Monday, 19 January 2009

Time Management: Regaining Focus and Time Control

For the past few weeks, I’ve been drifting a little again in work terms. This is something that happened to me a few weeks after I first moved from the UK to my current home in Cairo. I thought this was related to having been focused on emigration matters for 6 months, getting here, then a period of intense activity relating to getting essential items such as electricity, internet, phones etc sorted out, followed by an energy slump and lethargy now focus had gone.

I spent 3 weeks in that phase, it would get to evening I felt that I had achieved nothing all day – at first that’s great – after all, why change your life not to be able to drift about – but I was beginning to find it STRESSFUL. Yes, that’s right. You heard me right – doing nothing all day for a prolonged period is STRESSFUL. It wasn’t boredom – I can happily while away many hours checking things out on the internet, reading books, but I am the sort of person who needs to feel that I’ve made progress on something (but see posts yet to come on ‘living in the now’ coaching).

Its just occurred to me that as I’ve just had the same kind of drifty/lethargic feeling at exactly the same time of year, maybe it wasn’t just that, and maybe its a seasonal item that I need to ‘budget in’ to my working year? I guess it would have been hidden back in the UK because its a time of year when I would quite often have 2 weeks off work – with all the bank holidays, I could get 2 weeks off for the ‘price’ of 4 days annual leave! And thinking back through my whole life, school, university, academia etc, this has always been downtime.

There are a number of reasons this could have hit again this year. The holiday season here started with Eid Al Adha – a couple of weeks before the UK Christmas – so many Egyptian shops and businesses were closed. We then entered the UK/US Christmas & New Year time so UK /US clients were not around - though I infact taught for 3 hours on Christmas Day evening! - and I also took a short break away down to Luxor. The following week there was the Coptic Christmas – again a public holiday for many Egyptian businesses.

Dealing with a focus-blocker issue

Another part of the reason, though, for this down period is that we have been under the cloud of a visa issue which has taken a lot of my mental (and emotional) effort.

Two weeks ago, I finally did what I should have done more or less at the start and approached the various considerations in a methodical, analytical way. I assigned each of the possible options a cost in $US, a risk grade (low – medium – high), a benefit grade (LMH) and a ‘hassle factor’ grade (LMH) and used a self-devised formula SCORE = COST X RISK X HASSLE / BENEFIT where the lower the score the better the option. From this I ranked my top 3 options according to probability and made my action plan in the event of different scenarios. Since doing that just over a week ago, I have been able to start drawing focus back to moving forward.

Last week, I basically ‘kept up’ with existing commitments, and from today am reapplying a technique which worked very successfully for me last year and might be worth trying if you are conscious that you are time-wasting – don’t have time to finish a project but do have time to spend 4 hours every day messing about on Facebook or internet forums!

What work structure works for me?

The essence of my technique was this: a realisation that I spent a long time in a corporate environment and that whether my mindset was moulded by that environment or whether my mindset existed already and suited that environment, it was a good basis for me to regain control over time.

I decided to consider myself as a large company and decided on a name – lets say it was CoolBee’s Amalgamated Megacorp PLC. Note – this is NOT A REAL COMPANY. I drew the ‘company name’ out on a large sheet of paper and pinned it on the office curtain.

Time structures - hours of work, holidays, regular days off

I then had an ‘away day’ with myself to do some planning about how many hours a week/year I wanted to work, how much ‘annual leave’ I should allow myself, whether I wanted to set definate days each week for my days off (bearing in mind that my clients have weekends which vary across the world – Sat/Sun in the UK and US (but with a timeshift), Thur/Fri in the Gulf, Fri/Sat in Egypt – and some of my clients prefer to have their sessions on their weekends, or in their evenings. As most of my working friends here only have Friday and Saturday off (and Fridays here is worship/family day – like the traditional British Sunday) - working on Saturdays would kill my social life and I didn’t change my life so drastically to still not be able to have a social life!

I decided to block out Saturdays - and fixed on Tuesday as my second day off. I’ve managed to hold to that most of the time, but if for some reason I can’t, then I will take Wednesday instead. This was a very good move because I do some teaching in an adult education place here a couple of evenings a week and they are always badgering me to work on Saturdays. Having taken the decision to absolutely not work on Saturdays makes refusing a LOT easier as does fixing on Tuesdays (but willing to be flexible as long as I can substitute Wednesday instead in any given week).

Just also to note, it is crucial for me, personally, that I have at least one 36-hours straight period OFF the computer every week. This normally extends from late Friday night round to Sunday afternoons. I try to take 2 of these a week. Part of this is to do with my eyes where I get headaches behind my eyes and flicking eyelids if I don’t make sure that I do this. (I also make sure that every year I have at least one entire 7 day break away from computers – no email checking, nothing.)

Additionally, given the nature of a portfolio career, I decided that fixing regular working times each week was probably doomed to failure – when I am booked for the adult education place it is often last minute, I am often not told how many weeks I am needed for, the hours will vary between 6pm and 10pm, and terminates unexpectedly!

Here, The Customer is King! And while in the UK if you wish to study a course, an institute will tell you – we run it on Tuesday nights 6-8pm if you want to do it, that’s when you have to come, in Egypt they will spend hours and hours of effort optimising the time for all the people who want to do the course (after all, they’re paying) and then call you last minute and say ‘can you start teaching this course tonight’(to which I have a fixed answer called “No” – even if I am free).

