You own your time: A 3-part strategy to keep it that way
When it comes to time management at work or volunteering, you may presume time spent reflects your work ethic rather than your ability to effectively align and prioritize tasks with stakeholders. Some common time management beliefs include:
“My priorities are dictated by my manager.”
“Questioning a task will give me a reputation for being difficult and harm my career prospects.”
“I want to be seen as easy to work with, so I say, ‘yes’ to as much as I can, regardless of personal impact.”
These well-meaning thoughts, however, often work against effective time management. They put you in a position of powerlessness to the demands of managers and colleagues. The hours you spend working reflect your ability to effectively align and prioritize tasks with stakeholders, not your work ethic.
By shifting communication with the task-givers in your life, you can improve the quality of your work and make the highest and best use of your time. A three-part strategy of “intake, inform, and impart” will give you the tools to do just that.
Active time management starts before writing down a new task on your to-do list. Consider the following scenario:
Your manager asks you to analyze data for her latest project, which is very important to her. The findings will be highly visible to the executive team, and the task aligns with your interests. “Yes!” you exclaim, before jotting the task on a sticky note. It’ll be another late night in the office, but that’s ok because it’s important. That’s what the highest and best use of time means, right?
Not quite. Here, the task is important to someone else, albeit your manager. What’s missing is key information to help you determine when and how to manage the project.
Approach each task with an intake conversation to improve clarity for both you and your manager. Before saying yes, ask questions that help your manager fully think through the request, allow you to understand the purpose of the job (why), the detailed need (what), key deadlines (when), related inter- and intra-team efforts (who), and the tools you will need (how). The following questions might help start the conversation:
- What are the key objectives of this task and the broader project?
- What other parts of the project depend on insights or outcomes from this task? Who is working on those?
- What are the critical milestones for this task and the broader project?
After you have had a chance to ask your questions and note the responses, follow up with an email summary to confirm your understanding and to align expectations with your manager. This will be helpful during task execution, and serve as a nice reference for performance evaluation discussions.
The intake step might be intimidating at first. Practice confidently asking for this step ahead of your next assignment to alleviate the pressure of having to think on the spot. And remember, this isn’t a one-way street: your manager or whoever else might be asking for your time and effort benefits greatly from the conversation, too!
After successful intake, you have a better grasp of the data analysis task your manager wants, and now it’s time to socialize expectations.
You have a solid understanding of the who, what, where, when, why, and how of the data analysis project. Your questions have even uncovered that a visual dashboard would be more valuable than the initial output your manager requested. After a self-high five, you plan out the week ahead, confident that you’ll complete the job with a few late evenings at the office. Surely the pending sense of accomplishment is what making the highest and best use of time feels like?
Not quite. Practicing sustainable time management means accounting for all of the demands on your time. It is natural to think, “My manager knows what I’m working on,” though she and others have much less visibility than you may think.
YOU are the only person with a complete view of items competing for your attention. And it is incumbent upon you to inform others of your availability with respect to their task. It’s time for a follow-up conversation that, with the right language cues, makes clear your other priorities and time constraints, and opens the door for positive, solution-oriented discussion. Consider the following conversation starters:
- I have competing priorities vying for my time this week. Can you help me understand how this data analysis project fits with the others?
- I can start the data analysis in earnest on Monday once I finish another key project. If that impacts deadlines, let’s connect with the other project manager to de-conflict priorities.
- I anticipate your project will take about 50 hours, which puts the deadline at risk. What core outputs are needed this week? I will focus my efforts there first.
Never underestimate the power of keeping people in the loop. You opened communication channels in the intake and inform stages. Keep them open through task implementation with clear progress reports.
After a thorough intake and some informative conversations with your manager, you’re flying high. The data analysis is in full swing, and you are excited about the results so far. At this rate, you anticipate finishing ahead of schedule. Making the highest and best use of time feels great! One final piece of the time-management puzzle elevates your influence with stakeholders like your manager.
Regular progress updates keep stakeholders aware and aligned with your efforts. An effective progress report includes a concise list of impactful outcomes for the period defined, focus areas for the next phase of the project, obstacles you have encountered or might expect moving forward, and applicable calls to action from stakeholders.
This is where you stay connected on priorities that might have shifted or findings that could modify project scope. This is also the place to convey bad news in time to mitigate impacts, and to report good news that builds excitement for the completed task.
Actively managing your time is more than a set of actions to implement, it is a mindset shift. No longer do the needs of other people determine your time, now YOU have the agency to prioritize and align your skills for highest impact results.
This shift can be intimidating, especially with bosses. But it is also hugely empowering. Incorporate the intake, inform, and impart strategy into your workday toolbox, and enjoy the amplifying effect that comes from owning your time.
Suzie Smyth crafts and implements solutions to pervasive workplace challenges through her company, Endless Possibilities. She is energized when empowering clients, colleagues, and mentees alike with tools to find more joy in their roles.
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