In the second article of the ‘Put a Stop on Stress’ series, Kate Wadia, Director of Phase 3, shows you seven strategies to stress less. This is neither a beautiful business model nor a pleasingly balanced formula for life success. Each strategy is simply a group of helpful tactics gathered through Kate’s experiences clustered around similar practicalities or themes. This article focuses on time management.
For someone who has always been maxed-out with demands, I have remarkably little sympathy for a view that nothing can be done to solve an overloaded diary.
When I studied HR, around the millennium, we were shown three distinct ways to tackle stress: at an organisational level via job design and analysis, at an individual level with personal stress (much reliance on EAPs at that time), and as managers we carried the responsibility to sort out our own stress. With time management.
Much of this now seems outdated. But some classics hold true still. Effective diary management is one of them. If you’re yawning, question that. Does it need to be new to be true?
I can isolate two weeks of my career which represent perhaps the highest value-adding hours ever spent. The first was a secretarial course. No one is too grand to batter a keyboard for a week learning to touch type. The second a time management course.
If you’re into demonstrating ROI, then do the sums on this one: do you spend a couple of hours every day in an inbox or working with documents? Every minute of those hours the pace of your text output could be increased tenfold.
Ending each day with a clear inbox is achievable with structure. Structured systems alleviate rather than add to a load. This works whether you’ve 10 emails, 100 or even more each day coming in.
Take seriously suggestions to get organised. Where are there parts of your working life that are the head space equivalent of the cupboard that everything simply gets stuffed in? How do your days run out of control?
If you’re in charge of the show, meetings are a great place to start. A tip I learned from Kim Scott’s ‘Radical Candor’ is to distinguish debate and decision meetings. Meet for a meaning and respect that others wish to do so too – so keep to time and invite only those who need to be there.
No one can achieve a day of appointments that are back-to-back. You can attend, but you cannot attend to the issues that arise. That is a slow-burn build to creating nothing but angst. Book-end your meeting time slots and get something done. 5 minutes in every hour may be all you need. I like 10.
As an individual HR practitioner you can help individual leaders and people managers take charge of their diary. Here are four suggestions to get started:
Inputs are often time-based. Explaining how to cascade this into team members’ contexts will help someone at the top appreciate that their own most valuable contributions include what they do in the times when not in apparently frenetic activity.
Activities that are off-diary, particularly at more senior levels, are often the most valuable. But distinguish role descriptions that are too vague to be actionable (e.g. ‘is responsible for’) and focused, private tasks (e.g. ‘decides on’, ‘prioritises between’, ‘summarises the headline agenda for’)
Personally I would also resist a culture where it’s acceptable for calendars to be updated with meetings without the attendee’s active acceptance (implying if not choice then at least awareness).
More experienced people will need to tell you if they’ve got more basic skills gaps that are creating time-stealers – for example in using tech, or the keyboard – but you can make this learning available to them in a private forum (to save face!)
Don’t assume. Just include on the management menu but make it private. Supporting less stressed leadership may require you to keep in mind that what it’s like to walk in their shoes you have little clue about.
A senior role often requires follow-up or prep that is essentially about summarising priorities, calls for attention to key issues or recapping, often in the form of an email, set of instructions or summary document afterwards.
When this VIP job is done in haste both the sender or recipient can tell. It’s a great clue that there’s a stressed-out diary.
I reflect that over the months and years up to my collapse each day saw me experience a low-key form of diary crisis. My days would be designed to operate on full throttle until I regarded myself as ‘done’.
The end of a day, whether job-related or otherwise, was signalled by the earlier of (a) a completed to-do list (b) one of my sensory systems packing up. Or occasionally (c) someone at home shouting at me to slow it down!
Taking charge of your diary means working with an up and down of energy and effort, even if you’re in better health currently than I am.
I’m rehabilitating with a hideously disciplined ‘adaptive pacing’ plan. Lucky folks will do this naturally, but the simple tactic of switching between something that stretches the social and communication muscles and the quiet, academic or techie stuff at your desk helps to create diary balance.
An impossible diary is no badge of honour, nor badge of shame. It’s just that. Impossible. Take charge.