Having considered all the reasons for changing my life, I decided that instead of fixing a regular annual leave allowance, and fixed working hours, I would aim at a 1200 hour working year, and aim at covering 30 hours a week.

(Having said that, one of my goals this year is to work towards regularizing hours as I want to experiment with setting regular ‘surgery’ hours to be available on Skype or messenger for clients to just make short calls and so on as well as pre-booked longer consultations.)

Having also just noted that my ‘drifting’ phase in the past few weeks coincides with last year’s – I am wondering whether to plan for it next year – perhaps by having a reduced work goal for that time.

What constitutes WORK?

Next, I decided what elements of things I wished to achieve across the whole of my life would classify as ‘work’ and which wouldn’t. When you have a portfolio career and your time is more or less all your own, this can be a little hard! When is checking your email ‘work’ and when is it ‘play’ (note the word play here does not necessarily mean fun – it just means ‘not bookable as worktime’!)? I have a number of email accounts and internet forums which serve a purpose for both work and play so I decided to deal with this by allowing myself just 30 minutes a day of email and forum checking to constitute WORK. So I can spend 4 hours on it if I like, but then 3.5 hours will be out of my playtime.

When I first started doing this a year ago, I had a list of activities. As achieving my 30 hours a week became more and more comfortable and indeed excessively exceeded some weeks, I began to trim back on the list of task-types which were allowed to count as WORK and which weren’t.

I triaged activities along the lines of ‘this is definately work’ ‘this could be work or play’ ‘play’. As a guide, I thought of all those activities which, had I been in my last corporate post, I would have had to carry out outside of work, as play.

However, I also considered items such as the role of training – how many training courses would I normally have been expected to attend as part of my working year – which of my learning activities eg Arabic, further qualifications etc, were now in the position of work-related training and which were still play?

What about Research & Development? I spend a lot of time researching articles and so forth to inform my coaching, develop new techniques and so on – but as I love doing this, there was a danger I could spend my entire work time (and more besides) reading around the subject.

I decided to tackle this by considering how in my last position, my team had worked on a 4-week cycle – week 1 – all the inhouse reporting, week 2 – external reporting, analysis and so forth for external stakeholders, week 3 – meetings meetings meetings, and week 4 – ‘creative’ time when I would encourage my team to play around with fresh ideas and techniques to improve our services to our stakeholders. On this basis, I allowed myself to book 25% of my time on a weekly basis to R&D – so if it was a week I achieved 40 hours work, 10 hours were allowed to be R&D, but in a week where I only did 20 hours, only 5 hours were allowed to be R&D. Of course, I could do 50 hours if I like but that would then be play time.

Making it work

Essential tools: unless you already have a time-monitoring system linked to your billing, e.g. if you are already working as an accountant, solicitor or whatever, you just need a sheet of paper with a column for ‘date’, ‘description’, ‘department’, ‘time’ and a regular kitchen timer.

Set your target hours for the day. For the first week, I decided on 3 hours a day. On the second week, I upped this to 6 hours – it was NOT easy! The first day I did it – and I was determined to – it took me 18 hours to get through 6 bookable hours.
Decide the first thing you are going to do, get yourself prepared to start it, and set the timer for 30 minutes. When the timer goes off, write down – what you were doing (e.g. checking emails and forums), department (Communications), time (30 mins). Then do another 30 minutes (e.g. writing up notes from coaching session) department (Business Activity - Coaching), time (30 mins), etc etc..

Don’t set your departments in stone before you start, and don’t forget essential things such as planning, finance etc! If you have worked in a corporate before, it might be worth considering the departments you are aware of and seeing where your activities may fit.

Here’s the list I ended up with after the first 3 months of doing this – in no particular order!

  • Facilities – office cleaning, set up, maintenance etc!

  • IT – setting up the computers, downloading essential updates (for work-related software not games!)

  • Finance – doing the books (personal as well as business counted here)

  • HR – CV writing, assessing training requirements, choosing courses etc. Deciding on dress codes etc! Are pjs in the office acceptable or not if you work from home?

  • Strategic Planning – what was my overall plan for the business etc

  • Administration – filing, booking courses etc – I time limited this to a maximum of 2 hours a week.

  • Chief Executive - one-to-ones (a half hour check in once a week to review progress in the previous week, ongoing projects, difficulties/challenges), away days (go and work somewhere else on an issue – eg on the sofa, at a cafe – essential to define the issue first!) , quantitative analysis and reporting on activities.

  • Company Secretary – essential legal/statutory stuff

  • Training – CPD, Arabic, essential software

  • Communications – emails, voicemail, forum checking. No more than 30 minutes a day - and no roll-over allowed! (A response to an email, for example, might come under one of the Business Activity items depending on content).

  • Business Activities – Coaching, Blogging, Teaching, Other

  • Business Development – Marketing etc relating to Business Activities

  • Research & Development – related to Business Activity areas. Time limited to 25% of bookable time in any one week.


This proved to be very useful for me because I was then able to analyse my activity in terms of working IN and ON the business, PRODUCTIVE and OVERHEAD work and so on and so forth.

It also got me up to a decent amount of working hours within the first 3 weeks of doing this. I kept it up for several months by which time it had become very easy to achieve and exceed my hours, so I stopped the monitoring – after all, I was no longer a sad Corporate animal, I was a free agent..... suffice to say I now find myself in the position of thinking I need to reboot the system. Its a tool I need now and then when I hit a recognizable dip in ‘achievement energy’.

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