Managing Time

Managing Time

Technology has evolved faster than the human brain’s ability to process the data and information IT systems now throw at us. In the past, either information didn’t exist, or it existed but we didn’t have access to it. Nowadays, a barrage of e-mails, text messages, and tweets comes at us relentlessly, day and night, from blogs, social networking sites, wikis, the corporate intranet, groupmails, and the rest.

Trying to figure out which messages are really important, or even which warrant some form of response from this blizzard is difficult. Information overload can lead us to ‘tune out’ messages altogether. Without sophisticated software to help us filter and organize all this ‘noise’ based on factors we deem relevant, we’d drown in the deluge. E-mail ‘tags’ can be set by topic and sender, for example.

Because we dare not ignore what others – including our bosses – often unthinkingly deem important for us to know, we become anxious for fear of missing that one vital message. We inhabit a twilight zone of ‘permanent partial awareness’ as a result where the stress of realising our inability to process all the information coming our way as fast as it arrives collides with an unrealistic social expectation that every e-mail, every text should be answered. This demoralises us.

Most organizations pay a higher price than they know as their employees struggle to manage the electronic information glut. At least two thirds of the 250 messages received by Cluster Coordinators each day (the ‘average’ for a senior manager in a commercial company is 350 e-mails per week) are either irrelevant or may be relevant but are unnecessary. Given that at least three hours of each working day is spent processing e-mails, time and money is clearly being wasted.

As if that weren’t enough, once interrupted, knowledge workers take 24 minutes on average to resume the suspended task. You will recognise the all-too-familiar scene: Dealing with the message that prompted the interruption provides the opportunity to just check some of the others as yet unopened, and that, in turn, stimulated you to do that quick bit of research on ‘google’ which had been lurking at the back of your mind all afternoon. And then another … probably connected to some personal administrative task.

Another eerily familiar but rarely articulated consequence of information overload is the anxiety and delay engendered when you didn’t hear back from the recipient in what you consider to be a timely fashion. Was your message ‘spammed’? Was it willfully ignored because the content was unclear? Or is it simply languishing in a virtual in-tray?

Regaining some productivity may require you to shed some feelings of guilt and inadequacy about not replying promptly. Accept that you cannot read, let alone respond to, all your messages. You have to let go of feeling the need to know everything completely.

If people really need your input, they will contact you again.

E-mail has rendered instantaneous the ability to transfer work – and the burden of responsibility – onto someone else. Too many middle managers are allowed to get away with feeling they have accomplished something when all they have achieved in reality is the transfer of a task.

It’s up to you to manage the information overload. This can only be done by modifying your thinking and behaviour and persuading your colleagues and superiors to do the same. This is one of those areas of corporate life where programme managers may actually have greater insight than their bosses.

In looking for ways to reduce the information overload, an organization-wide effort must be made to understand the balance between sender benefits and recipient costs. There are so-called ‘seriosity’ strategies that can help. One such is to install software that prioritises in-coming e-mails by the ‘value’ attached to it by the sender in the form of a virtual currency. Another is to have relative importance determined by history with that particular sender, or by recognition of key phrases in the subject box. Such strategies seek to transfer control over information flow from the sender to the receiver. Here are some additional practical measures your Cluster could trial:

  1. Ban on all intranet traffic from within the same building so that people have to get up and walk to whoever they want to converse with.
  2. Request attendance at internal meetings by using the agenda function.
  3. Preface all e-mails with leaders such as: “Urgent”; “For Information”; “For Action”; “For Diary” and prevent e-mails from being sent that don’t have such prefaces.
  4. Summarise the content of the e-mail in the subject heading. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, reckons that if you can’t say what needs to be said in the ‘subject’ box of an e-mail, it is probably better to use the telephone, or attach a document.
  5. If more than three points are being made, attach them in a document instead
  6. Use the ‘reply to all’ function rarely and even then, only after deliberation. Expose anyone inconsiderately using the ‘reply to all’ function.

In the absence of such a strategic approach taken by your employer, here are some ‘tactical’ tools you could employ by yourself to manage your information flow more efficiently:

  1. Check your in-box only at designated times i.e no earlier than 30 minutes after arrival in the office in the morning, one hour around midday, and one hour before going home. There is absolutely no need to respond immediately to the manufactured or imagined emergencies of others, almost all of which will have arisen through poor management on the part of the sender. Expectation of instant response — a mindset fostered by ‘crackberry’ users — is unfair, inefficient, and the resort of poor managers.
  2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night: The former scrambles your priorities for the day and bogs you down in trivia from the outset; the latter gives you insomnia.
  3. Set up your page with a ‘view’ pane in the lower half and ensure that mail read in this pane is acknowledged as having been opened.
  4. Set up the ‘auto-responder’ that informs the sender that you have received their mail even if you have not responded to it.
  5. Install software that allows filtering by key words in the subject box, key phrases in the text, location of sender, and/or name of sender
  6. Print out only attachments that you need to read and respond to, while saving them to the correct file. There is no need to file your e-mails as you can always find them later using the ‘search’ facility (by sender, date, or subject, for example).
  7. Disable the annoying ‘ping’ which alerts you to in-coming mail.
  8. Automatically delete all un-read e-mails once they are four weeks old. You will either have responded by then or have filed any important attachments.


The mobile phone also conspires to provide us with hundreds of different ways to procrastinate and self-interrupt. As with e-mail, it is all down to ‘strategic elimination’. Manage your mobile phone – don’t allow your phone to manage you. The following actions or inactions will help:

“Manage your mobile device. Don’t let it manage you.”
  • Set it to ring loudly and distinctively, but only once. You know someone is calling you and you have 30 seconds to take the call or not. Meanwhile, the caller thinks it is ringing and nobody around you is disturbed. If you decide not to take the call, it should be set to automatically divert to voice-mail.
  • Set the phone to silent mode (and vibrate if you have that facility) at the beginning of a meeting and place it on the table so that you can see if anyone is calling.
  • If you deem it absolutely necessary to take a call during a meeting, get up and walk quietly out of the room. You have 30 seconds before the call diverts to voicemail so respond only when outside. In no circumstances is it necessary to take a call during a meeting – this is the practice of those trying, and failing, to impress.
  • Your voice-mail message should say, “This is X. I’m in a meeting so cannot take your call. Leave a message and I will call you back as soon as I can. If really urgent, call me again right now.”
  • Do not answer calls from unrecognized numbers. A soon as you know who it is, enter their details in the phone’s memory.
  • It is OK to send messages and short e-mails while in a large meeting, though discreetly.
  • Do not let people ramble. When someone calls, stick with “I’m in the middle of something right now, what do you want me to do ?”.
  • On days off turn your phone and laptop off during this entire period except when you want to make a (non-work related) call or e-mail friends.

The advice above applies equally to handheld PDA’s like the Blackberry® where written and verbal functions are melded into one portable machine. Just because it is portable does not mean you have to be available 24/7. Make sure those trying to contact you know that. If it is really urgent, respond at the second attempt.

In terms of organizing your tasks for the day, week, or month, focus on execution of your top five ‘to do’s’ – deciding what these are, and in what order of priority, is the ‘first thing’ to do in the morning. If you don’t prioritise, everything can seem urgent.

Only the top priority needs to be completed today (which means it may have taken four days to get this far).

This is is a section from Clusterwise 2. Reproduction is encouraged. It would be nice if the author, James Shepherd-Barron, and were acknowledged when doing so.

Submit a Comment