The missing piece of the time management puzzle.

Pierre Bamin

It’s 11 am, early November 2023 in a warm training room of a Westcountry organic  food company. It’s the 2nd of 3 workshops I’m running for them on time management over a 5 month period and we’re about to encounter the ‘missing piece’.

I’ve been running sessions, workshops and programmes on time management for over 10 years. It’s an important topic in a world where there is constant pressure to do more with less. In the science leadership training work I do, it is one of the most frequently mentioned challenges facing early to mid-career scientists and science professionals.

Time management is also a subject with many words written about it. Look online to see a vast array of books, articles, blogs and videos on the subject. One blog post offers a guide to the ‘The Best 100 books written about Time Management of all time”

But I’ve realised that in most of what I’ve read and I would wager in most of what I haven’t, something important is missing.

Back in the warm training room, we’re looking at ways of freeing up time within the normal working day – so that freed up time can be reallocated to more important uses and to create a bit more ease in a busy workplace.

We’re looking at 2 areas to start with – emails and meetings:

For each area we’re following 5 steps – 

1) What problems do you have here? 

2) Here are some ways of addressing them. 

3) What other ones do you use? 

4) Which one(s) might you try? 

After they’ve reflected and made notes, I ask:

5) ‘What else could the organisation do to help address these problems?” 

A lively discussion ensues. Before long we have a list of more than a dozen ideas for actions in both areas to help contain time on email and  reduce time in meetings.

This is the missing piece to time management. 

Too often Time Management is seen solely as a personal practice in which all the responsibility lies with the individual. There may be access to formal training and too much written and recorded advice, but it is the individual’s job to take in the information and make changes in their own routines. This approach is OK as far as it goes, but it ignores the impact of the organisation and its culture upon everyone working within it.

So, what can an organisation (or a team) do to help its members improve their use of time at work? Clearly it will vary between organisations, but here are some general guidelines:

Make it a priority

  • emphasise that time is the key unrenewable resource and that use of time is a key factor in organisation success
  • ensure that senior staff model good ‘time management’ practice
  • include ‘time management’ in performance appraisal process
  • set goals for improvement

Improve organisation wide practices

Successful organisations have developed procedures for many important parts of their work – eg making products, taking orders, making investment decisions managing projects, distribution, accounting for sales and cost. 

However, it is easy to neglect/ignore activities like using email or working in meetings. Yet, surveys have shown that many spend at least half of their time at work on emails and in meetings and that a significant proportion of meeting time is seen as unproductive (the link is to a 2017 much quoted HBR article; but I hear a similar complaint about unproductive meetings in every courses and workshops we run).

What can an organisation do, for example, to help contain time spent on emails and meetings?

  • Develop ‘email etiquette’ – what good practice looks like (eg managing and containing email time; make better use of the subject line; setting appropriate response time expectations; write short emails; only cc where needed).
  • Focus on meetings – define what good meetings practice looks like; provide training on meetings facilitation; ensure that regular meetings have terms of reference and ad hoc meetings have clear purpose; discourage back to back meetings; create meetings free periods.

Regularly review progress and communicate the results.

Both for the organisation and individuals, improving time management practices is a journey not a short sprint. It will involve changing habits, developing new ways and being willing to respond to results.

So what has my client done? It’s still early to be conclusive, the final workshop was just over a month ago, but the first signs are encouraging. Already I am aware of some actions/ changes:

  • Holding the training with a large group from within the organisation has enabled many ideas to be shared about personal practice and what could be changed within the organisation – and sharing of language around terms like ‘important vs urgent’, ‘deep work’, ‘protected time’, ‘time containers’, ‘make it a project’.
  • Changed mindsets – several people reported that they are thinking differently about their time and how they use it.
  • Improved meetings practice – there are already changes in terms of how meetings are run, what the terms of reference are for each meeting, and pruning meetings which are no longer necessary.
  • Improved email practice – changing response time expectations in some cases, encouraging use of shorter emails, careful use of ‘cc’ and more use of the subject line to indicate purpose and/or response required.
  • Acceptance that people can (and should) take protected time for important work.
  • Expectation that people can more readily say no when they need to.

I have also heard that they are producing some organisational guides to good practice in terms of emails and meetings.

What has been the impact? Though it is still early to say, I was encouraged to hear from a senior team member – ‘results are already evident both on an organisational and individual level’.

What does your organisation do? Do you know what other organisations do? Please feel free to share for the benefit of all! Contact us to share.

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