The next time a co-worker interrupts you, make a note of how long it takes to re-focus on the job you were doing.
The same applies when e-mail arrives, and even though you’re involved in a task, you just have to check the messages. Or, if you are “multi-tasking,” consider the time to re-align your thoughts as you bounce between two jobs.
The fact is, we waste time – lots of it, says Garland Coulson, an Edmonton entrepreneur who teaches time-management practices among his many business activities.
“We work in a culture that is set up for interruptions,” says Coulson.
In the sports world, he adds, you’d never see an Olympic runner racing down the track in the 100-metre dash with a cellphone on his hip.
“If it rang, wouldn’t that disrupt his efforts?” asks Coulson. “But for some strange reason, the business world has not learned this. People, and I blame technology for a lot of this, are constantly being interrupted . . . when they should be allowed to focus on whatever is on their mind.”
In his workshops, Coulson discusses key components of time management: teaching staff and managers to focus on one objective; multi-tasking (and its myths); reducing interruptions; doing things right the first time; and ensuring that people finish everything they start.
A former banker, marketer and online consultant, Coulson heads Common Sense Solutions. It is the umbrella company for a number of ventures he’s involved in, including his main enterprise, the E-Business Tutor, that helps businesses make the best use of today’s technology.
While time management is a necessary discipline in his organization, it’s also his passion.
“One of the things about the workplace today is that people don’t respect other people’s time,” says Coulson. “A manager might drop in on a subordinate four or five times a day. Or the employee may be going to the manager all the time for clarifications about this and that. What they do is blow each other’s focus.”
At Common Sense Solutions, Coulson sets aside a time each day where staff can deal with all those questions and clarifications. Barring an emergency, everyone respects each other’s commitments.
“The time that is freed up for staff to focus on their jobs is amazing. They will also have times where they won’t answer their phones. It gives them 30 minutes, an hour, whatever they need, to work uninterrupted on a project.”
Coulson acknowledges that we are all creatures of habit, and have developed some bad practices over time. For example, he says, have you ever had a big project to do, and decided to get rid of the small stuff first?
“We often take the easy jobs first. It’s human nature, and before you know it the morning’s gone, we haven’t started the priority task, and it’s time for lunch.”
To help become more effective, he suggests the following tips as a starting point to become better time managers:
* The Desk. Understand that your desk isn’t a storage device. The only thing that should be in front of you is the paper or folder that’s pertinent to your task. Nothing else. Otherwise, it will divert your attention. * Multi-tasking. It doesn’t work for jobs that require full concentration. While we might be able to vacuum the house and listen to music at the same time, Coulson cites scientific studies that show multi-tasking is much less efficient on more complex activities. Scans show that brain activity actually decreases when people try to do two things at once, in effect becoming less efficient. Another study determined that multi-tasking increased the time to finish one job by up to twice as long as it would normally take.
* Plan Ahead. Identify what you want to accomplish and identify how you will get there. This means assembling team members and delegating the work at the start of the project. One way managers “mess up” is that they don’t schedule the delegating first, says Coulson. The manager will jump into a project, tackling the hard part first, and then go running to staff for help. “It screws up their time,” he adds, and becomes an emergency because the manager didn’t delegate at the onset, when staff could have set aside time for the project.
* Reduce Interruptions. Don’t answer the phone (when possible). And don’t set your e-mail to announce that a message has arrived.
Most people can’t resist looking at their e-mail, and usually it’s low priority. Coulson only checks e-mail twice: once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
* Complete Tasks. Set aside blocks of time for each project. Many people say they work best under a deadline. They don’t, says Coulson – the deadline just forces them to stop procrastinating. If a project will take 15 hours and has a two-week deadline, then block out one hour a day for two weeks. That way, the job’s moving forward early on, where it’s possible to compensate for unexpected problems and still handle the daily agenda.
In his experience, Coulson admits that many workers don’t believe they control their work time anymore. “I grant that there are some things outside an employee’s control,” says Coulson. “But staff do have the time to determine what they do first, at what time, what resources to tap, and ways of doing it.”
He adds that people need to learn to say ‘no’ more often. “Many of us are far too busy, so why say yes to something when it means you’re going to have to compromise something else you do?”
Coulson believes that most people can improve their efficiency by at least 30 per cent if they just take steps to eliminate the problems.
He believes it’s time well spent.