Saturday, May 03, 2008

Managing Time and Priorities for Success

A few months ago, I received a call from the Rehabilitation Continuing Education Program (RCEP) for Community Rehabilitation Programs (CRPs) at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia. My colleagues at VCU were calling regarding my interest in facilitating training for middle-managers and direct service practitioners of supported employment (SE) programs. The first inquiry was about doing practical leadership training with middle-managers of SE programs. And then came forward an unexpected request. Don, would you be willing to do time management training with practitioners of SE services?
I hesitated for a moment. Time management training? Me? Sure, I’ve attended time management workshops over the years, but I’ve never conducted time management training. Although I have my own methods for getting things done, I’ve never been accused of being the most highly organized employee in my organization. Initially, I wasn’t sure I was the right person for this job. And then I wondered–"Why not me?!" I accepted this challenge with the idea that I just might benefit and introduce better time management practices into my own job routines.
I set out to tackle the challenge. I had a few months to research topics and work to customize a presentation of time management tips and principles for employment consultants, job coaches, and other direct service SE practitioners. On April 16, 2008, I conducted this training with a wonderful group of SE professionals who work with a wide array of youth and adults with significant disabilities in the State of Virginia. I thought I would share a few of the tips that we discussed during this one-day workshop here for my readers who might benefit.
First, and foremost, we discussed how the concept of time management is really a myth. Of course, no one is able to manage "time." Whether we like it or not, we only have so many work hours in a day, week, month, and so forth. The real goal is not managing time but managing ourselves so we use the time we have available more efficiently and effectively.
Understanding time management principles is particularly important for employment consultants who have dynamic jobs with ever changing demands on their time and attention. It’s not uncommon for SE practitioners to have their scheduled work days turned upside down by emerging opportunities such as a time-sensitive job lead that needs to be tended to immediately.
Or perhaps, it might be an impending crisis that was not foreseen or anticipated such as an arising problem in the workplace that is job threatening for a supported employee. Even the most talented and experienced employment consultant will be tested by competing time demands requiring careful discernment, self-management skills, creative problem solving, and communication finesse.
The unfortunate truth is most employment consultants do not come into their positions battle tested with time management experience. A few years ago, I remember my daughter Kelly, then a new employment consultant at Kaposia, Inc. in St. Paul, Minnesota, speaking with me about a problem of covering five new job starts within a period of a couple of weeks. As a fledgling employment consultant, she wondered aloud how she could give high quality attention and superior services for five new job starts compressed over a two week period. Kelly asked: "How can I do justice and cover five employers and five supported employees beginning new jobs in such a short span of time?" Well the answer is she received a crash course in time management during those two weeks and learned how to garner the support of colleagues as well as employers to cover parts of her job duties customarily handled by herself.
While in Virginia, I shared information with my training audience about the Pareto Principle which is better known as the 80/20 theory. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto first made the observation about this 80/20 mathematical phenomenon. His fundamental theory has been adapted and applied to other disciplines including the area of time management. In this context, the 80/20 theory speaks to the relative importance vs. the number of tasks to be completed. The core theory is 20 percent of tasks we perform are considered to be "high value" targets yielding 80 percent of the results we obtain. In other words, it’s critical for us to identify what our 20% includes so we can maximize our time, performance, and service outcomes. In my 34 years of experience in the workforce development field, I have found this principle to be generally true.
So if there is any truth to this 80/20 theory, then it makes great sense for employment consultants to be clear about core job activities and tasks that comprise 20 percent of their most critical job functions. Once employment consultants have identified their high value tasks, they can focus a majority of their time and energies on activities that yield high impact results. When employment consultants are unclear or uncertain about their job priorities, then it makes good sense to meet with managers or supervisors to clarify their priorities so everyone is working on the same page. Regardless of work or profession, the most productive individuals not only know their core priorities but dedicate a majority of their time (it is recommended 80 percent or higher) on these high value activities.
I have a few questions for you–Do you know what job excellence looks like for the position you hold? Do you know what your agency expects from you? Do you have a firm grasp of what these high value targets are in your job? What will it take for you to be viewed as a high performer in your organization? Your answers to these questions will begin your journey to identifying the high value tasks or functions in your job. If you don’t know the answers to these questions, then I suggest respectfully that you speak with your agency’s senior managers so you are in full agreement about critical job performance functions.
