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Time and task management with a PC.

YOU ALWAYS DREAMED Of being organized, of completing tasks on time, and of being able to locate information quickly and easily. You hoped a computer would be your organizational savior, but thousands of dollars later, you still have the same mess.

Organization--with or without a computer--involves management of both time and tasks. The first step is to establish priorities and goals. Eliminate any projects that do not bring you closer to your goals. Then estimate the amount of time it will take to complete the remaining projects and proceed. Easier said than done? Here's how to make it happen.

* Do I need a computer? Some people think that a computer can do everything faster than pen and paper, but these people usually fail to consider the time required to turn on the computer, retrieve the appropriate file, and type the information, not to mention the time it takes to install computer systems and learn software packages.

A computer cannot make you organized; it merely executes procedures very quickly, making the procedures more efficient. Before you computerize, think: Will it really save me time? A well-designed manual organizational system may be all you need.

* Defining goals. Time is elastic and we control it. When your laboratorians say:l do not have time to do X, what they really mean is that X is at the bottom of their priority list. Often improving time management is a simple matter of learning to say "no."

Managing time, on the job and in all other facets of life, requires getting to know yourself and what your ultimate objectives are. It requires maintaining a clear vision of your goals despite pressure to stray, to assume more responsibilities, and to squeeze more tasks into fewer hours.

Once you know your goals, identify the tasks that will help you attain them. Assume only those tasks that bring you closer to your objectives; say "no" to those that force you to back-pedal. The tasks that move you forward become your list of things to do.

* Things to do. Organizing a list of things to do is no trivial matter. The list should be comprehensive and descriptive. The tasks on the list should be grouped by category or by individuals who will execute them, or perhaps both, if the list is substantial. Tasks need not be described in detail on the list if they are explained elsewhere. For example, say your lab has an existing daily and weekly procedure for maintenance of a gas chromatograph that states: 1) Check remaining volume of each gas by writing the tank pressure; 2) Check pressure regulators to insure constant pressure; 3) Review baseline noise for indication of dirt and need to change septa, etc. Your daily task list need not restate each of these items; simply note "check daily gas chromatograph checklist."

* Assigning time values. The next step is to assign a time value to each task and determine whether there are enough hours in the day to accomplish the tasks on your list.

I use a handwritten grid to help with this. I label columns with days of the week and rows with categories of activities, for example: personal, education, paperwork, vacation, task I task 2, etc. In each box I note the amount of time I expect to devote to each category on each day and tally the totals. A feasible plan accounts for all hours of the week and no more.

Most people are amazed to find that the plans they have kept in their heads do not work in reality because they were trying to squeeze too many tasks into each day. These are the people who either never get around to certain tasks or spend less time on tasks than the tasks require.

Once your grid is made, test it for accuracy. Keep a record for one week of how you spend your time and compare the results with your theoretical week. A wide discrepancy is a clue that you are having a problem planning your time and need to do something about it (see Figure 1).

* Delegation. One option is delegation. As a manager, if you can't complete everything on your list, you can delegate responsibilities to others.

Identify staff members' areas of responsibility. Determine which staff members have the time and talent to do the tasks for which you don't have time. When assigning tasks, be sure assignees fully understand assignments, that you both agree on deadlines, and that the people to whom you assign the tasks are qualified to do the job.

Part of your responsibility as a manager is to train your employees in the art and science of organization. Time is money; employees who are not organized are likely to cost the laboratory in terms of tasks not completed in a timely fashion or at all. Most employees (at a minimum) need to maintain a list of things to do. Those who claim they can remember everything should be working in magic shows, not in labs; clinical laboratories must perform thousands of tasks and maintain practically zero error.

* Timesaving tips. If delegation is not an option, consider these simple timesaving tips:

* Devote 15 minutes each morning to planning your day.

* Hold staff meetings only with those who absolutely need to participate and only when a less time-consuming option is not feasible.

* Keep a group of people informed with a periodic bulletin instead of a constant stream of individual memos.

* Allocate one hour per day to receiving and returning phone calls.

* Complete small tasks when you start them.

* Calendars. Everyone in the lab should keep a personal calendar. I recommend managers keep two copies of their calendars, one at work and one at home, in case you need to access information while away from the lab. Also, your secretary should have a copy of your personal calendar so she can make and change appointments for you when you're not at your desk.

In addition, every lab should have a central calendar reflecting events that affect everyone. Hung in a highly visible location, the calendar should highlight weekly assignments as well as holidays, inspections, vacations, instrument downtime and modifications, weddings, birthdays, etc. One person in the lab should be in charge of updating the central calendar on a weekly or monthly basis.

* Organizing documents. Whether or not you decide to computerize, you will require a system to keep documents organized and accessible. I suggest organizing folders to correspond with tasks and having both cross-referenced with computer files and reference materials.

Develop a master plan and map for the storage of all your files in file cabinets and bookcases so that secretaries and other lab workers can find information and materials in your absence. Document all changes to your computer configuration in a log kept next to the computer. And maintain procedures for the lab in text files using a word processing program. Keep an index of procedures next to the computer.

* Software to the rescue. A well-planned software system stores information so you can retrieve it easily and with various approaches. It should help you plan and prioritize tasks, estimate the time needed to complete them, track assignments, monitor progress, and remind you of deadlines. Choosing the wrong information management system can lead to thousands of wasted man-hours, not to mention thousands of hours of frustration.

