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Managing time effectively

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Employees, supervisors, and managers would like to improve their capacity to manage their time effectively. To facilitate this goal, scientists have recently uncovered some advanced insights into selecting which tasks or goals to relinquish, setting realistic deadlines, and prioritizing work activities most effectively.

Selecting suitable tasks

Instilling a sense of autonomy

Individuals often feel overwhelmed with work because their goals and choices vary erratically. One day, they might be encouraged to improve their computer skills, and hence they launch into tasks that are intended to fulfill this goal. The next week, they regret this decision, and instead feel obliged to attract more customers. As a consequence, they engage in another set of tasks and activities, until of course they decide to change their goals and choices again.

This tendency arises if individuals feel obliged to satisfy the expectations and recommendations of everyone else--their managers, peers, friends, and family, for example. Instead, scientific research indicates these problems are less likely to transpire if individuals are more sensitive to their own core and enduring values or preferences (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005 Kazen, Baumann, & Kuhl, 2003;& see also personality systems interaction theory).

Step 1. To ensure that individuals choose goals and activities that align with their core values, they should, whenever uncertain, delay their decisions to engage in another task. For example, suppose their manager asks "Could you write another report to this client next week". If they feel this task is not entirely obligatory--and if they feel this task is not especially enjoyable or satisfying--they should defer their decision. They could, for example, assert "Perhaps. Let me check my schedule, to ensure that I could complete this task appropriately in this timeframe".

The initial instinctive decisions of individuals seldom align with their core, enduring values and preferences (Kazen, Baumann, & Kuhl, 2003). Instead, these instincts are often contaminated by the expectations and preferences of other individuals. Deferring decisions for several minutes, or even hours, tends to circumvent this problem.

Step 2. Individuals should choose whether or not to engage in some task when they are alone. Specifically, they should relocate to a peaceful setting, if possible. Next, they should reflect upon the goals and aspirations they feel inspired to achieve in the distant future--goals and aspirations towards which they have shown some progress but nevertheless are unlikely to achieve for several years. Perhaps, they would like to become a CIO one day, and they have recently completed a course in IT. After these exercises, they are likely to form an intuition as to whether or not to engage in this task. They should trust this intuition.

These exercises tend to curb agitation (see Levesque & Pelletier, 2003). When these emotions dissipate, individuals become more able to reach decisions that align with their enduring values. Their choices and behavior become less erratic (Kazen, Baumann, & Kuhl, 2003, but see Oettingen & Mayer, 2002).

Step 3. Rather than reflect upon their aspirations when they choose whether or not to engage in some task, individuals could instead identify one or two of their unique strengths. That is, they should identify some of their qualities they do not share with their colleagues, such as their knowledge of electronics or their dedication to charity. Next, they should feel proud they are independent, not dependent on everyone else. Again, after this exercise, their intuition as to whether or not to engage in some task will tend to be adaptive.

That is, this exercise confers a sense of independence. These individuals perceive themselves as independent, rather than connected to a broader collective. When individuals feel independent, their need to maintain cohesion dissipates. That is, they are more willing to act assertively, rather than obligingly (Zhang, Feick & Price, 2006;& see Self construal). Furthermore, they do not change their goals erratically to satisfy the expectations and demands of anyone else.

Feeling assertive

Step 4. If these individuals are not certain about whether to fulfill some request, they should reflect upon why, not how, they could fulfill this goal. If they are asked to complete a report, they should ask themselves "Why would I want to complete this task?" not "How could I complete this activity?"

After individuals consider why, not how, they would like to achieve particular goals, they tend to feel more dominant, assertive, firm, confident, and independent rather than submissive, unassertive, timid, uncertain, and insecure (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008). Consequently, they feel they can refuse a request, which confers a sense of choice (for other factors that promote assertive behavior, see Behaving assertively and confidently).

Setting reasonable timelines

Some individuals set unrealistic deadlines, either for themselves or other employees (see the planning fallacy). For example, they might schedule 2 weeks for a task that cannot be completed within 1 month. Because of these unrealistic deadlines, targets are never reached and frustration begins to mount. Several measures need to be considered to ensure the deadlines that individuals set are reasonable, not unrealistic.

Step 1. Individuals should, at least initially, formulate deadlines when they are alone. On some projects, for example, each individual in the workgroup contributes a different role. In these contexts, team members could be asked to estimate the time that is needed to complete their own role. They should estimate this time when they are alone. Only once all these estimates have been provided should a team leader or manager calculate the time that is needed to complete an entire project.

