Some years ago I read an article on time management that suggested turning off the e-mail feature wherein a notification pops up on your desktop every time a new message arrives. The author argued that every time you stop what you’re doing to check your e-mail, you lose 10 minutes. Check your e-mail six times a day and you’ve lost an hour. I was intrigued by this and thought I’d try it to see if it panned out in practice, and sure enough, it did. Suddenly I had more time in my day for substantive tasks because I was spending less time stopping and starting my substantive work in order to see what new and “interesting” e-mails had arrived. Easy to implement, and the results are immediate.
Closely related to this, but more difficult to implement, is to focus your attention on the task at hand. Multi-tasking is not something humans are designed to do, and personally I’m not very good at it. Take a moment to think about it: multi-tasking means that you routinely stop focusing on one task to re-focus on another, only to shortly stop focusing on that task to focus on a third task or to go back to the first. Every time you switch tasks, you no doubt need to take a few moments to reorient yourself to the “new” task–so, much like stopping your work to check your e-mail, multi-tasking causes you to lose valuable time whenever you switch tasks. Focusing on one task at a time allows you to maintain that focus and to move through a single task (relatively) smoothly and completely before moving on to the next item on your to-do list.
The most valuable time management tool I’ve found to date is learning to say no. By “say no,” I don’t mean saying “not now.” I actually mean choosing not to undertake a task or project at all. In my mind, saying “not now” is a form of focusing (i.e., not multi-tasking). Saying “no,” on the other hand, is a means of controlling the number of tasks on which you ultimately need to focus. No one of us can do everything, nor should we try. But the belief (at least in the U.S.) is that if you’re not busy, then you’re not important, or competent, or a valued member of your profession or community, and so we say “yes” to volunteering for every committee or bake sale that comes our way. In reality, saying “no” shows awareness of your own limitations as well as respect for the tasks you have already agreed to undertake. There is only so much time in the day. Would you rather spend it trying to cram in every possible activity or task that’s available, even if it means doing less than your best? Or would you rather turn down one or more requests for your time in order to be able to turn in your best performance on each of the tasks you do accept?
Inherent in all of these time-management tools is being comfortable with others’ reaction to your use of them. Thus, managing expectations is an important component of time management. For example, perhaps you choose to stop multi-tasking in order to get the most out of the finite number of hours in the day. You will likely need to manage the expectations of the co-worker who spends the day “putting out fires” and expecting others to behave in the same way. That person needs to understand that in the absence of a truly time-critical task or actual emergency, you will not be dropping whatever you are working on in order to immediately respond to his or her request. You will assist, just not right away.
Similarly, create expectations regarding when you will return calls and e-mails. I once had a colleague on the west coast whose practice involved a significant amount of interaction with people on the east coast. She chose to manage her time by making and returning telephone calls during her morning, when she knew her contacts in the Eastern time zone would still be in the office, and sending and responding to e-mails in the afternoon, which her east-coast contacts could read and respond to the next morning when she was not yet in the office. This allowed her to keep projects moving, and allowed everyone with whom she dealt to know when and how to reach her or to expect her to contact them.
Finally, be sure to respect the time-management decisions of others. If you choose to stop multi-tasking, respect your colleague’s decision to do the same, even if that means he or she turns you down when you seek immediate assistance. If you choose to turn down some tasks altogether out of respect for the task and the person asking it of you, be aware that the same respect for you and your requests is what motivates your co-workers to occasionally say no to you. Good leadership requires allowing others to follow.
Of course, despite the best efforts to manage time and expectations, there will be occasions when an emergency arises or something needs to be completed on an incredibly short timeline. These events should be isolated, however, rather than the norm. The appreciation shown for those who step up to respond should emphasize that the situation was an outlier and that appropriate time management to avoid “crunches” is still the desired end state. Creating a culture of time management requires reinforcement of the desired behavior, in addition to the actual management of time and expectations.
Managing your own time effectively allows those around you to manage their time effectively, which in turn allows everyone to produce better results more efficiently–and that is good leadership. It doesn’t happen overnight, and can be challenging and even frustrating, but the end result definitely is worth the effort.
Elizabeth Rosso is an environmental lawyer, Navy veteran, and advocate of organic interaction. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (503) 598-7070.
Thank you for your interest in this blog. The information contained in this blog is for the general interest of our readers and should not be regarded as legal advice. If you have questions, or to obtain more information on this topic, please contact Elizabeth Rosso.
 It has been perhaps 10 years since reading said article, and I no longer remember the title, author, or publication, or I would give credit where credit is due. Suffice it to say that this is not my original idea.