Tips on managing your time at work

"Do you have a minute?" is an innocent question that many of us hear every day. What it usually means is, "Do you have a half-hour?" Interruptions are a necessary part of every workday. In fact, for many of us, interruptions like phone calls are our work. The danger is that often these interruptions can begin to diminish what we get accomplished.

Because they're unavoidable, the trick is to accept those that are inevitable and to manage those you can control. If you don't, you may find yourself consistently taking work home, missing deadlines, fighting fires and feeling overwhelmed.

Dear Joan:
I enjoyed your Jan. 8 article on savvy and so-so managers very much. What you say merits repeating loudly and often in daily office situations.

I would like to see an article about how one can best manage time on the job; that is, where precious minutes are wasted and how we may become more efficient in time management. I know that there are many improvements that can be made in my and others' operations, but I need some help in defining exactly where they are.

The push for productivity in the 80's is going to demand that we get more done in less time. Some of the top time wasters in this country are telephone interruptions; the lack of objectives, priorities and planning, attempting too much; and drop-in visitors.

Here are some tips offered by Alan Lakein, a time-management authority: If someone asks, "Do you have a minute?" say, "If it will take longer than five minutes, we'll have to do it later." Then, unless it's an emergency, stick to that limit.

Tell your visitors and callers how much time you have. Mentioning your two o'clock meeting or an important deadline will encourage them to get to the point.

If walk-in visitors are a frequent problem, keep your pen in hand or book open. If you're pressed for time, stand as they enter your office or work area and stay standing. If they don't get the hint, sit on your desk or gradually walk them to the door.

Making small talk is important for good interpersonal relations, but be careful. Small talk can create large interruptions. Meeting in a conference room or other less comfortable area is less likely to generate a long prelude to the business at hand. The key here is to be ruthless with time and gracious with people.

Listen carefully
Try not to feel annoyed with people who interrupt you. Listen carefully to what they have to say, and don't let your mind stray back to what you want to be doing.

If the person speaking seems to be wandering and not getting to the point, you can nudge them back on track with something like, "What would you say the main problem is?" You can also try to paraphrase what you think they're trying to say, but be sure to check with them for accuracy.

One fast way to deal with out tendency to attempt too much is to say "no" to requests that aren't essential. Worrying about disappointing people is noble but nonsense. You'll be the disappointed one if you try to help everyone by solving their problems, or by voluntarily taking on so much you feel resentful.

Instead, some of the following alternatives may be just as helpful but more timewise: Direct the interrupter to someone else capable of handling a question or task; send the person away with the resources necessary to answer his or her own questions; or ask for the key elements of a problem in memo form with alternatives and recommendations.

Often, by the time a problem has been reduced to the facts on a memo, the solution becomes obvious or the problem seems inconsequential.

If your boss interrupts with a project, it's wise to ask him or her for the degree of attention it warrants, particularly if you are in the middle of an another assigned, top-priority project.

Stick to priorities
Don't be your own worst interrupter. Stick to a prioritized "To Do" list. Always tackle your top-priority tasks first and try not to start another project until you finish the first one.

If you find yourself doing all the little, less important tasks first, "just to get them out of the way," it's a signal you're procrastinating.

We often do small projects and stall on the larger, more important ones because we feel instant success upon completion of a little task. The key is to break large projects down into workable pieces so you can get some instant gratification as you check them off your list. Work backward from your deadline and set smaller deadlines along the way.

Don't lose track of that priority task even if you are interrupted. Discipline yourself to jump right back in where you left off. It's also a good idea to handle each piece of paper only once. Either act on it, throw it out or pass it on.

Telephone interruptions can tie up a major part of every day. If you receive phone calls requesting your assistance with a problem, go to the caller's office. You will have the option of leaving when you wish.

Bunch phone messages and call everyone back during one block of time. Rather than play telephone tag, leave a complete message, mention a good time you can be reached.

Another good technique is to skip a message and simply say you will call again. This way you reduce the number of calls you receive and you can have your notes handy and your mind ready when you call back.

Don't forget to be a considerate caller yourself. Always ask if it is a good time to talk.

At times, it may be necessary to remove yourself and go to a quiet spot to work. Ask someone else to take your calls, but be sure to tell others where you are in case of an emergency.

And finally, hang a friendly reminder in full view that reads: "What's the Best Use of My Time Right Now?"

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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