Friday, June 16, 2017

Time budgeting

I transitioned to OneNote a couple of months ago.  I did it in part because I was frustrated. I wasn't giving myself credit for the things I was doing well, and I was beating myself up over the things I wasn't finding time for.  I needed to figure out how the things I was doing connected with my goals/interests/priorities.  After some goal setting, organization, and improved tracking of my to do list (which used to reside in a hand-written notebook), my need for a more effective time management approach became obvious. 

It was a chicken and egg thing honestly--the move to OneNote was really underpinned by the need for better planning.  How do I manage to accomplish both short and long-term goals -- goals with deadlines and goals without?  How do I keep the noise of work, all of the more immediate distractions that vary in importance (e.g. the network going down again...) from derailing the other less time-sensitive priorities like writing a paper or training?

Time Management
There is a lot of advice about time management--a Google search for time management resulted in 96.7 million results. Over my working career I have read "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey and "Total Workday Control with Outlook" by Michael Linenberger as well as countless articles on LinkedIn.  I attended supervisor training that covered time management.  When I had kids I learned how to leave work at work--because it was simply impossible to get work done at home.  But something was still missing.  I was leaving work at the end of a day or week thinking "What did I do this week?"  I felt frustrated when "office stuff," like an unexpected phone call, prevented progress on an analysis.  I was constantly underestimating how long things took -- even things I had already done!

The Need for Planning
I ended up stumbling on semester planners (here's another good one) while I was doing my goal setting in OneNote. Oriented for faculty at universities, these planners help professors outline their semester goals, like "submit paper X" and ensure they plan the time to work on that goal while accomplishing the daily work of teaching, advising students, and faculty meetings.  Importantly, the method of semester planning starts with a longer-term outlook, the semester goals.  My team at work does a fair job of identifying yearly and six-month projects and priorities, so that part is already done, but I will work on making those even more specific over time.
What I've been missing is the step that translates those longer-term goals into each week.  My habit was to plan on the fly.  I reacted to the most immediate/pressing items and that resulted in putting off other priorities.  When something "interrupted," I had no clear understanding of the consequence. In other words, what would I specifically NOT be doing by responding to a last minute request from someone?  Similarly, I didn't schedule time for specific activities.  If I was working on a proposal review, my deadline was when it was due.  I wouldn't try to block off time on my calendar or dedicate a specific amount of time to the task.  This unstructured time management led to me spending much more time on other people's work or requests, and interrupting my own goals, which didn't always have deadlines. If my calendar had an "empty" block, I would commit to a request without considering its impact on my already identified priorities.  Since I had no way to compare the request to other things on my plate, I couldn't adequately prioritize. Should the request be done now, scheduled for later, delegated to someone else, or not done at all?

Time Budgeting 
In The Sunday Meeting, Kerry Ann Rockquemore encourages you to build in time for your priorities around fixed appointments. [Her approach is very similar to that advocated in "Getting Things Done" by David Allen.]  I finally recognized that what I needed to do was budget my time just like I budget my money. The word "budget" makes more sense to me because it has a concrete meaning: I'm figuring out how to allocate a resource.  The term "manage" implies that I'm trying to make more or less of time.  But I have a fixed amount of time, I can't grow it, all I can do is spend it more conscientiously.  Time budgeting, combined with identifying my goals and interests, enables me to evaluate how my daily and weekly activities are contributing toward those goals.  For example: is writing this blog post a good use of my time today, this week, this month?  What am I not doing by spending my time this way?  Is that okay?  And FYI, time budgeting results in 1.44 million hits on Google.

My method, in more detail
I bristle at the idea of tracking every 15 minutes, and that's a key reason I didn't avidly pursue consulting jobs where time is budgeted so clients can be charged.  So it took some desperation to adopt the approach described by Tim Slater of the University of Wyoming  in a presentation about how to use Outlook to budget your time. I love what I do, I'm fully engaged in my job, and I'm highly self-motivated, but I was starting to lose track of the many projects I'm connected to.  I simply had to allow more time for email management and cleaning my office (seriously, it's a mess!).  And ultimately, I wanted to be sure that what I was doing was connected with my higher goals.  

I schedule my next week on Friday afternoon or Monday morning (that's my "Sunday Meeting").  I have my to do list open in OneNote and my Outlook calendar open.  All fixed appointments are entered first and I give them a category which color codes them.  Quick aside: I set up my categories primarily around my "big goals" so I can make sure I know how my individual smaller activities connect to those big goals.  You can do multiple categories, so if I need to track time on a project, I can categorize a project activity both by the big goal (e.g. conduct research) and the project (e.g. Salem Sound eelgrass mapping).

Then I build in the other things I have to do.  I block off all of my time in the week with a specific task (not just "writing" but writing what?).  I estimate the length of time things will take.  I try to build in lunchtime since I usually eat lunch at my desk but that is not consistent with my goals of staying healthy and connecting with colleagues.  If necessary, I go back through and adjust the time allotted, remove certain things to the next week, assign them to someone else, or decide it won't get done. I think about what evenings I can use to catch up on emails or read a paper and I put them in the calendar (I do my best to limit evening work to one hour 8:30-9:30 pm).

As the week progresses, I try and stick to the schedule.  With my particular position, so far I have completely failed to stick to the schedule since there are too many unknowns that crop up over the course of the week.  So I adjust the calendar to reflect how long something took (the review that took 4 hours instead of 2) or add the thing I actually did (finding a heater for someone in a cold office instead of emails).  When I make additions, whatever didn't get done either bumps something else in the week or gets dragged to Sunday for rescheduling next week.  Here's what it looks like:

*Note: on Monday and Wednesday you can see some doubled up time.  The appointments that are light blue are uncategorized. Those are things I keep track of like a meeting a staff member is going to or standing appointments for meeting that I go to when I can.  If they get a category, it means I did them. On Thursday you can see one box that has 2 categories; the 2nd category is the small box in the lower right.

Another key tool I use, and this is very important: I drag emails to my calendar.  Did you know you can do that?  Just click and drag the message to the "Calendar" tab.  (Full directions here.)  This is HUGE.  I don't have to go dig through my emails to find the thing I'm supposed to schedule/read/review/respond to.

I have been budgeting my time since mid-March 2017 (3 months at the time of this writing).  It's still working for me the only disadvantage is doing the 30 minutes of work needed to stick to this each week.  Here are the advantages I've noticed:
  • Much fewer tasks are dropping through the cracks--especially things like following up on emails or studying various topics.  Not only do they make my to do list, they get scheduled.
  • It has been amazing to know what won't get done when something else pops up.  Finally I can prioritize. 
  • I am doing better estimating how much time something will take.  In the past I almost always forgot that I would need to do post-meeting follow-up like transcribe notes, let other folks know what I learned, or file materials.  Now I'm scheduling that time into my calendar.  Same thing for travel; I'm gaining greater awareness of how much travel time eats into my week.
  • I am directly connecting the "little stuff" I do to the "big stuff" I want to do. In other words, I am more aware of how what I'm doing is contributing to the life I want to lead. This awareness has already led to an uptick in satisfaction. 
I still haven't managed to clean my whole office, but I grab snippets of 5 and 10 minutes and am getting through some of the piles. How do you budget your time?