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Take Back Your Day! 5 Tips for Understanding and Planning Your Time and Resources

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Here are five tips to help you understand your time and resource needs better, and make a plan to capitalize on your strengths, further develop areas you need to improve, and keep your stress to a minimum… at least when it comes to managing your time. Best of all, it will make you look like a (S)HERO at the office!

1. Polish your estimating skills

The first step in taking back control of our time is to polish our estimating skills. Whenever we are assigned a task, we always think we know about how long it will take. Right? Wrong! How many times are we shocked by the amount of time we really need to accomplish what should be a simple task, but ends up being far from simple? Either someone else doesn’t have their piece of the project ready; or the technology doesn’t work right and we lose hours troubleshooting the problem; or it just takes longer to collect our thoughts on a topic we already know but we’ve never taught to anyone else. So the steps and concepts are not logically organized in our mind and take longer to get on paper.

I recently tracked my daily activities to identify behavior patterns that don’t serve me well and discovered some surprises, including mismanagement of my environment (aka interruptions), as well as a few items that took longer to accomplish than expected.

Track your activities and the time spent on them:

  • Place a lined pad on your desk, within easy reach.
  • Make two columns on the pad – one labeled Start Time and one labeled Activity.
  • Upon starting any activity, write the start time in the first column, and a brief description of the activity in the second. Write all tasks, including phone calls as they occur. (Don’t get fancy with the form, or you’ll waste time, rather than creating a simple tool to help you analyze it. Don't worry about logging End Times – if you do it religiously, new Start Times will indicate when you ended the previous task.)
  • At the end of the day, you will see how many times you began a task and how long you spent on it before (either voluntarily or involuntarily) beginning a new one.
  • Tracking this for just 2-3 days will allow you to see emerging patterns.

Analyze the form for:

  • Heaviest and lightest phone times
  • Physical interruptions by your boss, and by others; it’s important to note whether interruptions come from your boss (more difficult to change or control) or from others (easier to do so)
  • Big chunks of time spent on dedicated activities (this identifies naturally occurring chunks of “uninterrupted time”)
  • Tasks that took longer than anticipated
  • Tasks that can be broken into smaller pieces and spread over a longer time period
  • Tasks that are small and can be done in one “chunk”

Once you’ve discovered patterns that can be changed or corrected, you can develop a plan to make the necessary changes and effectively communicate them (in order to allow others to help you by respecting those changes.

2. “Time-Saving” gadgets: one-size does not fit all!

If you are frustrated by a lack of success with the “latest and greatest” time-savers, join the club! Every new gadget or program comes with incredibly convincing hype… and we often fall for it! Although we really may need some of these items, the only way to be sure if it will really help (or hinder) us is to analyze whether it fits our communication and productivity styles. Since I’m a “techie-girl” at heart, I always try to help people save time by using the right technology – and often end up helping them save time by avoiding the wrong technology.

Here are a few tips to help determine if any new gadget or software program is right for you:

  • Ask yourself, “Will this make my life easier… or harder?” Analyze how much time you spend doing regular tasks, and which steps cost you the most time. Will this technology shorten those steps? Is it worth the cost (of money and time spent learning it)? Don’t buy it if the answer is no!
  • Do I perform the task in question often enough to make learning new technology worthwhile? If you don’t perform a task very often, it may not be worth the investment of time to learn and use it. Don’t forget about the time spent re-learning it every time you use it. Since technology that is not used regularly fades from our mind, it can cost us valuable time just trying to remember what we did and how we did it the last time we used it… 2 months ago!
  • Know your learning and productivity styles: Just because an item works for your friend doesn’t mean it will work for you. Are you apt to respond and be more productive with visual reminders than auditory ones? If so, “hiding” all your To Do’s in electronic form and waiting for audible reminders may not be the best idea. Try it for a week – if you forget to do important items because they’re not visible, this method may not be for you.
  • Technology doesn’t have to be an “all-or-nothing” proposition: Sometimes a combination of styles works best. You can use electronic gadgets for some purposes, and manual systems for others. I love my smartphone for my calendar and address book, but hate it for my To Do List. I can’t seem to take electronic “To Dos” seriously. Call me old-fashioned – or just weird – but if I hand-write a list of important items, they seem more real, I remember them better, and I get a great feeling of accomplishment from manually crossing them off my list as they’re done!

Keep in mind that most technology today has so much functionality built into it that you’ll never use it all – so don’t even try! Just find out which apps have the right functionality for you, try them before you buy them (if possible), and then spend your valuable time and money on learning those that will make your personal and professional life a little easier. And don’t worry if your friend’s new “toy” doesn’t work for you. Remember that gadgets are like buses: if you miss one, another one is right around the corner!

3. Don't assume – clarity saves time!

How much time is wasted by assuming that others have the same understanding we do? I recently had a conversation with a young college student who wanted to change cell phone plans, but she first had to switch her friend Cindy (who was on her plan) to another service. Their joint plan subscription ran from the 14th of one month to the 13th of the next.

