Time Management: Work Smarter, Not Harder

Written by: Margaret Steen

Every company wants its employees to work smarter, not harder - which often comes down to better time management. HR professionals can improve their own efficiency and, more importantly, help employees optimize their time by passing on tips and setting good company policies.

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Here are six time-management tips from the pros:

1. Figure out what's important. Employees should know what they were hired to do, as well as which of their responsibilities directly contribute to generating revenue or serving customers better. That way, staff won't get distracted with unimportant tasks when a major project is looming. "We get busy stomping on ants when we have a big elephant to take care of," said time-management expert Peter Turla.

Once an employee determines what's important, it's easier for him or her to not automatically agree to additional work when someone asks, "Got a minute?" A better response is: "I'm working on a tight deadline. Could it wait until after 4 p.m.?"

Of course, if an entire team is at a standstill until that employee gives an answer to a simple question, it's probably better to address it immediately than to put it off. "Make sure what looks like an ant to you isn't an elephant for the company," Turla said.

One way to set priorities, Turla suggested, is using a technique called backcasting, in which you envision a goal you want to achieve in the future and then evaluate whether what you're doing now will get you there. "You try to discover a mechanism to get from the now to this desired future scenario," Turla said.

2. If it's important, make time to do it. Managers who are supposed to be thinking about their company's long-term strategy can easily find themselves caught up in the daily rush of meetings and minor emergencies. But if strategic plans are an important part of their job, they should dedicate most of their time to addressing them.

"Calendar time to be strategic," said Diane Foster, president of Diane Foster & Associates, an organizational consulting firm. With time blocked out for major tasks, it will be easier to focus on important work.

3. Learn to use to-do lists. Turla suggested employees end each day by making a list of tasks for the next day. "One of the reasons for doing that is so they can go home without thinking so much about work," Turla said.

The next day's schedule shouldn't be chock-full of meetings and activities in order to leave time for unplanned events. "They need to expect the unexpected and plan for it," Turla said.

Turla also advocated making a second list of longer-term projects. Smaller pieces of these projects can go on daily to-do lists.

4. Turn off interruptions. One of the problems of the information age is, well, too much information. It's all too common for an employee to try and focus on a crucial task only to have his or her phone ring and his or her email program get flooded with messages.

Dave Saunders, a performance consultant and speaker, called this result "continuous partial attention," and said this constant shifting of gears prevents employees from truly focusing on the task at hand. "No one is designed to multitask," said Saunders, author of "Super Tactics of Time Management Experts." "Our brains are designed to focus on one thing."

Company policies can help make employees aware of these pitfalls. "HR needs to champion the values and principles behind the fact that people need to focus on what they were hired for," Saunders said.

5. Learn to talk about trade-offs. Everyone has a finite amount of time to work. Sure, most people can put in extra hours now and then to finish a big project. But ultimately, every new additional project means time is taken away from something else.

"If your boss wants you to start something new, you need to inform your boss of the consequences," Turla said. "In some cases you might have to say, 'If you want me to start this new rush job, what would you like to see delayed?'"

6. Make downtime acceptable. A worker who is issued a pager, cell phone or BlackBerry may assume that he or she can never be out of touch with the office. But in order to be efficient at work, employees also need time away from their jobs.

"Most people think they're being required to pay attention 24/7," Saunders said. "They think that if they wake up at 2 a.m. and see an email and respond to it, that's going to reflect well."

To counter this idea, he said, let workers know that true productivity comes from focus. Saunders encouraged employees to announce in advance when they're going to be unreachable. Then they can go to a movie and enjoy it without feeling like they should be checking their email. "Three hours pass and the world didn't end," he said. "They enjoyed themselves, and nobody got fired."

This idea also applies, on a smaller scale, during the workday. It's important to learn to focus without interruptions without going overboard. "Forty-five minutes of high-level focus with 15-minute breaks seems to improve productivity more than the marathon," Turla said. "You need to put a high priority on having high-quality goof-off time during the day."

HR can help by making sure managers understand this, so they don't assume that any employee they see chatting or surfing the Web is not being productive.