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You know you are in a bit of trouble when your boss tells you that you need to improve your time management skills.

In times past, when training budgets were somewhat normal the solution was easy. Sign up for a class in New Jersey, make sure that the boss is involved in the planning, offer a one page post-course “summary,” and email a thank-you for the life-changing opportunity.

Simple.

Nowadays, however, the boss is likely to deny the cost of the tuition, flight, hotel and meal expenses while still expecting to see some improvement.

No-one has time to read one of those books filled with “The 1001 Crazy Tips of Abnormally Anal, Obsessive People.” What is an already over-worked professional to do?

Making the task more difficult is the fact that time actually cannot be managed by anyone – the term is misleading. What is called “poor time management” is more of a judgement that your boss is making about delayed responses, missed appointments, broken promises, stressful behaviour and un-replied emails. Are those really about time?

Aside from faking a sudden boost in motivation, there are actually some simple changes in behaviour (i.e. habits) that anyone can implement that actually do make a difference because they are quite visible to the One in Charge.

Habit #1 – Own Your System

It’s important early on to demonstrate to your boss that you are taking charge of the situation. The easiest way to do that is to first convince yourself that you indeed have a time management system, and that you are about to give it a serious review, and a possible upgrade.

Your system is comprised of your habits, the time demands that come into your life, and it’s overall objective (for most people the goal of their system is to produce something like “greater productivity” or “peace of mind.”)

Give your boss updates on your progress in changing your system, and some idea of the upgrades that you are effecting. Before you run out and purchase a $500 organizer, however, make sure you implement the other habits below.

Habit #2 — Write it ALL Down

Write everything that your boss gives you to do in a pad that travels with you everywhere.

Never, ever rely on your memory, and at those moments when it’s tempting to do so, never do so. When you are with your boss and are shooting the breeze over drinks, bring along your pad in order to catch that cool idea you come up with between martinis.

At some point, your boss will ask — “What’s up with the pad?”

Explain: “It’s the most important entry point to my new time management system.” This might very well be one of the ways that you can demonstrate to him that your system is undergoing a serious overhaul.

Habit #3 — Never say “Yes” Without Checking

When your boss asks you do something, never, ever say “Yes” without checking your calendar.

This is a critical habit to develop, and one that will serve you for a lifetime.

The point here is simple — as a professional, your time is valuable, and employees that always say “Yes” without considering the rest of the work they need to complete are either under-worked, or irresponsible. Either of those opinions, if left to linger for too long can be a kiss of death.

The point is not to be a jerk.

Instead, the point is to demonstrate a willingness to jump on the task immediately. At the same time, show an inability to commit without knowing exactly what the due date is, and how the task needs to be scheduled ahead or behind your other commitments.

This is such a powerful practice that many fail to implement even after many years in the office that it’s worth starting now — even when you know your calendar is empty.

In the beginning, the end-result might not change much in terms of your saying “yes” or “no” but your boss will get the point: You are someone who takes their time seriously.

For extra points, let your boss know that in your new time management system you never schedule yourself without considering all your commitments. This practice ensures that you give yourself a realistic chance of meeting all your commitments.

Habit #4 — Only Check Email on a Schedule

The fourth habit is perhaps the hardest to implement, because your boss will only know that you are using it when a failure occurs.

Implement the practice of checking email at scheduled times throughout the day. When the scheduled time comes, spend enough time to read and process every single piece of email.

Between the scheduled times to read email, stay out of your email inbox, and only visit it if you have extra time on your hands.

The crunch moment will come when your boss sends you a piece of email that you have not read, at which point you’ll explain “I haven’t read it yet. In my time management system, I’m scheduling the specific times at which I read email so that I can process each and every item in some way. It’s best to call me on my cell for urgent items.”

The good news is that if you keep this practice up, it will become easier to achieve the goal that so many desire –an empty email inbox.

When that goal is accomplished, you can also tell your boss “My new system is allowing me to keep an Empty (or Zero) Inbox. I used to have 10,000 unread emails and it’s been empty for six months now.”

Most bosses will either stare in amazement because they have 20,000 unread items and they want what you have. Or, they’ll give you a conspiratorial smile and a wink that says “Welcome to the club.”

Either response will tell you that have turned the perception around and done what was asked of you. Your boss has seen your new skills in action, and you have reversed a damaging perception.

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