PASADENA, CALIF. — Dxoes anyone know who invented swimming flippers?"
"How about bifocals?" the instructor asks.
"How about the first US citizen to fly by air?"
Answer: Benjamin Franklin.
By now the audience is thoroughly confused. On this particular day, 60 professionals have packed into the Hilton Hotel in Pasadena, Calif. for a time-management seminar sponsored by Franklin Covey.
So why is the instructor talking about Ben Franklin?
The point is Ben wasn't always a prolific inventor. By age 28, he had no money, no job, and had filed for bankruptcy twice.
Ben, says the teacher, learned how to set goals and prioritize - the two pillars of time management.
The class is told that by following Ben's example, they can improve their work as well as their personal life - maybe even land in the history books.
Sounds simple. And it is.
Yet the time-management industry is booming because most of us have no idea how to gain control of the hyperspeed world in which we live and work.
"Today, everything is urgent, everything is a crisis, everything has to be done immediately," says Jeffrey Mayer, author of "Time Management for Dummies" (IDG Books Worldwide). "We're frazzled, we're hectic. And most of us aren't having a lot of fun doing what we're doing."
Indeed, the calls for help from this particular group are all too familiar:
"To gain control of my time!"
"Stop living crisis to crisis."
"There's no question the more productive you are the more valuable you are," says Leslie Nicolaides, an administrative assistant at Baskin-Robbins and a participant in the seminar.
"If you're not productive," she says, "you'll get laid off."
So if you really want to keep this year's New Year's resolution to "get organized" here's some solid advice from the experts to help you get started.
Invest some time
Rule No. 1: To save time, you have to invest some time.
"One of the reasons people are frustrated is that they think that getting organized doesn't require work," says Paul Meldrum, a training consultant for Time Design, a seller of management materials based in Agawam, Mass.
Eighty-seven percent of Americans start their day without planning, according to research by Franklin Covey in Provo, Utah.
"If you spend more time thinking and planning up front, doing the work is much easier," says Mr. Mayer. "But in America, thinking and planning are not considered working. Doing is considered working - even if it's busy work."
OK, so how much time?
Marianne Bottorf, the instructor at this seminar, recommends spending 10 minutes each morning or evening and 15 or 20 minutes at the end of each week planning and prioritizing what you need to accomplish.
The master list
The key is to set up a system you can trust, says Ms. Bottorf - a system that reminds you of what you need to know when you need to know it, so you don't waste time trying to remember on your own.
"Our minds don't rest much anymore. They're going all the time," she says. Part of the reason is that we're spending so much time trying to remember what we have to do and when.
Start by making a master list of everything you have to do - all appointments, projects, phone calls, faxes, even trips to the dry cleaner.
Chances are you're staring at a pretty long list. On any given day, Mayer concedes his list contains as many as 150 items.
The idea is not to get everything done in one day.
"The list is there to remind you of unfinished work," Mayer contends. "It's not there as a club to beat you over the head because you didn't do something."
Still, for many of us, the psychological impact of having a to-do list that stretches to the Grand Canyon is overwhelming.
Now you need to determine what tasks you should assign to what days.
Prioritizing what the most important tasks are on your check list is no doubt the toughest part.
Usually only 10 percent of the items on a person's list have a deadline, Mr. Meldrum adds.
"What we tend to do is shop our list to see what we want to do," Bottorf says. "What we gravitate to is the quickest, fastest, easiest, most fun items because we're so anxious to get something checked off."
As a result, we're left with the most important tasks to do and not enough time to do them.
Ask yourself: What tasks have the highest value and payoff?
"Always look for the most important thing - not necessarily the most urgent," Mayer says. And that means making choices.
"If everyone sat down at their desks before they went home and determined what the most important things are they have to do the next day, and then they did them," Mayer contends, "they'd feel better about themselves, their job, and they'd accomplish a whole lot more."
After you've got your list prioritized, there's just one more thing to handle, one that requires a bit of diplomacy.
Interruptions are one of the biggest time wasters - the phone, e-mail, co-workers, the boss.
So how do you handle them?
Bottorf advises clients to be both courageous and considerate when handling interruptions.
"If used together they are very powerful," she says. If used separately they are disastrous."
For example: Someone asks for help with a project. Tell the person you're on deadline and then offer an alternative. You could meet with them later or recommend that they talk to someone else or decline it altogether.
In the end, everyone has 24 hours in a day. The key is how you choose to spend your time.
"If you can identify what's most important that you have to do every day," Mayer says, "set aside time to do it, [and] get it done. Start on it while you have some lead time, and if you do that every day, life isn't all that complicated."