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Time Management 101

Those of us working long hours in the lab may at the end of the day ask the following questions: Where did the time go? Why didn’t I get more done?

by Rick Parmely
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Tips for Maximizing This Most Valuable Resource

“I am definitely going to take a course on time management … just as soon as I can work it into my schedule.”— Louis E. Boone, American author of Contemporary Marketing and Contemporary Business text books.

Time—so much needed, so little available! Few would argue with the sentiment that there just never seems to be enough time these days.

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Time has always been especially valuable to busy people. Benjamin Franklin went so far as to say, “Time is money.” This seems an appropriate expression, since time—like money—can be made and spent, found and lost; it can even be saved, invested, or squandered.

Those of us working long hours in the lab may at the end of the day ask the following questions: Where did the time go? Why didn’t I get more done? and, How can I accomplish more tomorrow? Like the individual on a fixed income who struggles to make ends meet, we may find ourselves struggling just to finish project minimums.

People on fixed incomes must find ways to make their money stretch—to make more efficient use of what they do have. Success invariably depends on creating and following a careful budget. So too, if we are to make our time stretch, we must make more efficient use of it by carefully budgeting, or managing, this limited resource.

Consider for a moment how a successful financial budget is set up. Creating an effective budget does not require elaborate formulas or complicated organization. The effort needs only a basic, solid, yet flexible strategy: a Plan.

To develop this plan, a few simple tools are needed: an overall “ledger,” or record of all financial commitments (generally covering one calendar year), which is used to create a monthly list of bills to pay; a weekly list of payments created from the monthly list; and perhaps even a list of bills to be paid on specific days (daily list).

Related Article: 14 Time Management Tips to Help You Succeed

Similarly, a simple, flexible plan can allow you to effectively budget, or manage, your time—without it becoming a complicated organizational nightmare that takes on a life of its own. Though, of course, it does take some effort to set up properly, this is to be expected. But as the Russian proverb notes: “If you don’t have time to do it right, you must have time to do it twice.” The effort expended now will undoubtedly pay dividends in time later saved.

To develop a plan to manage your time, five simple tools are needed:

  1. A project organizer—your central tool with all projects, plans, and details, for a 6-12 month period
  2. A monthly calendar(s)—for the parts of the projects to be completed in one month
  3. A weekly schedule—for the parts of the projects to be completed in one week
  4. A daily plan—for general task(s) to be completed in one day
  5. An hourly projections plan—for the breakdown of general task(s) that are projected to be completed within listed hours/minutes of one day

Keep in mind that these tools can be in whatever form (or combination of forms) works for you— notebook paper and pens, computer programs, cell phone apps, and the like. The important thing is that you implement a form you will use.

To motivate yourself to begin, recall the answer to the question “How do you eat an elephant?” (“One bite at a time.”) Start the process, and you will quickly realize that it has already been broken down into several manageable bites, or steps. As a side benefit, this process can minimize the effect of one of the most common causes of procrastination: not knowing where to begin.

  1. Start by transferring projects from your project organizer to your monthly calendar.

    • Know your deadlines. Mark them clearly on your monthly calendar.
    • Verify time “capacity.” Capacity on anyone’s schedule or calendar is limited. You have heard the expression “There are only 24 hours in a day!” Many planners use the SMART criteria as a guide for managing goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. With the SMART acronym in mind, ask yourself the following questions: Is my goal “specific” enough or am I allowing too much latitude in the project definition, which could take excess time to accomplish? Is the project “time” limited? Can my lab “achieve” what we have agreed to or will I need other resources that might impact the timely accomplishment of the goal? As planned, will this goal “realistically” be accomplished when I say it will? By analyzing and planning appropriately, we can mitigate many time capacity issues that could affect deadlines.
  2. Next, transfer your monthly calendar tasks to the weekly schedule.

