Time Management Tips Any IT Pro Can Use

Some organisations are cautious about increasing staffing levels, preferring instead to wait and see if their existing personnel are sufficient to handle new business initiatives. As a result, many IT professionals are still coping with more work and less assistance, often staying late to accomplish everything on their plates. Most jobs -- especially in the IT field, where a systems crash or virus outbreak can occur at any moment -- aren't exactly 9-to-5, meaning that some extra hours are to be expected. But going beyond the standard 40 too often can lead to lost productivity, increased stress and burnout.

Effective time management can help you avoid these pitfalls. In addition, as you take on greater responsibility, your ability -- or inability -- to manage time and projects becomes crucial to your continued career advancement.

Stick to a Schedule

One of the best ways to gain control of your time is to conduct an audit of how you spend your day. You need only a pad of paper or a wireless handheld organizer to get started. Each hour, simply record your activities during the previous hour. For example, perhaps it took you 10 minutes to map a new network drive, 35 minutes to install a software update and 15 minutes to answer e-mail. There's no need to go into much more detail than this; you're simply looking for a snapshot of your day.

After a week, you'll be able to identify tasks that take longer to complete than they should, projects that are not being given enough attention and time-wasters that crop up repeatedly.

You can then use this information to streamline your activities by preparing a to-do list each day. This will help you stay focused on what you need to accomplish and allow you to better prepare the information and resources you need to get the job done.

As you prepare your list, prioritize your tasks so you devote sufficient time to the most critical projects. To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

Does this task have an urgent deadline?

Is this a request from my boss that I can't ignore?

Will postponing this project cause delays for others?

For example, addressing the slowness the sales team is experiencing with their main reporting application should be at the top of your list. Planning a meeting for a month from now to discuss a new server upgrade, on the other hand, could probably be placed near the bottom.

Also think about how you can consolidate activities to maximize your time. Ask two or three team members to share lunch one day to discuss project plans, for instance.

Manage Your Meetings Better

In a recent survey conducted by Robert Half Technology, 27% of workers polled said meetings that last too long are the biggest time-wasters at work. In a related poll, executives reported that they waste 7.8 hours a week in meetings. That's more than two weeks a year!

Before attending any meeting, ask yourself if you really need to be there. Maybe the purpose is to update team members on the status of an application development project. If you have no news to report, you may be able to skip the discussion and have a colleague e-mail you the highlights.

If you decide to attend, ask for an agenda. You'll be able to prepare in advance the information and materials you'll need to bring. If you can't stay for the entire discussion, ask the facilitator to adjust the schedule so that topics most relevant to you are discussed first. In addition, do what you can to ensure that meetings you attend remain on track. If you sense that participants are getting off topic or that the discussion will run long, suggest a follow-up meeting for a later date.

Do Away With Distractions

According to the workers we polled, when it comes to top time-wasters at the office, running a close second to meetings that last too long are unnecessary interruptions. Although it's impossible to eliminate distractions entirely, you can minimise their impact.

If you're working on a task that requires a high level of concentration, let others know by posting a "Do Not Disturb" or "On Deadline" sign on your door or cubicle entrance. If people come to you with requests, ask politely if you can address the issue later in the day.

You can also curtail distractions by discouraging friends and family members from contacting you during periods when you're likely to be the busiest. Unless you work at the help desk or otherwise hold a position in which every phone call you receive may be critical, let those that come in during busy times roll to your voice mail. Then set aside certain blocks of time during the day to check your messages and return them. If you have any reservations about trying this, consult with your manager to make sure it won't cause any problems.

Chances are, you can take the same approach with your e-mail. Although you may want to address every message that you receive right away, doing so can prevent you from fully focusing on critical tasks. Briefly scan the content of e-mails, immediately responding only to those that are urgent. Then, before you leave at night, get back to people about less important issues.

Not all time-management techniques may be right for you. For example, you might find that in your position as a technical support professional, you are rarely able to prepare a to-do list because of the lack of a daily routine. But no matter what your position, there are likely one or two strategies that can help boost your productivity and ensure that you leave work on time more often than not.

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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