Do you also hate it when something urgent suddenly comes up at work, throwing out your carefully planned schedule for the entire week? Do you, too, sometimes postpone a task until the deadline is looming on the horizon — and then get anxious because there just doesn’t seem to be enough time left? Or do you find it hard to say no when your colleagues ask you for “just a tiny favor”, but the tiny favors keep piling up until you find yourself putting in extra hours to get your own projects done? If any — or even all — of these situations sound familiar, then at least you’re not alone.
According to a 2019 survey conducted by German market research company forsa, 49% of employees feel stressed and pressed for time at work. And since the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increasing number of white-collar workers to perform their professional duties from home, they often feel additional pressure from balancing paid work, household chores, and childcare. So, most people could benefit from some helpful advice on time management, now more than ever.
At InterNations, we have been offering this kind of support for a while. Our Human Resources Team organized the first in-house workshop on time and self-management back in 2016, long before the days of lockdown and remote work, and the topic became a permanent fixture once we introduced a comprehensive HR training agenda three years later.
“Together with project management, time management has always been the topic that most team members have expressed an interest in,” Human Resources Team Lead Christa explains. “In a dynamic, fast-paced corporate environment, you need to balance quality with quantity and efficiency. Especially in the early days of InterNations, when we were still a start-up and most of us were multi-tasking at some time or other, we often had to act — and react — quickly, be as flexible as possible, and deliver results at short notice. This has shown that time and self-management should be an integral part of everyone’s soft skills.”
In short, our team members should feel empowered to optimize both the professional and the private use of their time in order to reduce stress and to improve their individual work-life balance.
The Theory: The Model of Time Competence
Some members of the InterNations team, myself included, recently joined the first online edition of the time management workshop at InterNations. “I always feel that there’s so much more I should be able to achieve with my time, so I signed up for this seminar,” says my colleague Natalia, one of our Community Engagement Specialists — a sentiment probably shared by all the participants.
Alexandra, a co-founder of the Munich Center for Leadership, is there to guide us through some theoretical aspects and to provide us with some practical tools for developing our time management skills. She combines an academic background — such as a PhD in organizational psychology — with years of hands-on experience in coaching, mentoring, and professional training. “I’ve never participated in one of Alexandra’s time management seminars,” says Christa, “but she organized a different kind of mini-workshop for the HR Team last year. I especially appreciate her friendly and non-judgmental manner since she is both a very empathetic coach and a very knowledgeable specialist in her field.”
Some of the introductory slides on time management do seem a little too academic at first. We kick off with a very precise, but somewhat cumbersome definition of time management as the “self-controlled effort of subjectively using time efficiently in order to reach your goals”, followed by a Venn diagram to illustrate the so-called time competence model in all its multi-dimensional glory. Although the “dimensions of time management” might sound rather abstract, going through these key factors proves extremely helpful to understand what might help or hinder us when it comes to making good use of our time.
If you — like most of us — haven’t heard of the time-competence model before, here’s a short summary of what being a time-competent person means:
- Goals and priorities: Everyone should know how to set the right goals in the right order, which results to strive for, and which responsibilities to put first.
- Planning and scheduling: After the goals have been defined, it’s time to plan a realistic schedule. Realistic planning is, among other things, all about avoiding the typical mistake of penciling in so many tasks and appointments that there’s barely time to breathe.
- Communication: We might also want to let our co-workers know about our schedule and even defend our own priorities, if necessary, so their plans won’t interfere (too much) with ours.
- Execution: Now there is just the small matter of actually getting started, especially on the tasks we dislike for some reason, and then seeing them through…
- Context: But to succeed at tackling tasks and achieving goals, we also need the right working conditions.
If the context is the biggest or even the only problem — for example, if the team is drastically understaffed — then even the best workshop on time management skills obviously won’t help in the long run. However, in many cases, it is our own behavior that makes our issues worse or that has created them in the first place.
Just like described in the introduction, we might be too optimistic about how much time we’ll need to get things done and therefore forget about blocking a few hours for unexpected interruptions; we might keep putting off certain tasks as long as there aren’t any consequences for doing so; or we might be bad at saying no to our fellow team members even if saying yes will mess with our own responsibilities. And then we join those unfortunate 49% from the survey, who always seem to be running out of time.
