12/1/2001 | 7 MINUTE READ

Make the Time You Need

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Make the time you need.


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Once there was a farmer who told his wife he would plow the “south forty.” He began by oiling the tractor. But finding that he was out of oil, he went to the shop to get it. On his way, he noticed that the pigs hadn’t been slopped, so he went to the corncrib, where he found some sacks. That reminded him that the potatoes were sprouting. He started for the potato pit. As he passed the woodpile, he remembered that his wife wanted wood in the house.

As he picked up a few sticks, an ailing chicken walked by. He dropped the wood and reached for the chicken. By evening, he still hadn’t gotten the tractor to the field—and so his time passed.

The farmer wasn’t so different from the manager who opens his newspaper in the morning, only to turn to a phone call from a friend, who reminds him that there is a meeting he might want to attend. On his way to the meeting, he bumps into a colleague who tells him about a report he ought to read. So he digs up the report, calls a third party to check some of the facts in the report and—so it goes. Lots of wheel spinning, no accomplishment.

The antidote? Discipline. Learn to avoid the time pitfalls that others fall into and you will have gone a long way toward asserting your control over time. Try these:

Don’t be lulled into easy chores. Most of us have certain responsibilities that we enjoy. The temptation is to linger over these while neglecting other, more demanding tasks. One person, for example, may actually like to sign his mail because it requires no great thought, no decision making ability, no risk taking. The good time manager reduces the number of routine tasks he attends to and raises the number of tough jobs he tackles.

Break the rules if it will save time. Depending on how much your time is worth, it might be more practical to call your superior on the telephone and settle some matter instead of going through all the work required to turn out a memo. Frequently, the informal approach is at least as effective as the formal one—and a lot faster.

Plan your day on paper. Even a brief idea of what you must do imposes some logic on an otherwise chaotic situation. A few notes to yourself on what you must accomplish today can save you hours of relatively unimportant activity.

Let George do it, providing he can. Delegate as much as you can. That’s a basic rule of good management, just as exercise is a basic rule of good health.

Concentrate on the job at hand. Learn to operate in worry-tight compartments. No matter what task you must do next, treat the current one as the most important on your agenda. For one thing, it is. For another, this is the only attitude that will permit you to do your very best.

Have You Checked Your Priorities Lately?
Ironically, many a hardworking manager gets buried under his job because he’s working hard on the wrong things. To determine what is most important at any given time is one of his toughest challenges. But the person who continually meets the challenge is almost certain to stay on top of his job.

The truth is that the things that are most important today may be among the least important tomorrow. How do you determine the ever-shifting priorities of your work?

One manager does it this way: At a monthly meeting with his people, he invites them to give estimates of the most important problems the department faces. Their answers reflect the priorities in their own areas of responsibility. He then weighs their opinions against his.

This accomplishes two things: First, he spots projects that are being overrated and can take steps to place them where they belong on the scale of importance. He also pinpoints projects that are being delayed because they have been mistakenly put at the bottom of the priorities list.

He thus achieves what every manager must achieve if he is to his job. He keeps the partnership between himself and his people alive and vibrant. And he learns from those who are closest to the jobs at hand. A person like that is ready for a bigger job.

Insurance: Proper Motivation

When people are properly motivated, they perform well. That’s a management given. But what is proper motivation? It naturally varies from individual to individual, but here are some essential ingredients to keep in mind:

Equal workloads: With the exception of a few South Pacific tribes, people are generally competitive. They continually compare themselves with others. Whether this is good or bad is a moot point; it’s a fact. But this constant comparing of oneself with others is not always based on the desire to excel. Sometimes it is based on a desire for perfect equality. This is especially true when it comes to work volumes. Employees usually won’t mind working hard if they are convinced that all their peers are working equally hard.

A common management error, however, is to judge by volume alone. Thus, it may appear fair to ask Adams and Baker to prepare one report each within a week. But if Adams’s report requires several days of intense research and Baker’s report requires only a few telephone calls, their workloads are patently unequal. Either their deadlines should differ or Baker should be asked to help Adams.

Realistic work schedules. People like well defined work goals so that they may chart their own progress. You can provide this satisfaction through realistic work schedules. Unless exceptional conditions dictate otherwise, give an employee enough time to finish an assignment without interruption and avoid switching him in midstream from one job to another. If you must switch him, be sure to explain why.

Suitable equipment. Nothing demoralizes an employee more surely than to be assigned a job and then be given inadequate—or the wrong—equipment for it.

Well defined assignments. Some workers require more detailed guidelines than others, but all have the basic need to know what is expected of them. It’s not a question of what should be done by 11 a.m., but rather the extent of the assignment, the priorities involved, what materials and equipment should be used, and what other procedures should be followed. Knowing the specifics of an assignment gives an employee confidence because it enables him to know immediately whether his work is on target or off.

Match the Assignment to the Employee
It should come as no news that the most expeditiously executed assignments are those given to the employees best suited to carrying them out.

Yet, many managers will simply turn a job over to the first person with free time. On the face of it, this makes a certain kind of sense. It’s democratic; it exposes everyone to different challenges; it would seem the easiest way to dispose of jobs in chronological order. But people aren’t quite so interchangeable. They have different talents, different interests, different strengths and weaknesses. The man with a penchant for order may be the ideal choice for a job requiring attention to a large number of details. But he may be sadly lacking in the imagination needed to examine all those details and come up with a general strategy designed to take those details into account. A woman with the ability to turn out exceptionally neat work may lack the speed demanded by a tight deadline. By the same token, her faster colleagues may never miss deadlines—but hand in unacceptably sloppy work.

As a manager, what you must decide is: “What does this assignment require above all?” then identify the employee best suited by temperament and ability to meet those requirements. Even if the employee is currently working on something else and the assignment must wait its turn, in the long run you will be better off, for the odds favor the job being done right the first time.

Too Many People Reporting To You?
Most management experts agree that the optimum number of employees per manager is fewer than ten. Rules of thumb are handy, but broader averages can and are being used today. For example, a group of trainees or inexperienced employees requires more supervision than the same number of experienced employees. Several factors affect the number of people you can effectively manage: geographic dispersion, employee competence, the complexity of the work. If morale and motivation are poor, consider the possibility that you are simply spreading yourself too thin.


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