"We're running out of time!" If you were ever gripped by the on-screen exploits of Jack Bauer in the television action series 24, you'll be used to hearing that statement, almost always uttered by Kiefer Sutherland as he's trying to rescue a hostage, prevent the president from being assassinated or avert a nuclear catastrophe. To be fair to the fictional counter-terrorism agent, he wasn't exactly wasting away his days playing World of Warcraft or watching Netflix series, so his time management skills can't really be called into question. What about the rest of us, though, battling away in real life?
Susan Castle has lived in the UAE since 2002 and worked as a broadcaster, motivational speaker, life coach and corporate whip-snapper, training people to better their lives. On time management, she says: "There's no such thing – it's a myth. We cannot manage time, only priorities." That short statement makes a great deal of sense. None of us can do anything to alter or impact the march of time, all we can do is spend however much of it we have wisely.
There are many positives that result from better managing our time. Sorry, priorities. "The biggest thing is reducing stress and increasing productivity," Castle says. "It also has a massive impact on our relationships when people aren't constantly letting each other down and complaining about it. Of course, reducing stress impacts on everything that matters – health, wealth, relationships – and that's as true in family life as it is in the workplace."
Prioritising at work
What are the most common mistakes Castle sees when it comes to priorities at work? “The biggest problem is leadership – or lack of,” she says. “Who is leading a project? Who is responsible for making sure deadlines are met and what are the consequences if they are not met? Who has this information and how good are they at sharing it?
“These are the fundamentals. Communication is another area that usually needs addressing. If people don’t talk to each other about where they are on a task, then it’s really hard to prioritise. If staff aren’t aware of the priorities, they will act on the biggest, shiniest, loudest thing instead of what actually needs doing.”
Castle says that asking for help when you’re running behind with things is often overlooked and then getting stressed about having to catch up normally makes us work more slowly. “We should be realistic. We’ve all done it – we think a task will take us an hour but the last three times we’ve done it, it’s taken four. Your team won’t be impressed with you if you constantly let them down because you’ve tried to impress them with how fast you can perform, or how massive a workload you can take on.
“Be flexible, too. Things happen, priorities change; we have to be responsive and sometimes we have to be reactive. Knowing what your priorities are means you can be more flexible and still get things done. Not knowing means you are constantly jumping around, reacting to the person who’s shouting loudest at you.”
The consequences of missing a deadline can be disastrous and financially crippling, as many a civil engineering company would testify. And on jobs where timing is critical, open and effective communication is paramount. “I use a technique called Timelining,” adds Castle, “where we map out a whole project on a calendar and put all the timescales and deadlines in. It’s amazing how often we get to the end of this exercise and discover that either we’ve allocated far too much time to a project or, more seriously, our deadlines are impossible. What this also shows is where the critical deadlines are and the consequences of missing them, and this really helps in prioritisation.”
Rules to follow
This is all well and good, of course, but to help us be better organised there are some golden rules we can and should apply to our everyday lives. One of these is setting boundaries with others who might unwittingly delay us. In today's open-plan offices it's not as simple as putting a "do not disturb" sign on the door, so if a colleague comes up for a chat or has a request when you're battling to meet a deadline, politely explain that you don't have the spare time right now.
A never-ending deluge of emails, texts and other electronic disturbances can be the bane of modern life. So avoid having Facebook open and only check messages at specific times of day, giving yourself an allocated amount of time to respond to anything that's absolutely essential.
“Another good one is to write everything down,” says Castle, “or put it in the diary. You think you will remember things but you won’t. Keep communication open and constant – if you are going to miss a deadline let people know as soon as you know.”
Marilyn Monroe once said that she’d “been on a calendar but never on time” – a quote that might raise a smile when we read it, but, when you work or live with someone who is persistently late, it quickly becomes a drag and, potentially, a deal breaker. “Being late,” Castle points out, “is really bad manners. You are basically telling people your time is more important than theirs.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that procrastination is the thief of time. "What's the point in putting off something at work, if you can get it done today?" asks Karen Braun, a freelance HR consultant in Dubai. "When we procrastinate, thinking that 'oh, it'll be OK, I have plenty of time to do that tomorrow,' we're potentially heading for a fall. What if something unexpected crops up, something urgent? We might then find time is far too tight to do what we could have done, at least partially, yesterday."
She says that if we are able, we should start work scheduled for tomorrow before calling it a day today. "The more we get done midweek, the less stressed we'll be at the end of it. Who knows? By getting into the habit of maximising your work time, you might get to finish early on a Thursday – a perfect start to anyone's weekend," Braun adds.
It’s perhaps natural to apply this advice in our workplaces and forget the potential benefits of structure within the home, particularly for those of us who are parents. When you’re trying to get out of the house with even one child, it can be a staggeringly complex task – one that, once a youngster is old enough, they can help with a great deal. And that does everyone a favour, because they’ll be set up for life with a healthy awareness of how their actions affect others.
“When we tell the children that we’re leaving in 10 minutes, they shouldn’t interpret that as having extra time to play with their toys when they’ve yet to brush their teeth, put on their shoes or pack a bag,” says Braun. “Parents don’t need to be totally rigid about these things, but it does help a family in the long term when the kids do their bit by respecting certain time constraints. It’s not something many parents get to experience but imagine how much stress could be avoided if everyone was ready to go when they’re supposed to be.” Never has a truer word been spoken.
“I always used to think priority management would make life really boring and lack spontaneity,” Castle adds. “In reality the reverse is true – if you know exactly what your priorities are, you can always be focusing on what’s most important to you. Priority management frees up your whole life.”