Here are some specific tips I shared with Virginia's employment consultants about managing their time more effectively:
1) Conduct a self-audit. Time management experts often recommend conducting a self-examination to uncover how you are presently spending your time. For example, you can keep a time log for a week and record all tasks and activities during 15 minute increments. This is an excellent way to discover whether your time is being spent in high value activities. It’s also an excellent way to identify the time "bandits" that steal valuable time away from high value tasks you have identified.
2) Eliminate or reduce time wasters. It’s amazing how low value tasks creep into our work schedules and keep us from completing more important tasks. Also, many of us are distracted by chatty colleagues, unnecessary meetings, ringing telephones, streams of email, and other intervening factors that keep us from doing the most critical parts of our job. Taking control of our jobs means identifying time wasters and eliminating or reducing them to manageable levels.
3) Set goals and implement a personal time management plan. This means getting into a daily habit of identifying and prioritizing the tasks on your plate. For example, you can use the A-B-C-D-E method of ranking the array of tasks that present themselves in your schedule. To illustrate, the A tasks are your must do’s. The B tasks are your should do’s. The C tasks are your nice to do’s. The D tasks are the ones you might delegate or give away to others. And finally, the E tasks are the ones you eliminate from your list. When you have identified several "must do" tasks, then you can sub-rank and label them in their relative order of importance such as A1, A2, A3, A4, and so forth.
In using this system, it’s very important to complete all of the tasks you have labeled "A" before moving to your B or C graded tasks. This ranking system makes it easier to set measurable goals, stay focused, and maximize your time and productivity. Finally, you should make a habit of measuring your results, re-doing your priorities daily, and rewarding yourself for accomplishing your personal productivity goals.
4) Plan effectively. Achieving time management success often means having the ability to set short-term and long-term goals. Some tasks may be too large or complex to consume in one bite. In these situations, it’s important to breakdown the tasks into more manageable parts and decide how much time you can devote to them on a day-to-day basis. Then set a goal, decide how much time you can devote to it, and stick to it until your task is completed!
5) Organize your work space and eliminate clutter. Many people waste valuable time due to inefficient paper and electronic filing systems. Paper clutter and disorganization creates stress and work inefficiencies for busy SE professionals who need to be coasting quickly through their administrative tasks and direct service activities. Take the time to organize your paper and electronic filing systems in a logical way. It will be well worth your time. One tip I have found to be helpful is adopting the RAFT system and choosing to handle your paper only once. RAFT is an acronym for Refer it, Act on it, File it, or Trash it. You can use this system for both paper and electronic documents such as email.
6) Use time management tools to assist in your organization. Use either paper or electronic day calendars to help you organize your meetings and time. Computer software programs such as Microsoft Outlook are excellent ways to store meeting information and track critical or time-sensitive tasks. These software programs provide time reminders and allow users to prioritize the relative importance of tasks to be completed. In addition, the use of personal digital assistants (PDA) such as palm pilots, blackberries, or smart phones are helpful tools that support staying organized and in touch with your priorities whether working in the office or out in the field (workforce).
7) Don’t let technology rule your time. Although technology can be valuable in guiding our time management, it is oftentimes a distraction. Just because your phone is ringing doesn’t mean you have to answer it. It may be more efficient to let some calls roll into voice mail (or to a phone receptionist) and answer them when you have undivided time. The same holds true for email. It may be more efficient to set aside quiet time to manage your email and other paperwork when it’s not a distraction to working with your core customers. Remember, the purpose of using technology is to support you in working more efficiently. When this is not the case, take control.
8) Set aside structured, quiet time to handle critical administrative tasks. Some administrative tasks such as case notation, billing, data management, and other routine paper work are often best managed by setting aside time to manage them more efficiently. Are there soft spots in your daily or weekly work schedule that are best for these purposes? Are there times during the month when your paper workload is highest? (e.g., end of the month billing or reports) Try to carve out blocks of time to assist you in addressing these high workload peaks.
9) Make sure your organization has your back. It’s very important that SE programs have agility and flexibility to manage arising schedule conflicts, staff absences, and unanticipated events. Developing well-thought out contingency plans ahead of time will help an agency’s employment consultants to better manage arising schedule conflicts and balance multiple work demands with both confidence and skill. Reciprocity is the key. If you are willing to help out your colleagues in their time of greatest need, you are more likely to see the favor returned when you are in an uncompromising time squeeze.
