Nine great time management tips for real people

Have you ever gone to a time management program where the consultant tells you to turn off the ringer on your phone and limit your interaction with other people (meaning everyone: customers, bosses, family, friends) to very limited times and days so that you can spend the rest of your time more productively? Have you ever had the kind of job or personal life that will let you do that?

 Maybe I’m too responsive, too customer-centric, too much of a mom, but I always laugh when I see that stuff. How would your boss respond to a voicemail message or automatic email reply that says you will reply to voicemail on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and check email at 10:00 and 2:00? And what about that child that has just sliced her hand open in science lab? If you even look at the caller ID to determine whether to answer a call, you’ve allowed yourself to be distracted and therefore are not following good time management practices.

With the pace of today’s business world, limiting your accessibility can mean that you could miss 17 changes on the project you’ve closeted yourself to complete, or miss a customer’s five new requests for additional products by the time you respond to their message from Monday.  I’ve never had a job that would let me do it.

The time management advice is meant well. You’ve had the experience of the person who first calls your work phone, which you don’t pick up because you’re on a conference call. Then your cell phone rings. Then you get an email. Then a text or IM. This person may or may not have an urgent need, but they know how to harass you until you pick up. Technology is so demanding and distracting that it is difficult to find time to do tasks that require long term concentration – which means more than ten minutes at a time. Study after study shows that multi-tasking is a myth. People who do it are less productive and even dangerous – think driving while eating and talking on the phone and looking at directions.

And then there are the workaholics. You might hear from them at any time of day or night, any day of the week. They may be in the office at 4:00 a.m. or traveling in Singapore and don’t seem to have any notion of “business hours” or time zones. They expect answered phone calls and email at any time because they can’t stop thinking about work. They may apologize for disturbing you (insincerely) but still believe that they are doing something so important that you need to respond in your sleep. My experience with these folks is that they generally overrate their importance. No one operates well on a few hours of sleep a night (whether that’s you being woken up or them never sleeping). This behavior frustrates productivity as well.

So, what’s the answer? Here’s my unscientific, personal time management approach:

  • Some people have to go on the always available list – you know who they are – which doesn’t mean you always jump at their requests, but you at least keep up with them.
  • Give those important people a special ring on your phone and alert on your email so you can easily tell who is trying to reach you.
  • Respond to everyone else as time permits, but weed out the time wasters and don’t bother with them.
  • Try to do only one thing at a time.
  • Reserve time to do more demanding tasks without interruption.
  • Reserve time for meals, sleep, exercise, family and friends.
  • Tell people when you will or will not be available. Surprisingly, even demanding people usually respect that as long as you’re reasonable about it.
  • Take breaks from work that allow you to clear your head. Exercise, take a walk, have a meal without doing any work, do whatever gets you away from multiple demands on your brain (errands don’t count).
  • Know your limitations. Accept them or remediate them, you decide.

If you can get away with only being available twice a day, three days a week, please call me. I want your job.