The time of our lives

first_imgNEW YORK – Pity the guy who lost his job. But also pity the guy who kept his. As companies run leaner operations with fewer workers, more is expected from those still employed. While the increased productivity makes companies more profitable, the greater demands on workers can leave many feeling overwhelmed, burned out and losing any work-life balance they may have had. It’s no wonder, then, that there is increasing demand for time-management training, both in and out of the workplace. “A lot of companies don’t have as many people as they used to,” said Sheila Adler, who teaches time management for the New York-based American Management Association. “But there are many other time challenges that can be stressful.” Adler ticks them off on her fingers: Information overload, thanks to barrages of e-mails, voice mails, letters and faxes. Changing priorities as companies reposition themselves. Stress from working long hours and missing family activities. “We need to teach people to work smarter, not harder,” Adler said. That’s what drew Tammy Overcash to a recent time-management course taught by Adler. Overcash, 36, the mother of two, works as a senior manager of finance for Merz Pharmaceuticals LLC in Greensboro, N.C., and is also four courses away from earning a master’s in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “The company has grown, and my responsibilities have grown,” Overcash said. “I need to be more organized and meet deadlines by working efficiently and not stressing about it.” Already she has collected suggestions for organizing her paperwork because “now it’s organized in piles,” for avoiding interruptions from colleagues and others when she’s working on a big project, and for better delegating tasks. David Fagiano, chief operating officer of Dale Carnegie Training based in Hauppauge, N.Y., said he believes there has been a permanent shift in the business world toward higher worker productivity. “You could say that’s a hardhearted way to look at it, but in the bloated 1980s, companies put so many people on payroll – added people willy-nilly – that they went under or couldn’t compete with foreign companies.” At the same time, he added, some workers are making things more difficult for themselves than they need to be. “Most people, including me, do a lot of stuff that doesn’t really make an impact,” Fagiano said. “It’s kind of there, and you feel you have to do it, maybe because you’ve always done it.” His advice is for people periodically to examine how they spend their time and purge tasks that are no longer necessary. At the same time, workers have to be willing to adapt to changing demands. “Anybody who is inflexible in today’s work force should forget it,” Fagiano said. “Everything changes so fast that midcourse corrections are necessary. You have to be prepared to go with the flow.” Julie Morgenstern, a time-management expert and author of “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning,” said that both companies and workers benefit when employees have good strategies for managing their workloads. “Companies are conscious that people can’t work this relentlessly and be effective,” she said. “And some are focusing on work-life balance – insisting that their people take vacations, get home to have dinner with their families, things like that – because it helps them retain good employees.” Morgenstern says that technological advances such as e-mail have pushed workers into what she calls the “instant-response culture.” As they work in staccato mode, they don’t ever slow down to legato and set aside time blocks to do the thoughtful, complicated projects that companies want. In training sessions and in her book, she recommends that workers not check e-mail first thing in the morning and, instead, use those hours when they feel fresh to tackle their most important projects. Workers also can create more time for important work by “controlling the nibblers.” This can be as simple as discouraging colleagues from dropping in to chat by closing the office door or activating phone-answering machines to capture calls. The return calls can be bunched at set times, such as late morning or late afternoon, she said. Still have too much to do? Morgenstern suggests subjecting every demand for the four Ds: delete, delay, delegate, diminish. Does it need to be done at all? Can it be rescheduled at a later, better time? Can it be delegated to another worker? Are there shortcuts to streamline the job? Erin Brennan, 29, a vice president of Hunter Public Relations in New York, said that adopting some of Morgenstern’s time management tips has given her a greater sense of control over her work day. “I’ll tell myself I’m in staccato mode now; slow down and focus,” she said. “Then I can get into the mind-set of, ‘I’m going to really concentrate on this now.’ After all, it’s the long-term projects that are the reason your company has you on board.” She also said that learning to map her time – that is, assigning specific time slots on her calendar for each day’s tasks – helps ensure that priority projects get the attention they need. “It’s like, these are the three things I need to get done today, and these are the three hours I’m going to do them in,” Brennan said. “You can even give yourself a certain percentage of the day for unplanned tasks so that when things happen, you can handle them.” She has also learned to schedule in some leisure time, including an exercise class after work. “I’ll say, OK, let’s get to this at 3 so I can leave at 6 p.m.,” she said. “If you say it out loud enough times, people will say, ‘Oh, Erin has her spin class on Wednesday nights so we’ll have to get to this earlier.”‘ The added benefit, she said, is that “even people who didn’t take the class figure out that they can do it, too.” Some tips for better managing time at work. Sheila Adler, time-management instructor with the American Management Association: Before you go home each day, write down the six most important things you need to do tomorrow. Schedule the most important things first. Be realistic about how long things take. Allow time for the unexpected. Don’t waste the first hour of the day, when you’re freshest. David Fagiano, chief operating officer of Dale Carnegie Training: Keep a time log of your activities for a week. Look at what can be eliminated or streamlined. Sit down with your boss and make sure what you’re doing is in line with his or her needs and company goals. Julie Morgenstern, author of “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning”: Review your to-do list and delete unnecessary tasks. Reschedule or delay some tasks so they don’t interfere with major projects. Delegate tasks to others, especially if they can do them better or faster. Create shortcuts, such as templates for client reports, to diminish the time needed for repetitive tasks. 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