Electronic Design

Take Control Of Your Time On The Job

Maybe you've just come into a new job and the amount of work seems overwhelming, or perhaps your company has experienced an increase in design projects and is reluctant to hire more engineers. Either way, you find yourself with a workload that you can no longer complete in a normal workday. You respond by working more hours, or else by letting tasks slide as you become increasingly overwhelmed by the demands on your time.

But over the long term, putting in more hours is rarely the answer. Although there are often good reasons for spending days or even weeks working into the evenings and weekends, these hours will gradually affect both your personal life and your health. I can attest to this based on my efforts with a startup company a decade ago. You will lose mental focus and physical endurance after a few weeks of consecutive 16-hour days.

If you work 12 or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, it's time to ask for help or to find a new job. Either your company has poor prospects, or it's taking advantage of you.

On the other hand, if you work 10 or more hours a day, every day, but your list of projects just seems to grow longer and you feel guilty about scheduling a vacation, your problem may be easier to address. It might simply involve managing your time better.

Managing your time presumes that there are more things to do than you have time to tackle. This is a reality of life as a professional, so don't think that you're unique if you have more to do than the time available to you. You must focus your attention on the most important tasks, delegate what you can accomplish, and do a less thorough job with the less important tasks.

This can be difficult. You probably are in the habit of doing work a certain way that seems right to you, yet doesn't make the best use of your time. Changing that involves analyzing how you work and what you spend your time on, eliminating or reducing time spent on less important tasks, and organizing work to achieve the best results from your efforts.

Another objection to organizing and managing your time is the paradox that you don't even have time for that. This is a poor excuse for not getting organized. In the time that it takes to get a cup of coffee, you can assess and organize your work for better efficiency.

Over the long term, you should work an average of eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, if your workload isn't excessively high. Deadlines and other circumstances will sometimes require you to work longer, but you should usually achieve a normal workday.

How do you get to the point where you can successfully manage your time? The first step is to gain an understanding of how you currently spend your time at work. One way is by keeping a log that you update several times a day. This can be time consuming, but there are alternatives. I use a combination of my personal calendar/task list (which I keep in Microsoft Outlook) and my end-of-the-month summary of activities. My method is less accurate, but it takes less time and still provides a good picture of the type of things done and the amount of time that each activity takes.

After identifying how you spend your time, you can decide what's important. First, there's the issue of time wasters. Throughout the day, everyone does things that don't contribute to completing their jobs. While you may derive some enjoyment from activities like scanning Dilbert's List of the Day, checking stock quotes online, or reading the newspaper, these activities won't help you leave the office on time.

Unfortunately, these activities aren't likely to show up in your task list or appointment calendar, so you have to be honest with yourself about identifying them. You must also be honest about dealing with them. Ideally, you would entirely eliminate them. But if you can't do that, try managing how you do them. For example, check the online stock quotes only once day, after the market closes.

Next, analyze each task that's part of your job on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. Begin by dividing up the tasks into four categories—necessary/enjoyable, necessary/annoying, unnecessary/enjoyable, and unnecessary/annoying. The annoying tasks are those that you don't like doing, but you take them on because they're an important part of your job, or because someone sought your help.

Focus your attention on the necessary tasks first. The core components of your job include all necessary tasks. Everything you do can't fall into this category. You must be able to differentiate between the importance of your tasks in order to manage your time.

Sort the necessary tasks by when they have to be done and how much time they require. If you have a critically important milestone two months down the road that you can accomplish in a few hours, it's simply not worth attacking until a few days before the due date. Group tasks according to whether they're recurring or singular, and whether they're due in less than a week, two weeks, a month, or later.

Then, schedule them on a monthly calendar, ensuring that you schedule no more than eight hours of tasks per day. When doing this, identify necessary tasks that should be logically grouped together. The goal is to be able to do the same or similar work that can apply to multiple tasks. For example, when writing up a status report for a customer, it's a good time to work on your monthly status report for your management too.

If the deadlines require substantially more than eight hours a day, you will have documented your workload. You may be able to get help, especially if you can explain specifically which parts of your job aren't getting done and how those tasks might be scheduled and distributed to others on your team. If you can't get help from your management, at least you will know that you have one of two choices—either accept long hours, or seek new employment.

The last step in the process is to feed back the actual times into your schedule to ensure that your individual tasks are taking as long as you expected. If your estimates are off, this is your opportunity to make corrections and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Identifying the annoying tasks, even if they're necessary, is a way to gain understanding about the things that you don't enjoy doing. There are tasks that we like to do, and tasks that we avoid because they involve something unpleasant. For instance, I dislike writing monthly status reports. Consequently, I wait until the last minute to do them, and I can agonize over them for a couple of hours, even though they should only take a few minutes. They interrupt other work when I finally have to work on them. So, I flag the annoying tasks and schedule them for early in the morning, when I'm less likely to be interrupted and I'm at my mental peak. The results for you will be the same at your best time of day.

All of this may seem like too much effort, but it's not, especially when compared with the total time you spend working. This system took me about an hour to set up. Adding new tasks and reflecting on the time it took to complete old tasks takes about 15 minutes a week. The return can be much greater, especially if you're as poorly organized as me.

Organizing your daily work and taking a few simple steps to make it more efficient should go a long way toward trimming time off of your workday. It may be possible to shorten your average day by up to an hour while still accomplishing the same amount or even more work. If you're already spending too much time in the office, taking control of your work and planning out your time in advance is the best way to reduce that time.

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