As part of a training series within his organization, a good friend recently asked me to speak to up-and-coming leaders about time management. I begin to research the issue and I keep coming across materials suggesting that teaching time management is a waste of time. The fact is –and I guess I already knew this and my research merely confirms it– that teaching time management really doesn’t work.
Some may think it peculiar that the first thing a speaker on time management says is “time management doesn’t work.” Stay with me. By the end of this, you’ll realize that time management is not the problem at all. No, the fact is that we are our own worst enemies when it comes to getting things done. And time is not the problem. Time doesn’t care–it is going to keep moving no matter what we do. Time does not stop.
A Constant State of Reaction
Anyone who cares at all about their work rises each day and, at some point, considers what their day looks like. Then they get to work, their Inbox is blowing up, the phone is ringing, and their manager is standing in the door wondering how some project did a face-plant. The plan for the day is up-ended. The tension builds as time starts slipping away and planned tasks are slowly pushed back into the day, even to the next day.
As a result, we are in a constant state of perpetual reaction, jumping from project to project, task to task, and none of them are done particularly well. Everyone knows how this plays out.
This is no way to work; no way to make a living. We’re supposed to like our job, enjoy it, and have fun. It’s not possible when there’s nagging pressure to perform and stress. Under these circumstances, mistakes are made and we compromise quality. In addition, the stress leads to unhappiness and a lack of fulfillment on the job, and eventually, to burn-out.
The good news is there are a few things you can do to remedy the problem. Think of it like going to the doctor when you have the flu – there’s no cure for the flu; they simply treat the symptoms.
Today, we treat the symptoms of poor time management.
Symptom #1 – Lack of Clarity on Your Role
First, clearly understand exactly what your role is. If you don’t fully understand what your organization expects, you cannot perform. It’s like a road trip without a destination and no map. Read and understand your job description. Even on specific projects, if your responsibilities are not clear, lay it out for stakeholders.
Second, set expectations. Let people know what you can and cannot do, and empower others to make use of alternative resources. If something is not within your role, delegate or ask for help.
Third, don’t try to take on everything. Learn to say “no.” This is tricky. When you work in a service industry, saying no is antithetical to providing good service. Do it with tact. Don’t just say “No” and walk away. Tell them “I need to get back to you on that” and figure out how to make it work. Remember, we’re all problem solvers.
Symptom #2 – Failure to Prioritize
As part of the clarity you need to do your job, management should be emphasizing what is important to the organization. With guidance from leadership you can then effectively prioritize things.
Prioritizing is not making a list of things to do; it’s making a list of IMPORTANT things to do. Each day take the first 10 minutes to schedule your day. Ten minutes of planning will save you an hour in execution—that’s what they teach in project management school. If it’s important, schedule it on your calendar. If it takes more than 30 minutes, schedule it. Use your calendar to block out time to complete the important things. In the end, it’s all about discipline. Have the discipline to set a schedule and stick to it.
A word of caution: do not underestimate how quickly you can get something done. We all do it. We think something will take 20 minutes, so it doesn’t get on the calendar. When we get to it, 20 minutes becomes 45 minutes to an hour, and now scheduled tasks are out of whack. Double the of time it will take to complete something and schedule it. Worst case, you finish early and grab a coffee.
The point is, when employees understand the most important aspects of their jobs, it’s easier to prioritize. Identifying and staying focused on the company mission and how you serve it highlights the important objectives. If your organization is not revealing what’s important, ask those questions.
Symptom #3 – Inability to Manage Distractions
Information inundates us all day long. Email, texts, social media, phone calls. We encounter distractions all day long. Consider the biggest distraction: multitasking. The research shows that while multitasking makes us seem more productive, the empirical evidence shows otherwise. Multitasking suggests you are perpetually reactive. When you multitask, you are playing defense; juggling a bunch of balls at once. Eventually, you will add one too many and drop them all. Quality work is not done this way.
The notion of attention management teaches how to control distractions. It trades single-tasking for multitasking, producing higher-quality results, and encouraging sustained, focused attention on singular tasks. A work environment focusing on and valuing single-tasking is healthier and prevents bad habits from taking root in the first place.
Next, consider email management. Email and social media sites are huge distractions. They are also a tremendous time-suck. Notifications all day disrupt our train of thought. Turn off the notifications on your computer and your phone. If social media and email are that important, schedule them into your day.
Email also ruins conversations. Have you ever been talking to someone who repeatedly looks at their computer screen or at their phone. It’s not only rude, it reflects poor listening skills and eats up time. If you’re talking face to face, give the person your undivided attention. That’s what good leaders do.
A few other email management tips: First, organize email so that you are able to quickly find messages in your Inbox. Create folders according to how your organization manages business records. There is no reason not to organize important communications, regardless of the work that you do or the industry in which you work.
Second, if email is a constant distraction, choose times throughout the day to read and respond to email. Otherwise, close your email. You don’t come in every day and open Word or Excel in anticipation of working in those applications, why do it for email?
And finally, unclutter the rest of your life as well. Do you have papers, folders, notes, case files, everywhere in your office? Clutter and general disorganization are a distraction. Get organized, file things and store things where they need to be. “Everything in its place and a place for everything,” my grandma always said.
SYMPTOM #4 – Lack of Workflow
Most employees manage their workload in their head. But one can only truly manage what they see, and you cannot see inside people’s heads. To manage something it must be tangible, centralized, actionable, and trackable. Workflow management skills are not taught in school and, as a result, workers are often left to their own devices with mixed results. This leaves productivity to chance.
Few individuals will come up with an effective workflow solution on their own; it’s easier to form habits. Identify the most productive people in your organization and review with them what they are doing to succeed. You may be surprised by some responses; but turn them into a workflow. Sure, there will be outliers who defy conventional work practices, but we are trying to improve the workflow of the masses, not the unicorns.
Complex work requires a methodology that enables people to be intentional, proactive, and thorough. The basis of a useful workflow management methodology is the ability to make tasks and responsibilities easy to organize, track, and act upon. A workflow methodology allows individuals to regain control, feel less scattered, and experience less stress. In addition to individual productivity benefits, when staff use workflow management, it offers other benefits to the organization, such as resource allocation, documented experience, and the ability to project, budget and track productivity.
As can be seen, the symptoms of poor time management are overcome by being proactive in all that you do. The cure is to start by:
- Planning your day
- Setting expectations
- Scheduling activities
- Avoiding distractions
- Adopting a sound workflow
Each of these proactive steps can treat the time management woes that ail you. They will help identify the important things, increase focus and attention to detail, and yes, even improve time management.
Michael Quartararo is the firm-wide Director of Litigation Support Services at New York-based Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP and the author of the 2016 book Project Management in Electronic Discovery, published by eDiscoveryPM.com, LLC. He is a graduate of the State University of New York and he studied law in the UK. He is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and a Certified E-Discovery Specialist (CEDS). Mike frequently speaks and writes on topics related to project management, e-discovery and legal support services.