When the student told me she’d inform Cindy that the current plan would continue until “the end of the month”, I asked if Cindy knew that she really meant the 13th (the end of the fiscal month), rather than the 31st (the end of the calendar month), she replied, “I assume she does… it’s always been that way!"

Hmmm… what problems and potential time wasters are hidden in this scenario?

  • The student pays the bills and is constantly reminded of the plan dates, but Cindy isn’t;
  • She may have told Cindy those dates (two years ago), but without reminders. Cindy may have forgotten by now;
  • Cindy could have easily misunderstood and thought that because a change was occurring, she really had until the end of the (calendar) month to take action;
  • If she switched services before Cindy expected her to, Cindy might overrun her minutes, incur extra fees, or be left without service… all of which would take time and resources to correct.

Watch for these simple, innocent-looking miscommunications. Think ahead, analyze your words, and keep in mind that assumptions are just that: assumptions, not facts. Being very clear in all our communications will not only save other people time and energy, but save ourselves time and energy by avoiding the necessity to repeat, clarify or correct situations that occur when things happen according to what we thought we said, rather than what we actually did say.

4. Save time – sometimes less really is more

Are you losing time by overwhelming your co-workers with too many choices? Allow me to explain what I mean by this.

Let's say you need to set up a meeting for a group of people. You don't know when they're available, so you need some options from them in order to compare dates and choose the best one for most people. What do you do? Do you just ask them to send their availability... or do you give them a few selections to choose from?

Many people (in the spirit of giving others the most freedom) would simply ask for the availability of others, without putting (many) limits on it. For example, a friend who serves on a board with me recently asked for our availability "in the month of August." Wow! That's a lot of dates and times to list!

As you can guess, this caused the opposite reaction from the desired one. Instead of feeling "free" to choose their own dates, many felt overwhelmed by the task. Without a few targeted choices from which to select, the following undesirable results ensued:

  1. A couple of people were unsure of how far out to go and provided too many dates, overwhelming my friend with options.
  2. Someone provided too little, which didn’t fit the schedules of other people.
  3. But most didn’t answer at all because they were too overwhelmed by the number of dates and times they would have to list, so they just put the request aside and waited for others to answer and make some suggestions.

Here’s one way to avoid this problem: instead of just asking for all free dates in August, my friend could have offered five or six dates and times from which participants could select their top three choices. This would have made it quick and easy for them to respond, and given my friend a better chance of getting the job done with the first request. As it was, she had to go back and forth several times (by email and phone) before a few viable choices were identified and the best one selected.

In our high-speed world, sometimes we just need someone to give us a "head start" on tasks. Not only will providing a little more structure on the front end save time and effort for others, but it may just save time for us because it will mean less follow-up on the back end.

5. Extended telephone tag kills time management
Have you ever played a lengthy game of telephone tag? Of course you have! We’ve all been there and done that. Telephone tag is time-consuming enough when it’s necessary, but many times it can be completely avoided by following one small tip: leave the recipient all the information needed to take the next step without having to call you back multiple times.

For example, when I was a realtor, I’d often receive calls from agents who wanted to show my listed homes to their buyers. They would call and leave me a message: “This is (Agent X). I’d like to show your listing at 123 Smith Street. Please call me so we can set up a time.”

I would then call, and you can imagine what happened. I got the agent’s voicemail and would have to leave a message, “Sorry I missed you. What date(s) and time(s) are you looking for?” The agent would call back and get my voicemail… well, you can see that this got us nowhere fast!

How much more effective would it have been if the messages had gone like this:

“This is (Agent X). I’d like to show your home at 123 Smith Street. The dates and times we have available are Monday at 1pm or 2pm and Tuesday at 9am. Please call me to confirm a time or give me an alternate time.” I could have then called back and confirmed one of those times (completing the transaction in two calls), or offered a couple of alternate times which the agent could confirm back to me (probably completing it in three calls).

Although email has alleviated much of this situation, email is not always reliable. Either (I am about ready to tear my hair out due to email snafus)! Besides, there are times when phone calls are more expedient than email, provided they are done correctly. This may not solve every scheduling issue, but if we look for opportunities to be as precise and succinct as possible, we can cut a telephone tag session down to two or three calls… a vast improvement over the time and effort delays seen when people are forced into lengthy voicemail exchanges due to incomplete information.

By following and truly mastering the tips above, you will vastly improve your understanding of your own time and resource needs, as well as your critical communication skills. This will allow you to take back hours of time in your workdays and put them to work creating the results you and your leader desire.


**'This article first appeared in Executive Secretary Magazine, a global training publication and must read for any office professional. You can get a 30% discount when you subscribe through us. Visit the website at www.executivesecretary.com to find out more about the publication and to get your 30% discount email [email protected] and tell them we sent you.'

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