Those who use their time effectively at work invariably adopt a set of habits and behaviours. These become as much a part of their routine as when they brush their teeth or exercise.
…And now just take a moment to read that sentence again…
…Those who use their time effectively at work invariably adopt a set of habits and behaviours that become as much a part of their routine as when they brush their teeth and exercise…
Just to be clear; those who use their time effectively routinely brush their teeth and exercise.
‘The Routine Basis’
Good time management has many areas of discipline. From prioritisation and overcoming procrastination to utilising technology and cutting out timewasters. It has a wide range of tools and skills in every discipline and a seemingly unlimited pool of knowledge and wisdom to draw upon for ways to improve our efficiency and/or effectiveness.
We should understand that the most significant aspect of every discipline, of whatever sort, is routine. Discipline and routine, from the perspective of time, are synonymous.
When you routinely do something, you are saying it is important enough never to forget and never avoid. You are essentially saying, ‘I will complete this activity continually because I have determined that it is sufficiently important enough that it contributes to what I ultimately want’.
It is not a matter for liking or disliking – the activity itself outplays our feelings by merely being more important than them in the broader context of what we want. How many of us really and truly enjoy brushing our teeth? We do it because we want healthy teeth and to avoid pain. We may find many excuses not to exercise sufficiently, but few justify not brushing their teeth because they don’t like it. Routine means, like it or not, I will do it.
It also means the time of day that activities are completed is consistent.
Your work routine
At work, this means we need to understand first, how much of our role is routine and then, planning for it to be that way.
With job roles requiring increasing levels of flexibility and breadth, it is sometimes hard to measure the extent to which our job is routine. Familiarity with your role is also an essential pre-requisite for a proper understanding here, but most positions are built on the idea of routine. Your job description is a good starting point for a list of responsibilities and standards against which you will be routinely assessed (in some way, no matter how informally). You can also ask, how many objectives or targets do I have that are reviewed routinely? How seriously do you take continual improvement – enough for it to become routine? Many of us routinely manage our location by attending meetings and other such events regularly. If you’re a manager, how do you routinely motivate, support, develop, brief, instruct and assess your team members?
When we explore our job role, we can usually find many routine aspects to it. Even reading emails (where each one is an unknown factor and potentially unique) can become routine when you cluster this activity into blocks of time that you routinely spend focussed that way.
Often the challenge is how to make the routine aspects of the role part of the routine timetable on a daily or weekly basis. Lots of people think that, because they are regularly interrupted or diverted to different tasks by others, having a routine plan is a waste of time. They reason that it never goes to plan, so what is the point of wasting more time planning something that won’t happen that way anyway. It is fair to acknowledge this objection, but it doesn’t change the fact that your routine responsibilities are still there, despite the interruptions and variability. Nor do people learn that you value your time (and gain some respect and protection over it), because you are more likely to appear available as and when people want you because you don’t have a known routine.
Build your routine
To build your routine, some careful planning of activity and a little creative thinking is required:
- Decide what time of day or week you will routinely plan your activity – this should be the first thing in your timetable, and treat it like the most important meeting you have with your line manager.
- Separate the routine aspects of your role from the ad hoc.
- Cluster similar types of activities together, such as the reading of emails or back to back meetings.
- Build patterns of routine for simple administrative tasks that need regular maintenance. For example, if you need to complete spot checks in say individual performance or health safety checks across a worksite, is there a useful pattern you can schedule to combine the two?
- Look at any movements you routinely carry out – how can you build a routine around that? For instance, if you must travel between offices regularly, can you routinely complete tasks that require critical thinking skills while in the place where you’re less likely to be disturbed.
- Consider your existing routines and look to see how they can be improved. Do you need to create shortcuts because you’re now accessing different online folders regularly, for example? Do you have to regularly walk to the other side of the office to pick up printing and can the printer be moved?
- Look at how far your routines can be scheduled into the future. When I once had 22 monthly 1 to 1 review meetings to hold with my team members, not only was routine essential to manage my other ongoing activities. But the fact that these meetings were scheduled for an entire year (including the appraisal meeting at year-end) demonstrated their importance to the team member’s themselves. They knew their performance was essential and that it would be routinely reviewed. They responded positively to this.
- Consider a Plan, Do, Review approach. Routinely schedule a short amount of time each day to plan for the day ahead (this can happen last thing the previous day) and support this with a daily review of progress. Many agile teams operate well this way – things change all the time, but it is all routinely organised in the same way.
- Review the interruptions and non-routine but essential tasks you carry out. What routine activity could help reduce or eliminate these things?
- Try to fit as many of your tasks and activities into a monthly planner as possible – include everything you must do, whether routine or not, over a typical month. You may have to estimate some things but put them in all the same. Now try and follow your plan as closely as possible and make a log of all the interruptions and other distractions that come up – you can learn a lot about how you lose time this way, even over a few days. You can also learn a lot about how well you follow routines if this is not yet something you practice.
- You can use the above action for another purpose too – calculate the total number of scheduled hours and deduct this from your typical working hours to get an ‘available’ number of hours in which ad hoc interruptions can be managed – if often surprises people how much time they seem to have available when they schedule all of their regular duties. This is also an essential task if you are to have a hope of convincing someone that you don’t have enough time to do your work. It’s far from a perfect system, but it does substitute feelings for data and this, in turn, gives us a greater sense of control over our time as a ‘known’ factor.
- Routinely set completion times for all your activities. Even if you can’t plan a task, you can habitually give it a deadline – this is one of the essential disciplines in time management to reduce inefficiency.
- Sleeping well directly benefits your use of time during waking hours. Most experts recommend a routine of sleep that means you go to bed and get up at the same time every day.
- Develop new routines with existing tasks – I recently began routinely scanning registers before I leave the training room and it is now just as much a part of tidying the room at the end of the day as rubbing out the whiteboard.
- Consider routinely shutting off social media or other phone-based distractions and entertainments. If you want to go further with this, routinely switch off the outside world altogether. Routine time to relax, meditate or otherwise contemplate with no particular thought or requirement in mind is known to have measurable benefits to the sustainability of high-quality performance as well as to our general well-being.
To the extent that good time management is about brushing our teeth and exercising, i.e. routinely doing the right things well, efforts to develop routine behaviour will pay dividends for those who routinely do it.