Pity the guy who lost his job. But also pity the guy who kept his.
As companies run leaner operations with fewer workers, they’re asking more from those still employed. While the increased productivity makes companies more profitable, the greater demands on workers can leave many feeling overwhelmed, burned out and losing any work-life balance they may have had.
It’s no wonder, then, that there is increasing demand for time management training, both in and out of the workplace.
“A lot of companies don’t have as many people as they used to,” said Sheila Adler, who teaches time management for the New York-based American Management Association. “But there are many other time challenges that can be stressful.”
Adler ticks them off on her fingers:
- Information overload, thanks to barrages of e-mails, voice mails, letters and faxes.
- Changing priorities as companies reposition themselves.
- Stress from working long hours, missing kids’ activities.
“We need to teach people to work smarter, not harder,” Adler said.
That’s what drew Tammy Overcash to a recent time management course taught by Adler.
Overcash, 36 and the mother of two, works as a senior manager of finance for Merz Pharmaceuticals LLC in Greensboro, N.C. and is also four courses away from earning a master’s in business administration from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“The company has grown and my responsibilities have grown,” Overcash said. “I need to be more organized and meet deadlines by working efficiently and not stressing about it.”
Some of the ideas she’s collected already include a new paperwork system because “now it’s organized in piles,” suggestions for avoiding interruptions from colleagues and others when she’s working on a big project, and ways to better delegate tasks.
David Fagiano, chief operating officer of Dale Carnegie Training, a global management training company based in Hauppauge, N.Y., said he believes there’s been a permanent shift in the business world to pushing for higher worker productivity.
“You could say that’s a hardhearted way to look at it, but in the bloated ’80s, companies put so many people on payroll, added people willy-nilly, that they went under or couldn’t compete with foreign companies.”
At the same time, he added, some workers are making things more difficult than they need to be.
“Most people, including me, do a lot of stuff that doesn’t really make an impact,” Fagiano said. “It’s kind of there and you feel you have to do it, maybe because you’ve always done it.”
His advice is for people to take a hard look periodically at how they spend their time and purge tasks that are no longer necessary. At the same time, they have to be willing to adapt to changing work demands.
“Anybody who is inflexible in today’s work force should forget it,” Fagiano said. “Everything changes so fast that midcourse corrections are necessary. You have to be prepared to go with the flow.”
The 'instant response culture'
Julie Morgenstern, a time management expert and author of “Never Check E-mail in the Morning,” said that both companies and workers benefit when employees have good strategies for managing their work loads.
“Companies are conscious that people can’t work this relentlessly and be effective,” she said. “And some are focusing on work-life balance — insisting that their people take vacations, get home to have dinner with their families, things like that — because it helps them retain good employees.”
Morgenstern says that technological advances such as e-mail have pushed workers into what she calls the “instant response culture.” As they work in “staccato” mode, they don’t ever slow down to “legato” and set aside time blocks to do the thoughtful, complicated projects that companies want.
In training sessions and in her book, she recommends that workers not check e-mail first thing in the morning and, instead, use those early and fresh hours to tackle their most important projects.
Workers also can create more time for important work by “controlling the nibblers.” This can be as simple as discouraging colleagues from dropping in to chat by closing the office door or activating their phone answering machines to capture calls. The return calls can be bunched at set times, such as late morning or late afternoon, she said.
Still have too much to do? Morgenstern suggests subjecting every demand for the four Ds: delete, delay, delegate, diminish. Does it need to be done at all? Can it be rescheduled at a later, better time? Can it be delegated to another worker? Are there shortcuts to streamline the job?
Erin Brennan, 29, a vice president of Hunter Public Relations in New York, said that adopting some of Morgenstern’s time management tips has given her a greater sense of control over her work day.
“I’ll tell myself, ’You’re in staccato mode now. Slow down and focus,”’ she said. “Then I can get into the mind-set of, ’I’m going to really concentrate on this now.’ After all, it’s the long-term projects that are the reason your company has you on board.”
She also said that learning to “map” her time — that is, assigning specific time slots on her calendar for each day’s tasks — helps ensure that priority projects get the attention they need.
“It’s like, these are the three things I need to get done today, and these are the three hours I’m going to do them in,” Brennan said. “You can even give yourself a certain percentage of the day for unplanned tasks so that when things happen, you can handle them.”
She’s also learned to schedule in some leisure time, like an exercise class after work.
“I’ll say, ’OK, let’s get to this at 3 so I can leave at 6 p.m.,”’ she said. “If you say it out loud enough times, people will say, ’Oh, Erin has her spin class on Wednesday nights so we’ll have to get to this earlier.”’
The added benefit, she said, is that “even people who didn’t take the class figure out that they can do it, too.”