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Time Management Is the Topic of the Day

It’s called BuzzWhack.

Created at the start of the new millennium, it’s a tongue-in-cheek Web site compiled by newspaper editor John Walston, devoted to defining corporate-speak in all its forms and calling attention to the human factor of any workplace.

And sure enough, right there between ticker shock and tin kickers, is a slew of time-related turns of phrase that illustrate how heavily the concept of time – and not having enough of it – weighs on our collective minds. Timeboxing, time-suck, and time toilet are particularly illustrative.

One of the most prevalent buzz terms in career development of late is that of time management, referring to better utilization of time, being more productive, and streamlining various tasks to optimize the hours in a day.

In other words, how to get things done in the time you have to do them.

But many professionals are beginning to take this phrase seriously. While it’s a simple concept, it’s something that many professionals – Americans in particular – struggle with. The reasons why vary, ranging from busier lifestyles to an increasingly ‘hooked-in’ work environment that can make multi-tasking easier, but can also add distractions.

The subject is currently being addressed through a number of channels, including time-management software, countless self-help books, professional seminars, even hypnosis – a Froogle search for ‘time management’ products alone returns 159,776 results.

Experts in time management, many of them executive coaches who specialize in maximizing productivity, say all of these interventions work for some, but none for all. That’s because everyone manages their time differently, and if those management skills are lacking or ineffective, the solution must first fit an individual’s natural habits to a tee.

Up-to-the-minute Analysis

So what do the experts suggest? First, and above all, a personalized approach.

Jess Dods, president of Right Choice Careers, a career coach with international experience and an organizational consultant, said one of the first steps he takes when working with a new client is to “flush out” what that person’s relationship with time is. Identifying that broad relationship, he said, is key to the process of better time management because it leads to more effective, long-term solutions.

“Some of the questions I ask are ‘how does this person relate to time?’ and ‘does this person feel that time is a prison, or time is a tool?” he offered. “Finding out how they perceive time then leads to the steps that can be taken to reach specific goals.”

Some people, he explained, see productivity as a major hallmark of their own worth, and changes to their work processes can be seen as a threat not only to their habits, but to their jobs or even their personalities.

“I know people who keep busy in order to distract themselves from other things,” he continued, “and busy people who see their schedules as a part of their own self-worth. I also know people who look at being busy as job security, or who enjoy the familiarity of the stress of being busy.”

Many of those symptoms of the problem, as Dods describes them, are nearly the same as many American ideals – in particular, that of hard work leading to prosperity. That could be one root, he mused, of the nation’s sticky relationship with time, and why time-management-related stress is so much more prevalent in this country than in others.

“We’re taught from an early age that work is difficult, and we expect that when we are most productive, the work will also be hard,” he said. “Some people make sure they don’t have enough time to do things, because that’s the only way they feel as if they’re working at all.”

But being busy isn’t synonymous with managing time, Dods cautioned, calling that forced business a “well-decorated rut.”

“Change doesn’t come easily – none of us want to change,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s important to note that we’re not a bunch of train wrecks.”

Instead, Dods said today’s workplace can benefit from a close look at time management as a tool for increased productivity and profits.

Week Explanation

Madeline Carnevale Calabrese, president of Calabrese Consulting in South Hadley, agreed with the personalized approach to time management. Beyond international differences in how time is viewed and managed, she noted that the collision of established workers with a new generation of employees who approach work in a very different, very technological way also creates time-management issues for both parties.

“Younger people are very good at multi-tasking,” she said, “but have trouble isolating tasks. With the older group, it’s a different set of issues. Oftentimes, these people have tried and true methods of doing their jobs that just aren’t working anymore.

“There are a couple of forces that are pressing on them,” she added. “Older workers are now working side-by-side with a younger generation that is technologically tuned-in, and historically that’s not how older workers have worked. That, in turn, creates stress, and older workers are asking, ‘how do I stay valuable?’

Calabrese said the process begins with identifying priorities within a given job, and how one person can best meet those priorities without sacrificing their own personal habits.

“You have to take a close look at a person’s workload, work cycles, and personality,” she said. “Usually, people come to me knowing something’s not working, and they’re at the point of frustration. We look at their patterns and their work environment, and we start by identifying priorities and how to stick to them.”

Calabrese also cautioned against always viewing time management as a problem that begins and ends with a given individual. Sometimes, she said, people’s careers have innate qualities that make managing time more difficult.

“Some people have careers or offices that are very interruptive, and we need to work around that,” she said. “I usually suggest evaluating the interruption based on the priorities of that day. Sometimes, all someone needs is the language to ask someone to get back to them. It’s about creating space without being aggressive or, on the other hand, without being steamrolled.”

That approach can also include identifying a person’s peak productivity times, or in some professions, one’s prime creative time, said Calabrese.

“I tell people to pick the best time of the day to work on a project based on its priority and the time of day the individual is most likely to produce their best work,” she said. “And at that point, they must remain uninterrupted – shut the door, go somewhere else, whatever it takes.”

On Second Thought

Despite that strong emphasis on creating an individualized time-management plan, there are some steps that everyone can try to help identify the source of some time management problems.

Joshua Hornick, a leadership, management, personal, and professional coach based in Amherst, said that, with the preponderance of time-management resources currently available, the first step for anyone with time issues is to find one such resource that resonates personally.

“There are a zillion books and articles that give you tips and tricks, or it could be a coach that can help you, or an internal resource at your job,” he began. “First, know where you are and where you want to realistically take your game. Then, you can investigate further independently, or maybe it’s time to get your pit crew together.”

To evaluate what time-management issues may currently exist, many coaches suggest selecting a period of time – one or two weeks, for example – and logging daily activities.

“That’s a cognitive process that can help to illuminate problems,” said Hornick, echoing Calabrese’s position that sometimes, there truly is too much to be done, and if so, that needs to be isolated.

“Sometimes, people have time issues because they’ve taken on too much,” he said. “But once that is realized, focus can be clarified.”

That clarity, Hornick continued, leads further to a better ability to prioritize.

“The most obvious way to prioritize is to make a list,” he said. “Then, there are lots of ways you can streamline your environment.”

That could mean physical improvements, Hornick said, such as filing or ‘bucket’ systems, or new habits, such as acting immediately on small, two-minutes-or-less tasks once they crop up – if an E-mail requiring a response comes in, for instance, or if a supervisor asks for an update.

It’s here that many experts cite one of the most underutilized and counter-intuitive optimizers of time management – ask your boss for help.

“If you’re still lost, you’re well-served to get some specific support,” said Hornick. “If you’re an employee and you’re concerned about time management, talk to your employer – managers love it, and a really good manager will bend over backwards to help you.”

Calabrese added that beyond helping an employee find some extra minutes in the day, business owners and managers are also keenly aware of what is important to their daily operations as well as the bottom line, and in some cases, can serve as mentors and examples of best practices.

“If you’re not sure where to go from where you are, the thing that can get you back on track is communication with the upper ranks,” she said. “Managers are in touch with the new and the important when it comes to their business, and they can help show an employee what’s old, and what needs to be let go.”

Things like time-suck – any activity that wastes time, according to BuzzWhack – or carbon-based error – any mistake caused the human factor. And guarding against falling into the time toilet can be exactly what an employee needs to avoid being dooced, plutoed, or voted off the island.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]