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Veterinarian Technician August 2007 (Vol 28, No 8) Focus: Exotics

Management Matters: "Managing Time"

by Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR

    Author's Note

    Time is a manager's most finite resource, and as I sat down to write this article, I realized that I never have enough of it. I am not an expert on how to manage time; in fact, I would read more books about the subject, if I had the time. I have learned, however, that there are ways to help prevent time from managing you. One great book I've found is called Getting Things Done,1 by David Allen. I hope that some of the tips that have helped me can help you, too — if you can find the time to read this article!

    Every morning, you probably tell yourself, "I'm going to get a lot done today." Yet every evening, you think, "I didn't get anything done today." Managers work hard — the proof is our exhaustion at the end of the day. Yet it can feel as though we have nothing to show for our work. For our own mental comfort, it is important for us to figure out how we can feel satisfied at the end of the day and know that our hard work has not been in vain. Developing an effective system of organizing and prioritizing tasks can be invaluable in helping achieve this peace of mind.

    Start with a List

    Sometimes I hate lists — usually because I do not have the time to construct one. Yet every morning, I invariably scribble notes on a small notepad as I get ready for work. These notes become my "to-do list" for the day because if I think about a particular task first thing in the morning, it must be important to get it done that same day. But what about all the tasks I don't think of that quickly fill the day, like opening mail, processing payroll, completing a bank deposit, and attending a myriad of spontaneous meetings? There is a sense of accomplishment that comes from crossing tasks off a list. That relief comes from having a chore out of your head, down on paper, and then completed.

    In Getting Things Done, David Allen discusses how every task that you know still needs to be done takes up space in your thoughts and weighs on your psyche even when you aren't in a position to do anything about it at that moment. He focuses his advice on collecting everything you need to do somewhere other than in your head.2 Adopting a list-making routine is a useful method of providing this ongoing stress relief.

    Create the List

    Many tools are available to help you make your lists. The most important factor in developing a successful list-making routine is to find the organizational "in-box" or method that works best for you — paper or electronic, text or audio — and stick with it. For example, it may be important for you to have constant access to your calendar so that you can plan meetings and events on the run, including personal appointments that you need to fit in around important work tasks already scheduled. So mobility, technology, and ease of use are all factors to be considered when deciding how to capture your list of things to do.

    Often, you will use a combination of methods depending on the type of task. Again, the most important consideration is to choose what you will use consistently. When you have identified the methods you are going to use, put every task that is on your mind into one of your in-boxes. David Allen suggests three steps to creating a successful organizational system2:

    1. Move every task that needs to be completed into your collection system and out of your head.

    2. Create as few in-boxes as you can get by with.

    3. Empty your in-boxes regularly.

    Process the List

    After you've collected everything that needs to be done into your in-boxes, you must empty the in-boxes by processing each item. In Getting Things Done, David Allen suggests five possible processing categories for each task. In his system, a task may be3:

    • Identified as unnecessary and re­moved from the list
    • Completed in less than 2 minutes
    • Delegated to someone else
    • Sorted into another organizing system for individual tasks requiring more than 2 minutes
    • Identified as a project that requires a plan for completion

    Tasks in the first two categories are relatively simple to identify and complete, and you probably already perform these actions without using a conscious processing protocol. The third option, delegation, requires a bit more evaluation. First, you must recognize that some tasks can be done by someone other than yourself; in fact, there may be someone in the practice who is more skilled at or suited for a particular task. Give this person the information, the guidelines, and the authority to get the task done. Ultimately, however, you retain responsibility for seeing the task through to its completion, so check in with this person at predetermined intervals to provide insight or assistance.

    For actions that you cannot delegate and that require more than 2 minutes, set up an organized reminder system. File folders work well and can be divided by the day of the week or month that the action needs to happen. Make sure you check the folders regularly and accomplish the tasks.

    Tasks that are large and ongoing and that require a major expenditure of time should be classified as projects. Although you may not have the time to complete a big project all at once, making steady progress will help you feel a sense of accomplishment in a smaller way. For example, set aside 1 hour on your daily or weekly calendar to spend on a particular project, such as reorganizing your personnel files.

    Reassess any system you develop as time goes on, and modify it if needed. The best system is the one that gets things done!

    Take It from the Top

    To get things done, you must determine what to do first. Determining the priority for each task is a complicated process. Your direct boss can help you to some extent, and you should touch base with this person often. Ask what he or she wants you to work on and when completion is expected. It is important to communicate deadlines or due dates. If your boss hasn't offered a date, ask, "When do you need this task to be completed?" It is also important to give deadlines when you delegate tasks to others.

    It is tempting to put less pleasant or more difficult tasks, such as dealing with a sensitive issue with an employee, lower on the list. However, putting off a difficult conversation does nothing but make the problem bigger as time goes on and keeps some of your energy tied up in dreading the task, which takes away from your focus as you try to accomplish others. It is always a good idea to complete unpleasant tasks first. When one is finished, there is a wave of mental relief that can give you an incentive to complete the next tasks more quickly.

    Your clients — pet owners, other veterinarians, and even your own internal "clients" (i.e., staff members) — will also help determine the priority of items that they need you to complete. Issues that affect people outside of the practice should be at the top of your to-do list. These people are expecting a timely response from the management of the practice. If you have employees waiting for you to give them information or resources so that they can complete a task on their list, that should also be high priority for you.

    Daily events that secure the financial health of the practice, such as making bank deposits and finalizing reports or projects that will affect future production, obviously go to the top of the list.

    Prioritize the People

    As busy as you may be with your list of things to do, one golden rule of good practice management is to never be too busy to help an employee who needs assistance. If a staff member comes to you for help, put your work aside and devote a moment to listening to see what time commitment he or she needs from you. If the employee needs more time then you have at that moment — for example, if you are on your way to a meeting — let him or her know, and ask whether you can reschedule the talk. Reassure that team member that he or she is important to the practice and to you, and explain that you want to be sure to devote enough time to his or her concern. This could also include the time-consuming task of creating and conducting performance evaluations. Some employees are anxious to put this event behind them, so completing evaluations in a timely fashion should be a top priority and should not be postponed.

    Respect Everyone's Time

    When it comes to distributing general information to the entire staff or a particular group of employees, determine whether a meeting is the most efficient format. Meetings take time away from the daily routine for everyone, so limit meetings to topics that need roundtable discussion, detailed explanation through question-and-answer format, or hands-on training. Start meetings on time, set a finite time period for the discussion, and end on time. Occasionally, you may need to intervene to keep the discussion on task and productive. If information can be distributed without discussion, send a memo instead.

    Know Your Goals

    If you're like most people, no matter how efficient you are, you will rarely accomplish everything on your to-do list for the day. It's important to realize that that's okay. David Allen offers this perspective: "At the end of the day, in order to feel good about what you didn't get done, you must have made some conscious decisions about your responsibility, goals, and values."4 Knowing that you achieved what was most important to you on a given day can help give you that mental boost as you shut the door behind you. Just remember: Tomorrow is another day — and another list!

    1. Allen D: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York, Penguin Books, 2003.

    2. Getting control of your life: The five stages of mastering workflow, in Allen D: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York, Penguin Books, 2003, pp 24-53.

    3. Processing: Getting "in" to empty, in Allen D: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York, Penguin Books, 2003, pp 119-137.

    4. Doing: Making the best action choices, in Allen D: Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. New York, Penguin Books, 2003, pp 191-210.

    References »

    NEXT: Managing Noisy Behavior in Companion Birds

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