Getting to grips with effective time management

Managing your time in a busy office can be an insurmountable task in and of itself. In this post Dyfrig Williams looks at the changes he’s made to the way that he works.

A change in personal circumstances has recently meant that I’ve been working more from home. Not my home in Cardiff, but my partner’s home in Exeter. Kelly is an incredible writer, so instead of outlining how this started, I’ll signpost you to her fantastic post on our relationship and digital romance.

At this point I feel that I’ve got to say that I’m incredibly lucky to be working in an organisation that has helped me to balance my work commitments with my personal life, and also that I’m fortunate to work within a fantastic team who are incredibly supportive. Project wise, everything has been pretty seamless. This might be because we’re already geographically dispersed – Beth lives and works in North Wales and currently half of Chris’ working life is spent on secondment with Bangor University. Fortunately for us, Ena also works incredibly hard from our Cardiff office.

What I’ve learnt

A photo of Dyfrig Williams' calendar, which shows Trello notifications
My calendar, which is integrated with Trello

Remote working has its challenges, but it’s enabled me to rigorously examine how I work. To put this into context, I’m so disorganised that I’ve been on two time management courses. Neither of these changed anything, and I’m not convinced that a training course was the most appropriate way to solve the issue. However I’m also acutely aware of my weakness, so I set up systems and processes to help me combat my poor organisational skills. I now set up a Trello board for each topic that I work on, and the Wales Audit Office’s recent upgrade to Office 365 means that I can sync these to my Outlook Calendar so that I have regular updates when tasks are due.

More than anything, working from home has highlighted just how much time I waste during the day. I’m a firm believer that social media should be social, so I log on to our work accounts a few times in the day to learn from others and share key messages. However my defacto purpose was to undertake the fun and social learning that I love, and to avoid some of the more monotonous yet essential tasks that keep the Good Practice Exchange’s show on the road. Cue some difficult conversations with myself. Now I’m focusing my work around effecting change and evidencing outcomes.

The Herculean task of managing emails

I’ve asked a fair few members of our staff how they would like to hear about changes to our systems for our Cutting Edge Audit project. A fairly typical response was that email was probably best, but that staff are facing an avalanche of them. I don’t think we’re alone in facing this challenge – Halton Housing found that their average employee spends 40% of their working week dealing with internal email that adds no value to the business before they switched off their internal email.

One person I spoke to questioned how people had the time to go on Yammer. What I’ve found interesting is that people see a clear distinction between two modes of conversation that could both be used for the same purpose. Answering email sometimes seems to be an end in and of itself. Surely it’s distracting us from productive work in the same perceived way as Yammer does? I used to have my inbox open all day, which meant that I dealt with emails as and when they came in. I now only open my inbox a couple of times a day to answer emails. After all, no one emails in an emergency.

After reading Oliver Burkeman’s article on time management (which is also available as a podcast), I’m convinced that Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero, a rigorous approach to email that aims to keep our inboxes empty, leads people into answering emails at the expense of real work. And as Burkeman says, “becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on”. So email becomes a default mode of communication, whether it’s appropriate or not. The crux of everything is that by managing email in this way “you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster”.

Should we ditch the office?

Working from home also means that I have two days free of meetings per week, which gives me plenty of opportunity to undertake deep work away from distraction. I’m a social animal so I’m not advocating a move away from social interaction. Basecamp’s No Talk Thursdays and Library Rules sound like hell to me. I’m a firm believer that we need people to emotionally invest and buy in to the work we’re doing, and enjoying work is a key part of getting work done. However tools like Doodle can help us to think about what time suits us as individuals as we opt in to meetings, instead of scheduling based on time available in our calendars.

To me, Basecamp’s approaches show that there’s no such thing as a blanket rule for efficient working. By happenstance I’ve been able to look at what I do and make adjustments based on what works in different environments. This has all been written from a personal perspective, and not everyone works in the same way. It’s important that we look at what these tools can do in the context of how they can make us more productive as teams and individuals.

I started off this post by talking about work/life balance and how the Wales Audit Office has facilitated that. To me, this is at the heart of time management. If you’re forever looking to be more efficient so you can cram more work in, then the likelihood is that you’ll be unable to avoid the stress that you were looking to combat. But if you’re instead looking to better balance your life, you’re able to ensure that you’re focusing your work where it has the most value. This approach has made my work more fulfilling, and I’ve been able to focus on my personal life and do more of the things that matter to me. I’m at the beginning of my journey and I’m going to see how this develops. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a one-size fits all approach, so if you’ve got time management tips that work for you, I’d love to hear from you.