Sunday, March 23, 2008

Ask Dr. Marty: Time Management for Managers

By Martin Seidenfeld, Ph.D.
February 2008

As a manager of others, nothing is more important to you than managing your time well. Always feeling rushed and threatened by deadlines is a sure road to poor performance and personal burnout.

Managers often talk about not having enough time, or seeking ways to stretch their time, or finding ways to save time. But time cannot be saved, stretched, shortened, or otherwise altered; it is fixed and inelastic. Each of us has exactly the same amount of time: 60 minutes in each hour, 24 hours each day, 365 days each year.

When managers or supervisors say “I didn’t have enough time,” what they actually mean is that they didn’t get done what they wanted to. Time is what your job – and your life – is made of. It is, in one sense, all you have. If you waste it and don’t accomplish what you really want to do, then you are not performing well on your job – and perhaps, in your life.

Managers must systematically plan their time. Your individual situation may call for very detailed plans or very loose ones, but without some sort of time plan ning, you will be disorganized and your organization’s productivity will be sub optimal.

Every manager must have a schedule book. It can be as simple as a pad of yellow paper, or as detailed as The Franklin Planner. The important thing is that you have some written method for planning your time. A basic time management sys tem, using these four steps, can help:

1. Listing
2. Prioritizing
3. Delegating
4. Scheduling

First, set aside 10 or 15 minutes each morning to go through these four steps.

Listing means exactly what it says. Write down all the things you hope to accomplish that day. They may be important things or trivial, or take lots of time or doable in just a few minutes. But unless it’s listed it’s too easy to forget.If an item is a major project, break it down into doable bits. For example, if you are developing a budget for your department, you might separate it into reviewing last year’s budget, sending a memo asking about department members’ anticipated needs, creating categories for budget requests, etc.

Prioritizing consists of organizing the day’s tasks according to their importance and their urgency. Its purpose is to keep you from being busy all day, feeling like you’ve accomplished a lot, and realizing at the end of the day that what you did was relatively unimportant, while some truly significant tasks went undone. Few things are more stressful than realizing you’ve “not had enough time” to take care of something that is really meaningful. This often is mere “crisis management” – the style favored by mid-level managers who never make any higher.

You should consider two kinds of truly important matters: those that help you grow and be better at whatever is your specific function and those that have to do with your relationships. Completing a project report at work might be important, and so might be meeting with your boss, to strengthen that relationship. For personal growth, learning such things as how to use a new piece of equipment can be important. In the long run, as a supervisor of others, maintaining and improving your relationships with your employees and your own boss may be the wisest use of your time.

Urgent matters are those that must be attended to right away and may or may not be important. Urgency may result from a deadline (anywhere from trying to finish a report your manager wants today, to seeing to it that an animal feeding schedule is maintained), a crisis situation (anywhere from a conflict between employees that suddenly threatens to engulf the entire workplace, to running out of paper clips), or simple physical need – what could be more urgent, and yet less important in the ‘Grand Scheme of Things,’ than having to go to the bathroom?

To prioritize the items you have listed, ask yourself, what is the single most important thing that I must accomplish today? Note that there you must choose only one such item, although several may seem awfully important. Pick one and call it your Grand Prize Goal.

Your Grand Prize Goal is one you promise yourself you absolutely will accomplish this day. No excuses, no extenuating circumstances, no limits on your time or energy – nothing will cause you to fail to complete your Grand Prize Goal, short of your sudden, untimely death!

Put your Grand Prize Goal at the top of a new list, and then cross out that item on the first list. Now, consider the remaining items on your to-do list. Choose some Second Place Goals. Add them to the new list, in order of importance, and cross them off the first list. These are things you’ll definitely want to accomplish this day, unless doing them would interfere in some way with your Grand Prize Goal.

Next, choose items that seem important, but not so important that you’ll be seriously upset if the day’s interruptions and emergencies prevent you from accomplishing them. These will be your Honorable Mentions — the ones you have a reasonable hope of getting done. Add them to the new list; cross them off the to-do list.

Now, look at what’s left. This is the stuff you wouldn’t mind getting done, but aren’t going to worry about if they get bumped for more important things. These are your Also-rans.

Delegating: Don’t laugh! Right now, you may be thinking that there isn’t anyone to delegate to. But you can manage it surprisingly often, once you get used to the idea.

Take a good, hard look at your now-prioritized list, and for each item, ask yourself, who can I get to do this task for me? Delegating creatively and effectively is an important and somewhat complex management skill and will be dealt with at length in a future column. For now, just think about which members of your work force might be able to do some of your tasks.

Now, cross those items you have delegated off your prioritized list — but note who’s doing what, and add ‘follow up’ to make sure delegated tasks are done.

Scheduling: If any activities are pre-scheduled, such as a staff meeting or a scheduled conference call, write it in your schedule book, and cross it off your prioritized list. Next, schedule your Grand Prize Goal as early as possible in the day — not just to allow maximum flexibility for unexpected interferences, but also because you’ll want to tackle it when you’re freshest and sharpest.

Next, schedule your Second Place Goals, then whatever Honorable Mentions can fit into the day, and if you can fit in a few Also-rans, schedule them too.

This four-step process (listing, prioritizing, delegating, and scheduling) should only take about 10 minutes, once you’ve had some practice.

Obviously, in most work environments crises happen and things come up that can totally destroy your carefully worked-out schedule. So stay tuned: in my next column I’ll discuss how to block interruptions and avoid time-wasters.

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