I have a colleague who is perpetually tired. She is married, 35 years of age, and juggles a pretty busy schedule at home and at work. She manages a team of five, in addition to a couple of remote team members, and is almost always preoccupied coordinating over emails and phone calls till wee hours of the night. She sleeps poorly, constantly battles with an energy crisis, has hardly enough time to eat properly, and can (almost always) be found telling how she wishes we could manage her time and life better, and get things done.
Hers is not an exceptional problem. Given the rising demands in all our workplaces, it is not uncommon to find people struggling with time management. With stresses of our work lives only increasing, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, frequently disengaged, and almost always affected by distractions. And very soon a tipping point comes, as we try to keep up with the rush and urgency of it all. This takes a heavy toll on our mental and physical health.
At the heart of it all, our biggest problem is that while there is always a lot that needs to be done, we have a fixed number of hours to deal with everything on our plate. And even if we try to squeeze it all in a day’s time, managing to wiggle out enough time for food and rest in between, it feels like you could do with just a few more hours on your hands.
There is always a lot more work we need to fit in a fixed number of hours.
Over the years, plenty has been written about how we ought to manage time to get more done. Now, I have nothing against the preachers of time management, but they all sounds too bullish and overly optimistic. I mean, ‘plan better’ is nothing but a distilled advice that says very little about the ‘how’. Nonetheless, I have figured out over these last few years of my professional life a thing or two about how we all can better our abilities to work with the hours that we do have. Just so we can manage a couple of good hours for some ‘me time’.
Lately, my colleague, the one I mentioned earlier, now having lost most of her sanity juggling too many things at once, has come up a system of sorts. Every day she spends some fixed numbers of hours doing one particular activity. She does not spend any more time than what she has fixed for the said task. If mornings are the time for meetings, she will squeeze in all her meetings between 9 am and 1 pm, and none after that. All coordination activities, between her team mates, bosses, and other functional teams, are taken care of after lunch. Evenings, then, are a time to read and research her work.
Because she takes care of one activity, and one activity alone, in her appointed time frame, she is able to focus more and align herself better to the nature of the activity. All her mental faculties are tuned to address a similar set of tasks at any given point. Because of this, she spends a lot less time recalibrating her mind and energy every few minutes in order to attend to multiple kinds of tasks.
For someone in a managerial position, oversight is not a luxury they can afford. Between managing people and projects, that too over the course of days, sometimes weeks, you could end up losing sight of priorities and immediate goals.
To meet tight deadlines and ensure deliverables are handled and processed over designated time lines, I advocate the use of project management tools. Simple tools, even a quickly sketched kanban board scribbled on a white board with post-its handing off it is a great way to get organization into a chaotic work schedule.
When you can see the progress of things right in front of your eyes it is easy to figure out the next steps, fix task blockers and improve the way things work. And the more you acclimatize to a structured project planning and mapping system, the easier it gets, over time, to schedule new projects, assigns roles and track progress. Coordinating over emails is just a (tirelessly) endless exercise in figuring out when the last progress email was sent. And that’s not a productive way to spend time, now is it.
My colleague still puts in long hours at work but now she consciously makes time for little breaks in between. She leaves her desk to go out for lunch, walks for a bit, takes a tea break religiously at 4 in the evening and makes sure she goes home no later than 7 30 in the evening.
Truth be told, the length of such energy renewal activities is hardly of any significance. It is about the quality of the time that’s been carved out. As long as a ritual, no matter how long or short, allows you to disengage from work momentarily to switch energy channels, that’s all that matters. By being very clear about her break times, my colleague has calibrated her day’s energy to work around this schedule. This has, in fact, helped improve her capacity for accommodating and organizing work better throughout the day. She notes a substantial improvement in her productivity and performance, now that she is very clear about her day-to-day schedule.