    • Target to finish any project early. Always strive to submit work and any reports earlier than the deadline; when you plan to be only on time, you’ll either be on time or you’ll be late—the reality is that you’ll often be late. If you plan to be early, however, you increase the likelihood you’ll at least be on time.
    • Break down and prioritize monthly tasks by the week. Remember: “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  3. Transfer tasks from your weekly schedule to your daily plan. Essential aspects:

    • Verify “capacity” once again. If, for instance, you will only have eight hours to analyze, review, and report to a customer on 14 hours’ worth of data, the project may have to be broken into smaller units and the deadline readjusted.
    • Delegate any of the week’s tasks that someone else is capable of performing. This will lighten your workload, lower your stress, and train others for the future.
    • Prioritize your tasks that remain.
  4. At the end of the day, use your daily plan to create tomorrow’s hourly projections:

    • Prioritize, scheduling from highest to lowest priority.
    • Put a time/time-of-day limit to each task (“A” must be done in two hours, by 9:00 a.m.; “B” must be done in one hour, by 10:15 a.m., etc.)
    • Schedule in buffer time—be realistic and allow time (perhaps 5-10 minutes) to finish one task and begin the next.
  5. Work your hourly projections plan.

    • To stick to your plan as closely as possible:

      1. Focus. Concentrate on one task at a time. “To do two things at once is to do neither,” advised Publilius Syrus. Contrary to what some would like to contend, it seldom pays to challenge this wisdom; sooner or later we end up repeating both tasks.
      2. Block out distractions; eliminate time wasters. Whatever distracts you or takes time away from your work, be it instant messaging, cell phone apps, text messages, or Twitter, these things should be eliminated or at least minimized. You might, for instance, make computer and online sites harder to access by removing them from your browser quick links/bookmarks and putting them in a less-accessible bookmarks folder.
      3. Avoid the temptation to achieve perfection. Don’t get stuck on unimportant details that only serve to overrun time allotments, causing frustration and undue stress.

To help focus on the things that matter most, make use of the 80/20 rule. This refers to the situation where 80 percent of the result is brought about by 20 percent of the effort. (The remaining 20 percent of the output can only be achieved by putting forth 80 percent effort.)

Related Article: Effective time management strategies tailored to the task and the team

For instance, imagine you have a project due, and to produce the absolute best result you’re capable of will take 100 hours. The 80/20 rule says that you can produce 80 percent of this quality by spending 20 hours (20 percent of 100 hours). On the other hand, the finishing touches needed to bring the quality from 80 percent to 100 percent would require you to spend 80 additional hours (80 percent of the time). From an effectiveness standpoint, that 80 hours does not justify the effort. Be content with less than perfect.

Finally, there are two overarching principles you should make an effort to observe throughout this process:

  • Learn to say no—and mean it. Don’t take on more projects than you can handle; don’t accept new ones along the way. For distractions that come along, say no, defer to later, or delegate. Doing so enables you to retain your project priorities.

For example, imagine that a review of raw data is required by the manager at the end of the eight-hour period planned for the analysis of 100 samples. That review is scheduled for 4 p.m., just before the completed report is to be sent to the customer. Coincidentally, a meeting is called to review your laboratory’s goals for the next quarter with the lab director. What will you do? You feel this is an important meeting, but you know that the data will not be reviewed on time if you attend that meeting. A decision will have to be made—it might require the use of “No.” Or could perhaps someone else attend the meeting in your place? Could the meeting be rescheduled? Could someone else legally and ethically review data on your behalf ? Ultimately, the decision should be based on what allows you to keep your priorities intact and your work on task.

  • Be flexible with things that are not mission-critical. “It is a bad plan that admits of no modification,” wrote Publilius Syrus. Be ready to adjust the process to fit yourself and your actual needs. (In other words, make it work for you—don’t work for it.)

Time and money do have many things in common—many applicable parallels can be drawn. But one significant difference that is vital to remember is that, while you may be able to find, recover, or replace money, time allows for no such luxury. Thus did Benjamin Franklin, while claiming that “time is money,” also admit “lost time is never found.”

Or as Harvey MacKay, author and syndicated columnist, observed, “Time is free, but it is priceless. You can’t own it, but you can use it. You can’t keep it, but you can spend it. Once you’ve lost it you can never get it back.”

Be resolved to view your time as the invaluable asset it is, one worthy of careful consideration and planning. As you learn and apply basic principles of time management, you will reap the benefits that come from effectively managing this most precious resource.