You’re working intently on a mission-critical project when the familiar alert informs you of a new e-mail message. A priority page triggers your beeper. The CIO is on your cell phone—he wants you to e-mail a status report ASAP. And your instant messaging client is flashing so urgently that you’re convinced the program wants to reach through the screen and throttle you.
And your spouse wonders why you never make it home before 9:00 P.M.
In the IT world, everything is top priority. “It's quite typical to put one person on multiple parallel critical paths, each of which require several hours a day,” says time-management expert Mark Lamendola.
In a world where dozens of books on multitasking are published every year, Lamendola thinks the practice is “greatly overrated. It diffuses brainpower to the point where it’s often ineffective,” he says, and adds, “All martial arts schools teach focus—that's where the powerful punch comes from. None of them teaches multitasking.”
In other words, you don’t have to blindly accept every major project that’s thrown at you—and you may be doing your company and colleagues more harm than good when you cheerily agree to do whatever it is they’re currently dumping on your already overcrowded desk.
Lamendola cautions: “Results produce profits—while efforts increase expenses. After a certain point, additional hours actually reduce total output. Not efficiency, but total output.” So when you work late into the night, night after night, you’re actually costing your company money that it will never recover. And you’ll have nothing to show for it.”
Resist the ring and the ping
Do you constantly interrupt your work to answer your phone, beeper, or e-mail? You’re telling everyone around you that what you’re working on isn’t important. This doesn’t exactly create the job security you crave.
“Slavery to these devices fragments the work function so much that real thinking is nearly impossible,” says Lamendola. “Make technology work for you, not the other way around. Being in ‘reaction mode’ is not only a waste of human potential—it’s a way to ensure you do nothing that helps insulate you from being downsized or blamed for things you had no control over. Put yourself in control.”
Once you do that, he says, you can focus on finding—and completing—those tasks that make you stand out as a player.
How can you prioritize when all your tasks are crucial? Lamendola suggests you turn to your boss for help. Bear in mind that you’re not shirking responsibility—rather, you’re acting responsibly. Lamendola recommends a direct approach, such as:
“You’re trying to stuff 15 hours of work into an eight-hour window. That means seven hours of this work cannot be done. You choose which seven, since you’re the boss.”
Of course, that course may be too direct for some bosses. It might help to simply ask your boss to prioritize the tasks for you so you’re sure to get the most important ones done first.
Adjust your mindset
Do you think your day is just starting after eight hours on the job? That’s another mindset that you need to lose. In effect, Lamendola says, “you’re taking 10, 12, 14 hours to do eight hours' worth of work. Start taking eight-hour days, and you'll be doing 10, 12, 14 hours of work in eight hours—because you'll be fresh enough to find ways to make those tasks more efficient.”
Do you believe that your company requires a daily 14-hour commitment? Then, says Lamendola, “your company doesn’t care about you. You’re making yourself a commodity this way.” Your job is what matters—not the time you’re sacrificing on “projects” that don’t help you or your employer.
Streamline your processes, and learn to separate activity from actual work. Are you wasting time on tasks that could be handled more efficiently by a junior team member or even a secretary? Start to delegate those tasks and you’ll soon find that you have enough time to take on more relevant tasks—the kind of work “that improves your resume and career potential in some way—rather than the grunt work your boss simply doesn't want to handle or find a way around,” says Lamendola.
“Always seek to do more work with less activity,” he says. “If something is unnecessary, don't do it. If something is necessary, think of ways to make it unnecessary.” Imagine yourself as an operating system. Do you want to be the flashy one with all the bells and whistles no one uses and that constantly crashes? Or would you rather be the OS that’s streamlined and sleek and that’s quietly building momentum and preparing to take the world by storm?
Once you begin to adopt proper time management practices, you’ll be better equipped to handle the occasional actual crisis. Instead of barely managing to get everything done, you’ll be able to concentrate on being a better manager. And the next time you need to give an on-the-spot status report, you’ll be able to do it and still make it home for dinner on time.
For more time-management tips, click here.