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A Guide to Managing Time

3. Implementation: Working the Plan

It is one thing to be able plan your work as we have described. It is another skill entirely to be able to work the plan.

The problem of course is that your time is not your own. You have to be flexible and be prepared to react to other people’s needs, and to give them time when they come to talk to you, and deal with problems and answer the phone and so on, and on, and on …

And yet you still need time to get things done. Otherwise, you may find that responding to other people’s needs makes you popular but it can also make you ineffective – robbing you of the time to do the things that matter most.

Managing the balance

The skill is being able to balance the need to be reactive with the even more important need to be proactive. Being flexible and still getting the important things done. Time for you and time for them. Time to keep on top of today and time to build for tomorrow.

Knowing where this balance lies is delicate and is something only you can decide on (although your boss should certainly be able to help you). Some jobs are naturally more reactive than others. If you are in the front line, such as being the first point of contact for customers or people needing help, then you are going to have to be more willing to react than someone tucked away in the back office. There is also the cultural factor – some organisations and environments are more reactive than others simply because ‘that is the way that we do things round here’. Which is not to say that it’s wrong, but it is one more factor that needs to be managed.

Managing the granularity

There is also the issue of the granularity of your time. The more reactive you allow yourself to be the more your time gets fragmented into ever smaller granules. Those jobs that need time to think need proper ‘chunks’ of time, or you may find that you spend all of your time putting them down then picking them up again without making any real progress.

Dealing with interruptions

To manage the balance you will need to be able manage interruptions for at least some part of the day.
You could try picking the same time reach day (first hour of the day perhaps?) and explain to people that you are trying to make this your ‘quiet time’ and that you would be grateful if they could avoid interrupting you during this time. Since they are having the same problems themselves you may find them sympathetic.

Some people have backed up this ‘quiet time’ strategy with signals to remind other that they are trying to concentrate. Ideas tried include wearing a red baseball cap (ASDA), signal flags on a corner of the desk (London Transport), Do Not Disturb notices on or near the desk (Kodak), red and green magnetic disks on door frames (PA) and a reserved desk called the Quiet Desk.

None of these deal with the problems of a ringing phone, and if you cannot arrange for others to cover the phone for a little while (perhaps by promising to do the same for them later) then the only option may be to move away from your desk for a little while. Maybe there is a spare meeting room, or if someone is out of the office perhaps you can use their desk.

Or why not work from home occasionally? In some organisations this is still a hard concept to introduce, even though for many people it is a very practical solution.

Dealing with distractions

Interruptions are not only caused by other people. Once they leave you alone for a while you may find that you are also quite good at interrupting yourself! Maintaining concentration in a busy environment can be a challenge. As we have said, the human brain is not programmed to deal with one thing at a time. It is sensitive to the environment and likes to hop from one stimulus to another. It gets bored and looks for displacement activity (see more about this in the section on Procrastination below).

Dealing with this starts with self-discipline. But you can also help by at least making sure that the area within your peripheral vision as you sit at your desk is clear of distractions. And potentially the biggest distraction on your desk are the other jobs that you have not yet got around to. As they sit quietly on top of your desk these jobs are constantly reminding you of things that you still have to do. Seeing them will remind you that some of them will soon start to become urgent if you don’t deal with them. Others will remind you that there are problems that you still need to solve.

To remove the distraction you need to move the work to somewhere where you cannot see is as you work at your desk. In a drawer? On a table or shelf behind you? How about leaving it where it normally lives until you need it? Instead of using the piles as a reminder of what needs to be done, write a list of these jobs and then ‘file the pile’.

Dealing with conflicting demands

You may be clear about what your priorities are and what comes next, but other people may have completely different plans for your time. Part of the skill of maintaining a balance is to be clear about your role – and if necessary to make sure that other people are also clear about why you are there and what you need to achieve.

Start with the boss. Assuming that your boss has a full understanding of your role and responsibilities he or she would have no problem agreeing with the list of key results that you have now written down, so show them a copy and ask for their agreement. Better still, ask them to list what THEY regard as your key results and then compare the two lists. (We have tried this test many times in our training programmes – and guess what? The lists rarely come close to agreeing with each other!)

Once you have your boss’s support it may then become time to think about when to say No to people. We have said that part of the balance is to be flexible and accessible to people and to be responsive when necessary. Now we add one more element – asking yourself ‘is this my job?’.

The actual practice of saying No is something that causes some people more problems than others. It helps if you are completely confident about what your real role is. It also helps if you gently educate people as to why you are really here in advance.

And it pays to have a strategy ready for when the moment comes, such as suggesting alternatives to you doing it or pointing out the price you would pay if you did not do what you need to be doing right now. Sometimes it also helps to smile whilst saying No!

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The Problem with Time

1. The Vision Thing: Creating an Overview
Doing the right thing

2. Priorities: First Things First
What needs to be done and what comes first

> 3. Working the Plan:
Making time for the important things

4. Delegation:
Getting more done through others

5. Procrastination:
Think positive and do it now!

6. Perfect, Perfect, Perfection:
Quantity versus quality - Knowing when to move on

7. Putting Time Management to Work:
So much for the theory, now for the practice