On other occasions, the individuals do not need to work together. For example, each employee might need to contact 10 clients. In these instances, team leaders or managers might need to impose a deadline on their team. These managers should first determine this deadline in private. After they suggest this deadline to the team, they could subsequently extend this limit, provided that other members present reasonable justifications. However, they should never shorten this deadline.

Individuals often underestimate the time that is needed to complete a task, especially if these activities need to be undertaken as a team (Buehler, Messervey, & Griffin, 2005). In team settings, individuals tend to demonstrate their loyalty and respect towards the team. They will, therefore, tend to focus on the strengths and qualities of the team, and not the obstacles, complications, and deficiencies. Because these impediments are often overlooked, the tendency to underestimate the time that is needed to complete a task is amplified in team settings.

Step 2. When individuals set deadlines, they should reflect upon other times in the past in which they conducted similar tasks and activities. Furthermore, they should identify some of the complications they experienced. One of the reasons that individuals underestimate the duration that is needed to complete some project is they do not like to deliberate on previous occasions in which they undertook similar activities. They do not like to reminisce about past difficulties, and their predictions are thus too optimistic (Buehler & Griffin, 2003).

Step 3. When individuals formulate deadlines, they should first identify 3 obstacles or impediments that could obstruct their goals, such as equipment failure. Next, for each obstacle, they should identify 4 experts they could contact or resources, such as manuals, they could use to redress this obstacle. They should not consider the same expert or resources for more than one obstacle.

Individuals are less inclined to underestimate the time that is needed to complete tasks if they had earlier been asked to identify 3 factors that could obstruct their goals--or 12 factors that could facilitate their performance (Sanna & Schwarz, 2004). Specifically, employees can readily identify three factors that could obstruct their goals and, thus, assume that many other impediments could hinder their performance, curbing their confidence. Hence, they set conservative goals.

Furthermore, individuals cannot readily identify 12 factors that could facilitate their performance and, hence, assume that few other contacts or resources could bolster their productivity. Their confidence again dissipates.

Step 4.. .Before individuals finalize these deadlines or schedules, they should first begin some of the specific activities. That is, they should reach decisions about specific details. For example, suppose they need to organize an event. They could decide the color of brochures or the venues they will contact first.

When individuals consider these details, they feel a sense of uncertainty rather than power (Smith, Wigboldus, & Dijksterhuis, 2008;& see Perceived power). As their sense of power diminishes, they become less likely to underestimate the time that will be needed to complete some project or task (Weick & Guinote, 2010).

Prioritizing tasks

Apart from deciding which tasks to undertake and setting deadlines, individuals also need to determine the order in which they will complete these tasks.

Immediate duties versus future aspirations

Some tasks are undertaken to satisfy some immediate duty, to fulfill a tangible target, or to redress a pressing issue. Other tasks are undertaken to pursue future aspirations and achieve a broad and abstract, rather than precise and specific, goal or objective. Usually, individuals prioritize tasks that relate to specific duties over tasks that relate to future aspirations (Schmidt & DeShon, 2007). For example, they will prefer to repair dysfunctional equipment, a pressing issue, before introducing procedures that could preclude future interruptions.

Although sometimes adaptive, individuals often regret this inclination to defer their pursuit of future aspirations. That is, so many of their grander and more inspiring goals remain entirely unfulfilled.

Step 1. To prevent this concern, individuals should dedicate specific times during the week to activities that are undertaken to pursue future, grander aspirations: such as to introduce a revolutionary system to accommodate the unique needs and constraints of each customer. In particular, they should schedule these activities to the times in which they usually feel most cheerful. For example, perhaps they could dedicate Friday afternoons to these more inspiring, but less pressing, work tasks and activities.

Tasks to undertake when alert

The times at which individuals feel most alert, rather than lethargic, also vary across the day. For example, individuals who tend to be very disciplined, diligent, and conscientious are often more alert earlier in the day (Diaz-Morales, 2007). Individuals who do not demonstrate these qualities tend to be more alert later in the day, perhaps after 3.00 pm for example. Many individuals feel slightly, or even appreciably, lethargic immediately after lunch.

Step 2. Individuals should undertake the work tasks they regard as the least inspiring, that is, activities they are obliged to complete, but seem tedious, uninteresting, and monontonous, during times in which they are usually most alert.

