Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Taking Control of Your Time at Work

As mentioned previously, I'm enrolled in ODU's Leadership Management Development Certificate this semester. This first track is primarily focused on personal development. Amusingly enough, the only conflict I've had with the every-other-week sessions so far was on the day that the discussion focused on taking control of time at work. As a "make up" assignment, I've been tasked with reviewing some of the trade literature on this topic. Here's what I've found:

A quick google search for "Taking Control of Time" yields the expected hundred-thousand-plus results. I wanted to start with trade literature, of the type that corporate professionals might refer to, so I skimmed through the list of results with an eye to the titles I might be able to use.

The first article, Lisa Quast's Want To Increase Your Productivity? Take Control Of Your Time, was published on the Forbes website a few years ago, and lists eight steps that busy people might use to wrangle their time more effectively. Most of these steps are common sense, repeated ad nauseam in various media: Set Goals, Prioritize, Plan Ahead, Avoid Multitasking, and the like.

Though the bulk of the tips aren't new to me, two of Ms. Quast's points caught my eye, and bear repeating. First, Find out where your time goes; it's easy to dismiss small distractions as irrelevant to good time management, but by documenting exactly where their time is spent, one can look back and determine which "small distractions" are really adding up. Second, Act like a consultant; When billable hours are key to success, there's often significantly more clarity as to which tasks are priorities.

After reading the Forbes blog post, I wanted a bit more substance, so I spent some time browsing articles in the Harvard Business Review's Time Management topic list. The one that jumped out at me as worth pursuing here was Peter Bregman's article The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings. In it, he makes the claim that "Compressed Time" is often beneficial, especially at work. By halving the time spent on most meetings and other "tactical work", people have higher intensity and focus on the time they do have. (Anecdotally, I've found the same thing to be true on the rare occasions when a meeting here is scheduled for less than an hour.)

The author points to some basic psychology--when time is severely restricted, behavior changes. Meeting participants show up on time, get to the point quickly, and tackle the biggest issues they face. In order to be most effective during these compressed meetings, participants need to be prepared for the discussion that will take place, having read any supporting materials and clarified their thoughts, and facilitators need to have confidence, starting on time and avoiding tangents. Everyone involved in a meeting of this style ought to be able to articulate a plan of action based on the discussions that took place. If next steps remain unclear, perhaps the meeting was not as successful as it could have been, and lessons should be learned for the future.

Finally, I wanted to look (however briefly) at the academic literature, where I found Gold & Mustafa's article Work always wins': client colonisation, time management and the anxieties of connected freelancers. I was intrigued by this article for a number of reasons, not the least of which being its focus on freelancers and telecommuting professionals. Work-life balance and effective time management is tricky enough to find in the world of traditional employment, let alone when mobile communications technologies are thrown into the mix. This article mentions "corporate colonization"--the concept of workplace norms entering non-work time in various ways, including "dictating the use of time"--and goes on to discuss "client colonization," the authors' term for a similar practice among telecommuters. To handle the intrusion of work into home life, freelancers may find that they compromise on various boundaries, creating ways for those boundaries to be permeable (responding to the needs of one aspect of life while immersed in another domain), or flexible, especially in terms of time. The relative integration or segmentation of the work and non-work facets of an individual's life can cause challenges for all workers.

This article, though removed somewhat from the practicality of the others, highlights the challenges all workers may face in managing time. Even in a more traditional work setting, we can learn lessons from the ways that freelancers occasionally feel "always-on" as their lives are colonized by their work. Gold & Mustafa point out that there are differences between focusing on a regimented schedule, and focusing on the completion of transactions and tasks. As we look to time management, it's important to leave some flexibility for new tasks and social interactions, but adherence to a schedule may still make it easier to "leave work at work" when the day ends.

All in all, it's easy to see how time management topics can be something of a rabbit hole into which one may fall. The trade and professional literature is littered with examples, and even the academic writers have much to say on the subject. I think the most important thing a person can do is to become familiar with the various tips and suggestions that can be found, and then synthesize those ideas into a strategy that works for them. Time management doesn't seem to be an area with a one-size-fits-all solution. With an understanding of the work, and the working styles involved, people can create time management solutions that will succeed.

Quast, L. (15 July 2013). Want To Increase Your Productivity? Take Control Of Your Time. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lisaquast/2013/07/15/want-to-increase-your-productivity-take-control-of-your-time

Bregman, P. (22 February 2016). The Magic of 30-Minute Meetings. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/02/the-magic-of-30-minute-meetings

Gold, M., & Mustafa, M. (2013). 'Work always wins': client colonisation, time management and the anxieties of connected freelancers. New Technology, Work & Employment, 28(3), 197-211. doi:10.1111/ntwe.12017

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