Managing Your Time at Work
by Terrie Solomon

Is there anyone in today's workforce who could not benefit from an extra half hour or hour each day? Come to work earlier? Stay later? Give up weekends? As mere humans, we do have limits. Stretching the clock won't work; you have to rethink your job approach so that it seems as though you've discovered a way to lengthen your day. The difference in perspective is that you control how your time is spent, and you can't continue to let time control you. You can easily gain even a moderate savings in time by putting to work a simple three-word approach: organize, prioritize, maximize. Here's how it works.

Organize    to top

Before you can gain the upper hand on saving time at work, you have to create a system of organization for yourself. Digging through papers and stacking and restacking work coming into and going out of your office will cost you dearly in terms of efficiency. Designate definitive "in" and "out" boxes, and a "pending" box on your desk or in another easily reachable place. If you find yourself perpetually recycling the same items in your "pending" box and you haven't done anything with an item for more than two weeks, you need to question whether it's a valid task at all.

To track dates, deadlines, meetings, and other important activities, purchase a detailed daily planner to document these items. When you need to record anything associated with a date, enter it into your planner or computer so it gets onto your schedule.

Once you get your workspace organized, you need to get mentally organized. Why? Because your brain can only hold so much detail at one time. Use a notebook to jot down most everything that you say or do during each day. Use a new page for each topic, and whenever someone discloses information to you or makes an assignment, write down the date at the top of the page and document the critical details so you will have comprehensive documentation at your fingertips.

If the boss reviews details of some activity he or she has assigned to you, and the details keep changing, you can save yourself confusion by being able to review the notes you took during your last meeting with the boss. Politely use the documentation in your notebook to review your understanding of previously given details, and seek clarification based on the new information you are receiving. Use your notebook as a constant repository: You will never have to struggle to recall details, and your notes will create a paper trail, which provides you with the accuracy of a "court reporter." You'll be surprised how you will become the walking transcript for your own clarification, as well as that of others.

Prioritize    to top

If you have a job description, use this document as a starting point. Make a list of the activities that comprise your workday, and as you do so, you will actually begin to create a structure of planned activity. Next to each activity, make a guess as to how much time you spend for each one. Use percentages, with 100 percent being your total workday. From this measured-out structure, you should begin to see a plan emerge. This plan is your base for prioritizing or reprioritizing your work activities. Put this list away for future comparison.

Now, for the very next workday, document for that whole day everything you do, as you do it, making sure to track the exact time spent on any and every activity, no matter how small. Once you have truthfully and accurately documented every minute of this day, translate the time amounts into percentages, with 100 percent being the whole workday.

Now, compare those percentages with the percentages you estimated on your activity list. See any patterns? Any disparities? For example, John listed solving customer service problems as being 30 percent of his day's activities, but when he documented the actual time he spent during his actual workday, he discovered he really spent 60 percent of that day trouble-shooting customer service problems. Like our example employee John, if you compare percentages you should be able to gain insight into where you think your time goes and where it really gets spent.

Use these comparisons to draft a plan to get control of your workday. Let this information guide you to reassess your approach to your workflow. This information, too, can be vital when you discuss your job performance with your boss, supervisor, or manager especially if your data supports your much-deserved raise or bonus.

Maximize    to top

Interruptions are an everyday obstacle to achieving maximum work performance. To keep interruptions to a minimum, hang an "in" box outside your door for receipt of incoming paperwork and mail. Use this location outside your door as a deterrent for delivery persons and other passersby. Don't be afraid to create some privacy by partly or completely closing your office door if you have one, or creating a "barrier" between your workspace or cubical by hanging a form of curtain, but be certain your office rules permit such an addition.

Also, set aside a minimum of one hour each day at the same time as your private time. Post a sign, spread the word among your peers, explain to your boss: You are trying to create time savings, and creating "private" time is part of your overall plan. Remember that you are the one who calls the shots on how you spend your time, so take control. Establish rules of how you will spend your time, and stick to them. If you can't set a few rules and lay some ground rules, you'll be the last one to leave work each day.

To keep yourself mentally on track, group similar tasks, like checking e-mails, returning phone calls, retrieving voice mail or reading incoming materials. Do these tasks the same time each day, and you'll find that you complete these tasks more quickly than you have before.

Although you control your time, you lose a certain amount of autonomy when you attend meetings, especially when they are set up by others. Unproductive meetings are notorious time wasters, so attempt to set limits on how long you will be able to devote to any single gathering. Request a written meeting agenda in advance, and strive to stick to the agenda. Because you are only part of the group, you can set your time limits, but your decision-making power is limited in the meeting arena.

Once you organize, prioritize, and maximize, what will you do with the time you learn to save? Work toward a promotion? Take on a special project? Simply leave work at a reasonable time every night? Once you get things organized and establish a daily routine, you'll find you've become more efficient, and you will have gained time, too.

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