10) Schedule your BHAGs when you are most ready to tackle them. BHAGs are those Big Hairy Audacious Goals! This phrase was first used by James Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1996 article entitled Building Your Company’s Vision. You want to tackle your most challenging tasks when your focus and energy levels are at their highest. For many people, this means early morning. For others, however, it means later in the day when they have had their second cup of coffee. Only you know when your energy and level of alertness is at its highest so you are best prepared to tackle the most challenging BHAG on your plate.
11) Learn to say "No!" When job assignments, committee opportunities, social events, and other activities are more of a hindrance than help to your focus on high value tasks, just say no. It might be helpful to discuss this issue with your supervisor so you are in agreement about where your time is being spent and why it’s important for you to eliminate some activities or committees from your present workload.
12) Attack procrastination. Only you can create the discipline and urgency needed to address the most critical tasks on your plate. Sometimes we procrastinate because we don’t like a job. Is there someone else in your agency who can do the dreaded task? If not, create the discipline you need to get at it. Sometimes we put things off because we are lacking in content knowledge or the skills to do a task? If this is the case, do something about it to better prepare you for the challenge. Get some help from others in your organization or get the training you need to tackle these tasks more effectively. Whatever the case may be, create an effective game plan for completing your dreaded tasks. Some people find tackling these tasks right away is the best way to begin their work day. When they do, they have more time and energy to finish their day doing tasks of higher interest to them.
13. Manage interruptions. As stated earlier, you don't want telephone calls, incoming email, or technology devices interrupting your daily work flow. Similarly, you don’t want excessive socializing with colleagues to interrupt your work productivity. It’s recommended that people try to make their work space less accessible to visitors who like to socialize. For example, try to avoid making eye contact with colleagues who like to socialize and steal valuable time away from your high value targets. You might also find it helpful to stand up (if you can) when visitors drop by to send a visual cue you are busy and cannot sit and chat for long. Socializing with colleagues is great for team chemistry but try to find the right time and places for this activity.
14. Manage meetings effectively. Long and unproductive meetings can drain valuable time. Try to attend only meetings that pertain directly to your job or only portions of meetings that pertain to your job. Of course, develop a habit of beginning and ending your meetings on time. And try to make sure there is an agenda to keep a meeting’s focus on the important topics at hand. Also, try to come to meetings well-prepared to minimize inefficiencies. Finally, when your group discussions move off topic it’s important to redirect conversations so your meetings stay more productive and time efficient.
15. Don’t waste time waiting. You can work hard to control your own time but oftentimes you can’t control the tardiness or inefficiencies of others. Have you ever found yourself waiting on others who are late for meetings or appointments? It happens all the time. One way to attack this problem is to plan ahead and bring work along with you so you aren’t wasting your time waiting on others. In this age of electronics, cell phones, laptop computers, and other devices allow you to return calls, catch up on case notes, write reports, or do other tasks awaiting you. Further, employment consultants spend a lot of their time driving to and from appointments with businesses and supported employees. Many SE professionals use their cell phones to make or return calls so they are more productive during these drives between points of interest. Make sure, however, to use hands-free devices like bluetooth technology to insure your safety on the road.
16. Take care of yourself! Employment consultants and SE practitioners are better prepared to tackle their ambitious work schedule when they are at peak physical health and conditioning. This means getting enough sleep, eating properly, getting enough exercise, maintaining a proper balance in their work and personal lives, and attending to their personal health care needs. Personal and health care matters are critical to taking on your job role with the right frame of mind and having the energy you need to meet all presenting challenges that come your way.
You know, as I prepared for this presentation, I looked back at my material and thought to myself– "This isn’t rocket science. It’s just a lot of common sense!" Yet many SE professionals tend to get bogged down and stressed out because they are not well organized, prepared, or exercising the right disciplines to incorporate many of the time management principles presented here.
As author Frank A. Clark once said: "If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere." How true! If this work were easy, we would have many more folks with disabilities competitively employed in the workforce today. So be assured of this–there will be challenges. And you can meet many of these challenges by developing and increasing your job competencies and skills as SE practitioners. However, don’t fooled that you can get by with your skill sets alone. Joining the ranks of your agency’s highest performers also means achieving excellence through high productivity as well as quality work.
Make no mistake about it, how you manage your time and priorities is fundamental to your success. It's your job. So make a decision today to make task completion a daily habit. And make a decision to use the time available to you to tackle the highest priorities associated with your success.
See you at the top!

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