From Theory to Practice: Reflecting on Our Strengths and Weaknesses
Reflecting on the main dimensions of time management is also one of the first exercises in the workshop. All of us have to estimate where our personal strengths and weaknesses lie. At the very beginning, one of my colleagues still quips, “I think I have the time management skills of a carrot!”, but we’re soon giving a fairly realistic assessment of both our skills and our potential for further improvement. For example, most participants consider themselves good at planning, but less skilled at communicating and “being their own champion”. And while our self-evaluations for establishing goals and priorities are spread pretty evenly across the rating scale, they are sharply divided between the very good and the not so good as far as executing them is concerned.
The rest of the workshop is devoted to discussing each of these four topics, from prioritizing to procrastinating, in more detail. Again, we start with a few theoretical insights from Alexandra’s background in psychological research before segueing into various tried-and-true methods of dealing with related pain points and problem areas. After evaluating what works and doesn’t work for us, we share our personal best-practice tips.
As one participant sums it up: “I think Alexandra’s approach was a well-balanced mix between scientific methods — which she explained in a very understandable manner — and practical advice. It was perfect to give us both theoretical and practical knowledge of efficient time management.”
The Practice: Understanding Time Management Tools vs. Understanding Ourselves
The workshop’s agenda for the first two dimensions of the “time competence model” — setting goals and priorities, as well as making plans — is more about the many tools, tips, and tricks usually associated with time management skills. For example, we are advised to follow the example of former US President Eisenhower in quickly deciding which tasks to delegate and also learn why we should always eat a (figurative) frog in the morning. (No amphibians were harmed during this seminar.)
“That’s the piece of advice I still remember most vividly from the workshop,” Natalia says. “If you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, nothing worse can happen during the day. This means we should get rid of the annoying tasks first instead of leaving them for the end of the day when we might not have the energy to deal with them anymore.”
However, communicating our personal priorities and executing our tasks usually can’t be solved that easily with filling in a matrix or finding the best planning app to organize our schedule. These aspects of time management require entirely different skills and a deeper understanding of the underlying psychological causes.
For example, we need the ability to defend and negotiate the time we have already scheduled to reach our goals. Even if we might not like saying no — because we don’t want to disappoint our colleagues or we’re afraid our boss will think we’re not a team player — we sometimes have to. Without drawing boundaries, some of us might never find the time to focus on our own tasks and projects first. In the seminar, roleplaying such potentially tricky situations helps us find rhetorical strategies for saying no politely but firmly or for at least negotiating a reasonable compromise.
Procrastination, on the other hand, is more of a case of defending ourselves against some of our worst impulses. The main causes of procrastination are normally task aversiveness and self-sabotage. “Task aversiveness” is just a fancy way of saying, “But I don’t want to!” Most people automatically avoid duties they find unpleasant, which probably explains why we would rather binge watch a 20-year-old season of Friends on Netflix than scrub the toilet. Self-sabotage is a bit more complicated, though. More often than not, we keep postponing a task we will probably enjoy and are actually pretty good at because we are secretly afraid of failure. This might apply especially to employees who have a lot of freedom at work, whose tasks have more of a creative bent, or who are perfectionists at heart — or all of the above.
Here, the solution is less about time management than about self-motivation, Alexandra explains, and the good old “carrot-and-stick” approach can be surprisingly effective. By agreeing upon hard deadlines and milestone reports right from the start, we create enough external pressure for ourselves, but we still need to dangle the metaphorical carrot right in front of our nose as a reward. For example, we might allow ourselves to take a 20-minute break and go out to grab a cappuccino from the corner store once we have successfully completed what we kept putting off.
The Outcome: Time Competence in Action
“This workshop has shown me that we all face similar issues and demand a lot from ourselves by default. Sharing our challenges in a group made it clear that we need to communicate more and that we can ask for help, if necessary,” Natalia says a couple of weeks after the training. “And I have already started putting some of the advice into practice. For example, I change my Slack status to ‘Focus — please don’t disturb’ more frequently, and I remember to block more time in my calendar for certain tasks.”
Another participant even comments on their post-workshop feedback form: “This course was very informative. I think everyone should join it or take it as a refresher from time to time!”
And what about you? Would you describe yourself as a time-competent person? Have you ever attended a similar workshop or found other ways of improving your time management skills? What are your favorite tips and tricks?
Image credit: InterNations / iStockphoto / Shutterstock