To complete these monotonous, tedious tasks, individuals must suppress their inherent inclinations to engage in a difficult activity. The suppression of these inclinations demands effort (Baumeister,Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). Individuals are unable to dedicate sufficient effort to suppress these inclinations, and this difficulty compromises their performance when they feel exhausted rather than energetic (see Ego depletion).

Tasks that demand insight

Sometimes, to complete a task at work, individuals merely need to follow a set of routines or practices, often procedures they have undertaken many times before. Other tasks, however, may be more uncertain and ambiguous, demanding creative insights to proceed effectively. That is, to complete these tasks, individuals might need to choose which procedures to follow, to decide upon the order in which they should enact these practices, as well as to identify some novel, creative solutions to solve problems and fulfill their goals.

Step 3. In many instances, individuals need to complete some tasks that merely involve following routines as well as some tasks that demand creative insights. In these instances, individuals should dedicate between 15 and 90 minutes to the task that demands creative insight. Next, they should engage in the tasks that involve routines. Only after a significant delay, perhaps a few hours, should individuals return to the tasks that demand creative insights.

Often, after deferring a task for an hour or so, many creative insights on how to complete these activities more effectively seem to emerge. The precise origin of these insights has not been established definitively. Perhaps the delay distracts attention from unsuitable solutions (e.g., Moss, 2002) or enables unconscious thoughts to proceed (Dijksterhuis & Nordgren, 2006).

Efficient activities

Efficient meetings

Step 1.. Several principles can be considered to expedite meetings. .An agenda, specifying the approximate time that is allocated to each item, should be distributed before each meeting. The meeting should adhere to this agenda: The generation of ideas, the resolution of complex decisions, the formulation of plans, and other complex discussions should be deferred to the end of this meeting or assigned to a subgroup.

In team settings, individuals are sensitive to the preferences and perspectives of everyone else. They become less inclined to trust their intuition--and hence their decisions are not as effective (de Vries, Holland, & Witteman, 2009;& see Unconscious thinking theory).

Step 2.. . If possible, ensure only a limited number of individuals are invited to meetings. Indeed, individuals feel more engaged when they feel connected to smaller teams (e.g., Brewer & Weber, 1994;& for the underlying mechanisms, see optimal distinctiveness theory).

Efficient emails and telephone calls

Step 1.. . Whenever possible, initiate telephone calls. For instance, if someone is not available when you telephone, do not ask this person to return the call. Instead, determine when this person might be available and then call at this time. Alternatively, leave a message to specify a time in which you plan to call later.

Step 2.. . Dedicate a specific time to initiate calls or send emails throughout the day--perhaps when you arrive to work, immediately after lunch, and before you leave work in the evening. If possible, refrain from telephone or email outside this time.

When individuals choose the time and place in which they telephone someone, they are not as likely to feel hassled or beleaguered;& they are inclined to appreciate the interaction. That is, they experience a sense of choice instead of obligation. This sense of choice evokes feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment (e.g., Burgess, Enzle, & Schmaltz, 2004). They are, also, not as likely to be disrupted while absorbed in their work--a state that diminishes the perceived workload of individuals (e.g., Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002;& see Flow theory).

Step 3.. . Obviously complete urgent and important telephone calls before other telephone calls. Nevertheless, begin with the person who you perceive as most supportive, affable, and trustworthy.

After individuals speak to someone who is supportive, cooperative, and trustworthy--rather than disparaging, judgmental, or defensive--they become more resilient for a while (Lopez, Mitchell, & Gormley, 2002;& see Attachment theory). Their attention is directed towards more desirable thoughts and interpretations. Hence, they are more likely to perceive their subsequent conversations as pleasant and amiable. Conversations over the telephone may thus not seem as taxing.

Step 4.. . Throughout the day, you might occasionally remember or reflect upon issues you would like to discuss with various managers, colleagues, or customers. Transcribe these thoughts onto a page in a notepad. Assign one page to each person. When you eventually telephone these individuals, stipulate the issues you would like to discuss and the goals they would like to accomplish during the conversation.

When individuals stipulate tangible goals, they experience a sense of tension or determination until these objectives are fulfilled (Marsh, Hicks, & Bryan, 1999;& see also the intention superiority effect). However, if individuals do not stipulate any goals, they cannot later experience a sense of fulfilment. Dissatisfaction prevails instead, often encouraging individuals to maintain the conversation, aimlessly and inefficiently.


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Last Update: 5/7/2016