As the economic downturn takes its toll and companies create leaner payrolls, employees can handle the stress of a greater workload by using their time far more effectively, time management experts say.
By the same token, employees seeking to preserve their jobs can use time management techniques to make themselves more competitive, says Michael Bryant, a consultant and president of Career Transition Services in Baltimore.
"People who manage their time more effectively are considered reliable and are more valuable to their organizations," Bryant says. They are often the people who, despite a difficult economy, are retained and promoted by their employers, he says.
Conventional wisdom has it that people are either born organized or disorganized. But Stephanie Winston, who heads a New York-based consulting firm called the Organizing Principle, says that "simple education is half the battle if not more."
Here are some pointers:
* Plan ahead.
For every hour that you spend planning, you can save three hours of wasted time and disorganized action, says Fred Dickens, who teaches time management at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Md.
An employee who has thought through his workday, set priorities and organized the day's tasks on a "to do" list is likely to accomplish far more than someone who moves randomly through the day, Dickens says.
Consider a supermarket customer who goes to the store without forethought and without a list, he says. The customer may wander through the aisles, trying to remember what's left in his cupboard. Had he organized his thoughts through a 15-minute planning process, he might well have saved three-quarters of an hour at the store, Dickens says.
"You always save time by planning," Dickens stresses.
* Take advantage of your personal "prime time."
Some people are full of energy in the morning. Others don't rev up until evening, and feel foggy and unclear during the early hours. Knowing your own patterns will allow you to concentrate on your most important and arduous work when you can handle it best.
"Do difficult jobs when you have the most attention," says Bryant of Career Transition Services.
Bryant suggests using off-peak hours at the office to accomplish necessary yet undemanding tasks such as filing, cleaning the desk or reading the mail. Major projects, such as the key report due on the boss's desk next week, should be handled during your peak energy periods.
* Take brief breaks during prime-time periods.
While a break lasting a half-hour or longer destroys your momentum, five- or 10-minute breaks can help you recharge and retain your focus, Bryant says. Think about what refreshes you: a quick phone call to a friend, five minutes with a magazine or a short walk outside.
"Mini-breaks give you balance," he says.
* Handle paperwork wisely.
The maxim that you should handle each piece of paper just once has fallen out of favor with time management consultants.
The idea sounds good in theory. In reality, taking final action on each item as it arrives on your desk could disrupt a major project that should take priority, Bryant points out.
These days consultants adhere to a different motto--"do, delay, dump or delegate"--as the way to categorize paper work.
* Deal with procrastination by breaking a large task into small ones.
Often, an employee will simply fail to begin a task because it appears so large and forbidding. The solution is to break the job into pieces and then sort them into the sequence in which they must be done, Bryant advises. The words write marketing report may seem forbidding when they appear on a "to do" list. But you're likely to be less intimidated by the phrase read magazine article for report when it appears on the same list.
* Do a challenging task on deadline if doing so increases your efficiency.
Some people actually perform better when the adrenaline is flowing. They shouldn't always be persuaded to curtail their tendency to procrastinate, time management specialists say.
"You don't want to work against yourself," says Winston, the New York consultant. If it is natural to you and your temperament to use deadlines as a motivating factor, then you may actually do better to stick to your habit, she insists.
Of course, not all effective time management relates to an employee's behavior, time management specialists say. The company itself must create the right conditions for an employee to make best use of his time.
Jody Johns, of the Maryland Consulting Group in Timonium, offers these suggestions for companies seeking to help their employees to work effectively:
"Make sure you've got people in the right jobs. Very often people are in jobs they're not naturally well suited to do. Their bosses may struggle mightily to get them to do better, but time is wasted anyway.
"Make sure the employee understands what's expected of him and what the priorities are. He needs to know that the letter that needs to be finished by 3 o'clock gets done first and that the report that isn't due for two days gets worked on after that.
"Make sure the employee has the right tools to do the job. Suppose that the person is being asked to do some quantitative analysis. He'll probably need a spreadsheet program and also will need to be trained in how to use it before he can move forward.
"Teach everyone in the department the same problem-solving methodology. If they all learn the same steps to solving a problem, they can talk to each other in the language and that will save time.
"Show recognition and appreciation for smarter work. Consider giving incentives to encourage people to work more efficiently such as extra money or extra time off. Of course, the work has to meet the quality standards to earn the rewards."