a lot of spare time – as much as 45 days a year – by limiting certain activities, setting priorities and carefully executing their work. Emergency managers can then use this extra time to accomplish more essential work, focus on a favorite pet project or two, promote staff development, build new capabilities, celebrate success and plan for the future.  Seeing opportunities for greater success, however, can be a challenge for emergency managers who feel defeated or subject to too many forces beyond their control.

Regardless of how you are feeling in your job, emergency managers can follow these steps to retain what might otherwise become lost time.

  • Define program success – Get specific and map out program requirements.  Successful trips need a destination, strategy, route-planning and milestones.  Use NFPA 1600, EMAP, DHS, or DHHS Core Capabilities and other program development metrics to generate ideas about success.
  • Understand that emergency managers actually manage very little unless, of course, they assume responsibility for it – Ideally, emergency managers coach.  Like any good coach they assemble a team, define success, develop teamwork, occasionally draft a playbook and practice often. Emergency managers do better when they focus first on teamwork and then on simple playbooks (i.e. emergency operations plans). Plans need to reflect the team interests, capabilities and dynamics, not primarily emergency manager imagination or aspirations. Use plan creation and updating as a means to consolidate gains in teamwork and team capability.
  • Develop priorities for a team to implement – Most good programs evolve from a clear vision and diligent work to achieve it; not from a grant or other administrative edict by others. Look at your definition of success, requirements, dependencies, etc. and decide what needs to be done first, second, third… Then, focus on accomplishing these as program development priorities.
  • Develop a strategy – Priorities describe what to do; strategy and tactics describe how to do it.  You can call it goals, objectives, strategy and tactics, or anything really. Just make sure you’ve thought-out how to accomplish your priorities in a practical, efficient and effective way.
  • Become a good project manager – Good project managers ensure projects get done on-time, under-budget and to proper specifications. Focusing on achieving project outcomes (including limiting distractions and clearing obstacles to success) is essential to emergency management success. This is where traditional time-management techniques can be especially helpful.
  • Map your time – Knowing how time is expended is essential to managing it effectively.  Recording time spent each day on certain activities, summing-up time at the end of the week and analyzing this data reveals what is taking time and how well time is used to support priorities. It may also show the cause and effect of distractions.
  • Use a work plan – Whether you are responsible for an entire program or just managing your own performance, it is important to plan activity for periods of time.  Translating priorities, strategy and projects into quarterly or annual work plans can show project dependencies, under and over-allocated resources, inherent problems and future needs – all of which, when known, can help one avoid time worrying about and fixing problems.

Ultimately, emergency managers have lot on their plate, but their work consists of many smaller elements which require more smart work than hard work. Managing time is just one of several simple ways to work smarter. Doing so helps emergency managers become more successful and makes their jurisdictions more resilient.


Complete EM is a first-to-market, patent-pending solution that helps emergency managers determine how their program is doing, how it can be improved, and how to accomplish the outcomes they want. Go to to learn more, perform a free program evaluation or to schedule a product demonstration.

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