Be a Time Lord

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 - 09:33

The more efficient use of time is what gives some managers an edge. By Karalyn Brown

With overcrowded inboxes, a phone that doesn't stop and incessant interruptions, it would be easy to blame all your overtime hours on others. However, this is not the case, say the experts. Their first tip in becoming a time lord is taking ownership.

Derek Rowe, a course facilitator for the Australian Institute of Management Victoria and Tasmania, and the developer of AIM's national short course in time management, says it's all about making 'now' count.

"In every working moment, there is the task we need to be focusing on," says Rowe. "And guess what? A daily 'to do' list won't help you. Try a weekly priority list instead. By broadening the focus of your list you're also training yourself to focus on the bigger, more strategic picture, rather than tasks."

Rowe says it's critical to look at your role truthfully in regards to the three types of workplace time:

  • planned events like meetings
  • unplanned events like interruptions and surprises
  • (and the most desirable time of all) your own time.

"Many managers are shocked at how meagre their own time is," confirms Rowe. "This then is motivation to, one, look for ways to reduce unnecessary meetings, and, two, handle interruptions more efficiently."

Derek Stockley, a management consultant of some 20 years, says that managers need to recognise that time is their most valuable resource. "We all have 24 hours. While he has a lot of support, think of what Kevin Rudd, or the Pope achieve in that amount of time."

Ralph Simpfendorfer is the Managing Director of productivity firm TMI. He says that to keep control of your time, you need to recognise you have the control. "It can be a bit of an attitude problem. You've got to own it. Say, 'It's my issue, what can I do about it?'."

While it sounds simple in theory, taking ownership of your time can be tough. And it involves saying 'no'.

Amanda Sarden is the Managing Director of Organising Place, a workplace and personal efficiency consultancy. She believes that part of the struggle to effectively manage time involves learning to manage interruptions. "Good communication skills are vitally important. Remember that when you are interrupted and too busy to help out, you can say no. "Many co-workers will say they need something done now. But often, it's not actually that urgent."

Zone of now
"Today, the luxury of an extended run at things has gone the way of pen pals and slide nights," says Rowe. "Research indicates that many of us only get 12 minutes before the next interruption.

"'Snapping' in and out of high priority tasks in short bursts is a key skill. This means turning your work area into a "zone of now". My rule is simple; it only stays on the desk if you're going to use it within a fortnight. Otherwise, file, stow or throw it."

Stockley also emphasises the importance of educating others. "One of the biggest issues in time management can be the boss. You do need to have a conversation about time allocation," he says.

For someone whose needs are 'always urgent', make a regular time for a 'shopping list' discussion. Rather than having many conversations throughout the day, save them up for that meeting. This helps sort out your priorities and shapes mutual expectations. You may think you need to spend hours on a task but your manager may have other ideas.

Up, down or sideways, these discussions can be difficult. "Try to work out a win-win scenario," suggests Simpfendorfer. "People will need to see the benefit. Say something along the lines of 'I could help you achieve more if we do such and such'."

Prioritise your work
Getting things done always comes down to understanding what's important and/or urgent.

"The No.1 priority is 'important and urgent'. 'Important and less urgent' is second," says Stockley. "Make sure you are clear on your role and what the key performance indicators are," he says. "For a leader, it may be making sure that people know what's going on."

Sarden's view is similar. If your role essentially involves customer relations, then that's what you prioritise. Ask the question, 'does what you are doing help you achieve your long-term goals?'. Try to control the urgent and plan for the important.

Use a 'to do' list as a guide, suggests Sarden. While you may not think you have the time, the act of putting together a list will help you work out your priorities. But you do need to keep it real. "Some people don't do a list. Other people have 20 things on it. You need to factor in interruptions. Too many things will only cause you stress."

Stockley believes people procrastinate when they are feeling overwhelmed. "You may have many different tasks to do. Work through them on a priority basis, remembering that you may not have time to do the less important and less urgent tasks," he suggests.

"Big tasks can also cause procrastination. If this is happening to you, think of the task ahead as if you are eating an elephant," says Stockley.

"If you were to eat an elephant, you would take one small bite at a time," he says. "You break up the tasks into things you can chew. It's part of exercising control."

Top time management tips
Derek Rowe: Athletes break records by knowing what the current record is. They train to beat it. Managers need to work the same way. Set time limits for every 'own time' task you do. While you're at it, why not put a time limit next to every task you put on your task or priority lists. Most of us don't do this, despite the obvious sense in doing so.

Derek Stockley: Choose your best time to work. If you are a morning person, work in the mornings and do less demanding tasks in the afternoon.

Taking time-out is a time saver. Two hours of uninterrupted thinking time is worth six to seven hours of interrupted time.

Remember to ask yourself regularly: 'Is this the most important task that I could be doing right now?. 'Is this a good use of my time?'

Amanda Sarden: Take some pressure off yourself. You can't be perfect 100 per cent of the time. If you can manage your time effectively for 75 per cent of the day, then you are doing well.

Be aware that it takes time to make things a habit. Don't start and give up. But if you are continuing to struggle, get some ongoing coaching.

Restrict eye contact with simple ideas such as placing a plant in front of you in an open-plan office. If you make eye contact with other staff regularly, you may find that you are welcoming an interruption.