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A matter of time

Published on Friday, 11 Jan 2013
Illustration: iStockphoto
Charlie Lang

Hong Kong companies are famous for their efficiency, but also for the pressure they put on their workers – an attitude summed up by the phrase: “I needed it yesterday.”

In such a work environment, it is essential for workers to manage time effectively, especially when days are invariably packed with endless meetings, countless e-mails, chatty colleagues who vie for attention, and, of course, actual jobs to be done.

The best time to introduce effective time management into office life is at the beginning of the year, as it is a wonderful time to review long-term goals.

The key to time management is to find time for the most important tasks. This will usually be decided by one’s long-term goals, both personal and professional. Only once we have a clear list of objectives is it possible to draw up a daily to-do list and work out how to achieve each item step by step.

To decide which task should come first, an “urgent-important matrix” is useful. Draw a square, divide it into four boxes, and separate tasks by urgent and important, urgent but not so important, important but not so urgent, and finally neither urgent nor important tasks.

“This makes it clear which tasks are the first priority,” says Charlie Lang, managing partner of executive-coaching firm Progress-U. “The problem starts with the second priority, as people typically choose the urgent but not so important tasks.

“Focus on the important but not so urgent tasks to make sure they don’t get into the urgent and important category, which is when you have to deal with them in fire-fighting mode.”

Once task priority is clear, you can start scheduling your time. It is best to set blocks of time for activities that need a lot of concentration. It is important to schedule difficult tasks for a time when your concentration can peak and you are least likely to be interrupted. High-achievers, for example, often get into work before everyone else, when the office is still quiet and there are no phone calls.

Try to set boundaries to avoid disturbance during these blocks of time. If you can, close your door, don’t pick up the phone and don’t check your e-mails.

“There is a so-called ‘mental set-up time’, the time you need to understand where you are in a job and what you need to do. Every time you get interrupted, you need to go through the mental set-up time again to get into your job,” Lang says.

It is also important to schedule breaks. It is counter-productive to push too hard and become so tired that concentration is impossible.

If the day is simply not long enough to complete all your tasks, you have to see if you can renegotiate your deadlines or find another solution.

“Have a conversation with your boss to see if you can skip the task, delay and reschedule for another day, or get someone else to do it,” Lang says.

He adds, though, that this is not a conservation that commonly takes place in Asia. “In Asia, what the boss says is always urgent and important. But once employees are really stressed, they often realise that the boss is open to negotiation,” he says.

Similar time-management issues arise when peers ask for help, increasing your workload. Should you help them out? Many people do simply because they fear their colleagues will not like them if they are not always helpful. Sometimes, however, you will be too busy and have to take care of your own needs.

“If you have to say no, give a proper explanation as to why you cannot do it,” Lang says.

If you are in a management position and you find that you never have enough time to complete your tasks, you should check if you are delegating enough work to your team members. Doing all the work on your own eats up your time and demotivates your team.

In the long run, it is better to spend time training and developing your team members to take on extra tasks than doing jobs on their behalf.

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