Take a Load Off.
While some companies may feel that they are enhancing their managers' efficiency by providing the right technology in the form of e-mail access, computer-based record-keeping and voice mail, the fact is that many managers are less effective than they could be. This can result in a loss of productivity. For example, studies have found that executives spend an average of 150 hours per year looking for misplaced items or information.
Many senior executives in business today feel like orphans. Accustomed to secretarial and clerical support, they find that the new layered" businesses of today usually do not offer such assistance. It is rare for any but the top managers in a major organization to have a dedicated secretary. Others must share administrative support or do without.
Employees, particularly those in management, need better skills at managing their workflow to be as productive as possible. Technologies such as handheld computers and scheduling software can help, but even the best technology is useless unless proper principles are applied. The same principles apply regardless of whether an employee uses the latest software or a hand-written, paper-based system.
Having a to-do list doesn't get it done
One of the first steps many people take in organizing their work is to prepare a to-do list. They write down all of the tasks that they can think of and then set about doing them. Some people will put the tasks in priority, with
a view to tackling the most important items first.
However, a to-do list is not a particularly effective way to get the work done, compared to scheduling blocks of time for the various tasks. To do this, start with considering your goals, whether personal or professional. Then, decide how you can have the greatest possible effect in reaching those goals and select your tasks accordingly. Estimate how long each task will take and then add 50% to that time. For example, if you think a job will take an hour, assume it will take an hour and a half. This allows for unexpected complications and interruptions in the task you have chosen.
If it's a larger project, perhaps one taking 24 hours for instance, it's important to recognize that you cannot work at it non-stop. This means that you should first determine the deadline for the project (i.e. seven weeks from now) and then give yourself an artificial deadline that is a week earlier (i.e. six weeks). This provides you with a buffer zone to allow for contingencies. Divide your 24-hour project by six weeks, resulting in six weekly segments of four hours each. Schedule those four hours into two, two-hour blocks of time, preferably during the first part of the week.
Avoid the pitfall of trying to schedule too many tasks into the time available. Be sure to build in some flextime; otherwise, you will simply fall behind in your plan and become discouraged with scheduling. Distractions will inevitably intrude on the time blocks you have set aside, but they can be minimized. For example, you may suddenly remember that you need to phone somebody, or check on the status of a project. Resist the urge to "self-interrupt" -- it is far better to do a brief reminder to yourself to do it, make a note and put it aside to do later, and get back to the task at hand. This way, you are not flitting from one task to another, leaving incomplete the projects that are most important to meeting your overall objectives.
To schedule your work most effectively, you need to operate with a clear understanding of your personal strengths and weaknesses. Some people are at their best in the morning and energy fades throughout the day. Others take time to get going in the morning and are strongest in the afternoon and evening. Your daily rhythm will have peak times, when you are most efficient, as well as valleys.
Schedule your work so that you reserve your best times for the most crucial tasks. This could mean holding an important meeting or making important phone calls, or doing a project that is particularly vital to reaching your goals.
In your "down" time you can do work that is less demanding, such as filing, dealing with email or going through your mail. Additionally, there will always be filler tasks that may not be urgent, but which are important and need to be done.
Use technology effectively
In setting your schedule, use technology that is appropriate. You may prefer to use a paper-based schedule system, but you also owe it to yourself to see what information technology tools are available. This is particularly important if other people in your workplace use technologies such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Outlook to help them work more closely together.
If your work is largely desk-based and you rarely travel, you may be best off learning a system that is based on your computer. For those who travel more frequently, hand-held computing devices such as a Palm Pilot can be a wonderful way to ensure that important tasks don't fall through the cracks. You can indicate final deadlines and interim deadlines for yourself and set aside blocks of time to accomplish tasks.
Simply buying a piece of technology, however, is not the answer to workflow management. It is also important to invest the time needed to learn how to use it properly. Find out which of the product's features are most useful to you in your situation and learn how to use them effectively. Set aside time to go through tutorials and handbooks -- it's an investment that pays off.
Making it happen
Some people are unwilling to admit that their work habits are limiting their success. Often, it takes the loss of a potential contract or existing customer to convince someone that they need to make some changes. Or, he or she could be simply fed up with living with the stress of not being in control of his or her work.
One of the biggest steps towards improving one's work habits is to recognize that something needs to change. However, it's also important to realize that not everything can change at once. A lifetime of habits cannot be overcome with a single resolution. Start with easy steps, achieve small goals, and then move on towards greater efficiency.
Margaret Miller is founder and president of Teragram (www.WalkYourToc.com) a consulting firm based in Burlington, ON that provides services in training, organizing and coaching.