The first line of Pink Floyd’s masterful song Time reflects on the sense that the arrow of time is an accelerating one as we age. To those of us who believe we are time poor, or opportunity rich, we would welcome time taking a comfort break occasionally. Instead we get advice on Time Management.
I attended my first course on time management some 23 years ago, and the central theme is one repeated in every missive on time management it has been my misfortune to experience since then. Prioritise. That is your time management keystone, normally coupled with the earnest plea to say ‘no’ often. Depending on where you are in your organisation, good luck with that!
Of course, if we could prioritise then we wouldn’t really have a time management problem. I remember asking 23 years ago how we prioritise and frankly the answer pretty assured that my new shiny Time Manager bible would remain largely unused. Someone once gave me the classic office advice to “always look busy”, yet everyone knows that if you want something done then ask a busy person as nothing languishes on their desk, given sufficient impetus of seniority of request. So that generally doesn’t work out so well.
Perhaps Messrs Gilmour, Walters and co had a point after all, as the next great stalwart of time management sage-dom is to make a list. Most lists represent a wall of failure and disappointment, often increasing in length during the working day. A list essentially implores its author to fail. Boredom and stress pile weight upon the list and we sink beneath a tsunami of ‘post its’.
To tackle the problem at source I am stealing scheduling clues from computer science. There are lists and deflections but little stress to prioritise beyond the obvious. Here we go:
You will need two lists, a simple timer and, if you are in a open plan office, a sign. Headphones can be useful if they are noise cancelling but don’t be tempted to plug them into anything unless you really can only focus that way, and then avoid anything with spoken voice or lyrics unless they are in a language you don’t speak. A timer with a sounder, preferably visual. Most likely your phone.
This reads “I am on-task. I will be available at: “. This stops the walk-by time hog and most trivial interrupts. Setting expectations rarely causes conflict.
Sadly there has to be one, or in this case two – unless you work in a highly directed environment. List One is stuff your boss needs, and list Two is stuff you need to get done. The top-most item in both lists is a quick win. You need a low input, high impact action if you can find it. That rarely involves phone calls. The major source of stress is failure to complete tasks. By starting with quick wins you are already on a roll and your list is, by definition, shorter already! It’s tempting to hit all the quick stuff first but that is like leaving the brussel sprouts to last and you will prevaricate. See The Timer below for clues.
Each list starts with no more than five items. Complex tasks may break into several actions. The goal is two items cleared off the boss list then one off yours. Only add to the list once they are cleared, unless you receive a ‘boss interrupt’.
This is your scheduler. Set it to 20 minutes. This is One Pom. This idea is borrowed in a modified form from the Pomodoro Technique. Why 20 minutes? Why not!
If an action is completed in less time, tick it off, take a lap of the office or a comfort break and reset. It is important to physically move at the end of every Pom, if only to stretch. Task completion is a celebratory moment but try to avoid coffee machines or catching up on your phone/facebook in the first two hours or your schedule will go to hell. Do not ‘meerkat’ coworkers cubes or workspaces.
All going well you’ll be cracking on at a pace.
At the end of the Pom Unit attack the next task on the lists. If the first task is incomplete you can return to it next. If you are on a task roll you might decide to keep going with that task for another Pom Unit. That’s ok but still take the stretch and do not maintain that task for more than one more Pom.
Obviously housekeeping interrupts like fire alarms are valid interrupts, as are contacts from your managers, known as ‘boss interrupts’. Always negotiate service levels on interrupt tasks so you can decide whether to displace a listed task or add it to the end. Negotiate doesn’t mean argue but understanding if your delivery is a gating action for some other task or a discrete project. Push every request to email if you can and place them in a tasks folder. This is your well when your lists run dry.
All other interrupts can be deferred until you are ready.
I’m not saying that you order every working day this way, just the ones where you are feeling overwhelmed or under pressure. Prevarication can arise through stress, lack of progress, lack of skills, too many skills, coworker interrupts, bad management or boredom. These techniques will give you a basis for progress with tasks and nothing more.