A wide range of software products is available to help you get organized. Some emphasize time management, which allows you to schedule and update appointments easily. Others emphasize organization of tasks. They establish the minimum amount of time necessary to complete each task, taking into consideration available personnel and other resources.

Some software packages combine a calendar feature with an address book feature so that you can coordinate mailings or phone calls easily. If a response is required by a certain date, some programs will alert you when the deadline is nearing and again when it arrives to remind you of any action required.

If you make many phone calls, consider having your computer connected to a telephone with a modern. Many software programs with address book features can dial phone numbers automatically, saving you up to several minutes per call. Some even allow you to record comments from conversations so you can refer to them when action is later required.

One of the problems with all software programs is that you must be sitting in front of a computer to use them, and you must always use the same computer (or the same network). This is a tremendous drawback for individuals who work from multiple desks or workstations or do much of their work while in transit or at home.

Another drawback is that to use most organizational software programs, you must discontinue using word processing or spreadsheet programs. A few, however, can be loaded while using another program (they reside in memory all the time and can be recalled by pressing a specific key combination). Using Windows (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.), for example, you can run several programs simultaneously, but you need a fast computer and plenty of disk space. With older computers there may be memory conflicts and the process of switching may take several minutes.

Organizational software programs are updated frequently and offer too many features to discuss in full detail here, so investigate and experiment before you buy. Keep in mind too that the prices provided here are only approximations and vary widely. Here are a few programs to consider:

* OnTime (Campbell Services Inc., Southfield, Mich.) can be used with DOS (about $70) or Windows (about $130). The program is simple, small, and relatively inexpensive. Other programs have more features, but are also more complex.

* Ascend (Franklin Quest Co., Salt Lake City, Utah) will organize your calendar and a list of things to do. It reminds you that you must have goals and that the tasks you undertake must help you meet your goals. This software works with the Franklin Planner, an excellent paperbound organizer that helps you keep track of appointments and things to do. The same company also produces training courses, tapes, and books. The major drawback is cost--about $395.

The calendars in both of the above programs service one or several persons (sometimes at extra cost) and can be organized and displayed in daily, weekly, monthly, or annual formats. Tasks can be assigned to categories and given priority codes according to their importance or the order in which they should be executed. Tasks are rolled over to subsequent days if not completed. An archival feature allows you to store a list of completed tasks as a record, and print your daily schedule and list of things to do by category. Both of these programs will inform you of available time for meetings, alert you to potential conflicts, and remind you of scheduled appointments with an alarm or visual display.

* Packrat (Polaris Software, Escondido, Calif.) is a large and expensive program (about $395) that runs under Windows 3.1. It helps you keep track of appointments, people, expenditures, and a wide range of other information (e.g., research articles and publications).

* ManagePro (Avantos Performance Systems, Emeryville, Calif.) focuses on helping you keep track of tasks you've assigned to others. It allows you to make notes on their performance, keep track of deadlines, and monitor their progress for about $295. It can be a tremendous aid for annual performance reviews.

* Who-What-When (Chronos Software Inc., San Francisco, Calif.) has similar features and a similar price tag (about $295), but places greater emphasis on things to do than on personnel evaluation.

* Software alternatives. If you don't want to purchase software that offers nothing but organizational features, most organizational tasks in the laboratory can be managed with a word processing or spreadsheet program. I recommend DOS rather than Windows versions because DOS versions are faster, easier to use, and run well on inexpensive computers. If you have fast computers with Windows, however, then you should have Windows-compatible software.

For word processing, I suggest Microsoft Word or Word for Windows (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.), WordPerfect, either DOS or Windows versions (WordPerfect Corp., Orem, Utah), or Ami (Lotus Corp., Cambridge, Mass.). For spreadsheets, I recommend Excel under Windows (Microsoft).

Most people know that they can use spreadsheet programs to create tables, but such programs can also be used to track projects, maintain small data bases, prepare budgets, index maintenance procedures, and schedule staff by day and task. We use Excel, for example, to maintain a list of our purchases (item, supplier, price, etc.) and track our inventory. We drew a diagram of the lab, assigned a name to each cabinet, shelf, freezer, etc., and stored on a spreadsheet the location of every item, file, piece of equipment, magnetic tape, and floppy disk in the lab. Maintaining such a system takes only a few minutes each day but can save hours spent locating missing files and information.

Regardless of the system you choose--computerized or non-computerized, DOS- or Windows-compatible software, spreadsheet, organizational, or word processing program--organization is the key. Investing a few minutes, hours, or even days now to establish an organizational system for the things you have to do will give you dividends of extra time later for the things you want to do.

Figure 1

How to know where your times goes

1. Using your word processor or pencil and paper, prepare a list of up to 10 tasks. Make three columns next to your list. Label the first column "estimated amount of time" (how many hours you think you spend on each task). Label the second column "ideal" or "optimum" (the ideal amount of time for you to spend on each task). Label the last column "actual" (the actual amount of time you spend on each task). Make seven copies and label each with a day of the week.

2. Fill in the "estimated" and "ideal" columns for each day. The total of each of these columns should not exceed 24 hours for each day.

3. Keep track of your time for seven consecutive days and complete the "actual" columns. Add tasks to your list if you find yourself doing things you didn't anticipate.

4. At the end of the seven days, analyze your results to determine whether your time was spent wisely or wasted.

The author is a senior scientist in the Fatty Acid Laboratory, Clinical Nutrition Unit, Boston University Medical Center Hospital, Boston, Mass.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Computer Dialog; personal computer
Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:May 1, 1993
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