Keeping Time on Your Side

The real key to time management is better self-management. Columnist Katherine Spencer Lee offers some simple suggestions that can help you take control of your day.

A common misconception about managing your time at work is that it's mostly a matter of cutting out the obvious. But what if you've already reduced your leisurely lunches to quick snacks, stopped responding to personal e-mails at work and dropped out of your fantasy football league, but you still go home most nights wondering where the time went?

Because today's technology professionals tend to have a broad range of responsibilities, it's especially important for them to consider ways to better manage their time. The real key to time management -- and to the accomplishment of your objectives -- is better self-management. Here are some simple suggestions that can help you take control of your day.

Analyze your day. For a week, keep track of what you're doing throughout each day. This will help you identify when you tend to be most -- and least -- productive. How often do you sort through e-mails, make phone calls or attend meetings? And in what ways (and by whom or what) are you most often interrupted or distracted?

Create task-specific time windows. After you've determined when you're most productive, create a regular schedule that works with your body clock. If you tend to go on autopilot late in the day, for example, set aside the morning for your most challenging work.

Let messages wait. Keeping a constant vigil on your e-mail and voice mail can distract you from more demanding tasks. Unless your role requires it, try to avoid reading and responding every time a new message arrives. Instead, schedule times throughout the day when you can focus exclusively on your messages. You'll cut down on ongoing anxiety, while making your responses less hasty and more useful.

Make sure your organizer works for you. Daily planners, project management software and handheld devices are designed to help you stay on top of your day, not to take over your life. Choose one that serves your needs without taking a lot of time and effort to learn and maintain. If using a certain organizer doesn't become an automatic routine after a couple of weeks, try a simpler method.

Rediscover single-tasking. You can't solve a difficult technical challenge while talking on the phone, filing paperwork and thinking about an upcoming meeting. When working on a crucial assignment, give the issue at hand your undivided attention so you can do it right the first time. Fight the urge to multitask, which often impedes real productivity by leading to oversights and errors.

Lie low. If unnecessary interruptions such as gregarious co-workers tend to prevent you from completing important tasks, don't be afraid to close the door (or hang a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your cubicle) so you can focus on your work. Just be sure to clearly communicate your need for quiet time so it's not misinterpreted by co-workers and managers.

Don't overdo your to-do list. At the end of each day, invest a few minutes to identify and write down the next day's tasks and rank them in order of importance and urgency. Review your prioritized to-do list in the morning to get a jump on the day.

Help others. There's no better way to build rapport and gain allies than by volunteering to assist overworked, frazzled co-workers. By lending a hand when you can, you're likely to be offered one in return the next time you're swamped.

Don't expect to master time management overnight. Instead, give yourself credit for gradual improvement. Developing time management skills takes practice and discipline, but your efforts will pay off. Before too long, you'll find yourself spending less time scrambling to get things done and more time enjoying a sense of accomplishment.

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 North America, Europe and Asia and offers online job search services at www.rht.com.

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