Managers, project managers, and consultants all talk about the benefits of time management in business. An entire profession focuses on teaching time management techniques. Usually this involves using some combination of scheduling, goal management, and resource allocation to make individuals more productive.

One of the little-talked-about aspects of time management is managing the kinds of tasks we deal with during a day. Trying to do several tasks that require radically different approaches or mindsets can cause stress. It can also lead to a loss of productivity, as I found out.

A problem of focus
This particular aspect of time management reared its ugly head in my life one hectic day. In the morning, a client needed me to resolve a trouble ticket. At 1:00 P.M., I was supposed to participate in a sales presentation about clusters with a client rep. I also had a server due up before 5:00 P.M. I scheduled three hours for the trouble ticket, then lunch with the client rep. After the sales meeting, I planned to get to the client site for the install by 2:00 P.M. I knew from past experience that I could get the server up, running, and through QA in less than two hours. Piece of cake.

My first stop to address the trouble ticket started out with all the signs of a quick fix. Run in, swap the power supply, check the hard drives, and away I would go. Four hours in, I managed to finally get the server up and offering files again. That left me with half an hour before my sales meeting.

I skidded in with five minutes to spare before the meeting. I gave the slides a quick pass. Then I spent an hour talking about various kinds of RAID controllers and the problems they cause. The client technical representative and I commiserated about our problems, while the CIO and my client rep tried to steer the conversation back to clustering.

Still deep in conversation, the client technical rep and I went back to his cube to look over some SCSI diagnostics. My client rep eventually left, the CIO went on to other meetings, and hours passed. Just as we finally tracked down the problem, my pager started to buzz. It completely derailed my train of thought.

Unfortunately, it also pointed out that I was two hours late for my server installation appointment. Begging my client’s pardon, I ran out the door. Luckily for me, the client who needed the server was only six blocks away. I arrived slightly flushed but mostly ready to work.

My on-site technician, in addition to his desktop deployment duties, had the server up and the disks spinning. He gave me a sheepish grin and apologized for pulling me out of my meeting. He knew I was busy, but he had never built a server or a mail server before. I told him to man the keyboard while I talked him though the process. During the downtimes, I wandered around the office chatting with people. Just after 8:00 P.M., we broke for dinner and then came back to finish the mail client installations on the desktops.

By the end of the day, I managed to get everything mostly done. I resolved the trouble ticket. I bombed the sales meeting, although we did get some troubleshooting work out of it. Without my technician’s help, I most likely would still be working on that server.

Mindset management
Looking back, I can see that the three tasks I had that day involved three radically different mindsets. Troubleshooting requires a highly creative frame of reference combined with a deep memory for esoteric details. Sales calls revolve around leadership and presentation skills. Deployment depends half on memorization and half on the ability to execute actions in an exact order.

I started the day in the troubleshooting mindset. I successfully resolved that problem. But I really shouldn’t have assigned a fixed time to do that creative activity. Sometimes things go quickly; other times they don’t.

I moved into the sales call still in a troubleshooting mindset. Only after the call did my mind begin to shift into leadership mode. After bombing the call, I spent time with my client’s chief technician. We worked together on problems (more troubleshooting) until my own technician pulled me away.

Firmly established in a hybrid social/creative mindset, I wandered into my third situation. Although my decision to teach my technician how to do the server install later paid off, it was not within my original work parameters. Similarly, wandering around talking to people about all of their problems wasn’t part of the original scope. Without my technician’s help, the server would not have gone up.

Today’s business requires that we constantly hop from task to task. For the most part, though, we have choices about how we organize our work. In my case, my manager and I blocked out “zones” in my week. Sales calls and other social activities fell into one zone. Troubleshooting and creative efforts fell into another. A third zone contained efforts requiring the kind of exacting precision needed for network installations.

Taking the lesson forward
A few years later, during one of my monthly reviews I noticed a downward trend in my productivity. I felt frazzled and overworked. I had produced only a few proposals, attended a good number of client meetings, and answered a lot of questions over the phone. Everything seemed in order for the typical 60-hour consultant workweek.

Reviewing by mindset showed me my error. I routinely shifted mindsets five or six times every day. Previous experience had taught me better than that. I then altered my schedule so that I blocked out parts of the day for specific kinds of activities. My productivity went back up. So did the quality of my work. A month or so later, my manager confessed he had been about to call me in for a discussion before my turnaround.

In the first case, I failed to accomplish my company’s goals. In the process, I nearly burned myself out. In the second case, I recognized the fundamental error and took corrective action before forcing my manager to confront me about it.