ARTICLE: “Help! My Time is Completely Uncontrollable!”

I met recently with a client at Denver Water for his 1-on-1 “In the Trenches” appointment to get organized. When I first arrived, he stated, “I would be completely organized if it weren’t for other people. As it is, my day is so uncontrollable that I never have enough time to get things done.” Sound familiar? 

Many people place blame on external forces to some degree. It’s easy to do and understandable. Interruptions are very frustrating, especially when you have a nice to-do list laid out for the day. The trick is figuring out how to gain some semblance of control in an uncontrollable environment.

Here are three of Bob’s difficult situations and the solutions we came up with: 

1. Situation: Bob is the manager of the artistic and reproduction services groups. He makes major purchase decisions for his organization on printing, photocopiers, storage solutions, etc. Accordingly, he has vendors stopping by unannounced to demonstrate their products. Since they made the long trip out there, he felt bad turning them away. The unscheduled product demonstrations threw his schedule for a loop.

Solution: He will make better use of his administrative support staff that runs the repro shop. Rather than ushering vendors to his office at any time, they will screen vendors. Upon arrival, the staff will pull out Bob’s new monthly appointment schedule book, where Bob has blocked out a half-day twice each month for appointments. Since he won’t know the vendor even stopped by, he has agreed to stop feeling guilty for turning them away. A policy stating “No walk-in appointments” will keep it from being personal. Vendors will still have the opportunity to demonstrate their goods, but it will be at Bob’s convenience, instead of the other way around.

2. Situation: As the master artist of his organization, he receives “last-minute” requests from co-workers to “quickly” draw up an illustration or picture for a document, sign, or brochure. People tend to think “F2, Poof” here’s your drawing, not realizing how much time goes into the creative process. Bob must often mull on a project for days until he’s inspired to create the perfect illustration. So he stays late and can’t sleep at night, stressing out about the deadline. The artwork he produces is often not the quality it could have been, had he had the proper time to devote to the project.

Solution: In the 22 years Bob has worked for this company, he has never published a “lead-time” policy. Similar to an editorial calendar for a magazine, we worked up a schedule. If your project is due on (w) date, you need your artwork by (x) date, and I need (y) time to complete this type of work, so it will be due by (z) if (w) is to happen. People had simply not realized the complexity of his work before and how long it really took. Bob was able to take the pressure off of himself by publishing and pointing to the policy when people came in with unrealistic deadlines. Bob could make exceptions to the policy when necessary, but he was no longer at others’ beck and call.

3. Situation: Colleagues would walk right into Bob’s office at inopportune times, right when he was having a “creative” moment and needed some privacy and thinking time. When they started talking without being acknowledged, Bob would lose his thought and his creative energy. He ended up frustrated and being rude to co-workers.

Solution: Bob had a door that he could shut, but he felt that it was rude to do so. So we got a retail-type clock that said, “Be back at” with the clock hands and a hanging file box for people to drop off requests. Used sparingly, this has been an invaluable tool for Bob. When he is right in the middle of an important, creative project and would prefer not to be interrupted from his “flow,” he simply hangs the clock on the door, sets the hands for a half-hour or so, and shuts the door. People don’t knock, because they don’t know he’s inside. When he finished, he immediately removes the sign and opens the door. Even people who have discovered his system don’t take advantage and knock, because they know he uses the system fairly and is soon available again.

Conclusion: I have RARELY found circumstances that are 100% completely uncontrollable. It might help to keep a time log for a week to determine who is interrupting you, at what times, and for what items. With this information, you can step back and take a neutral look at what systems you might be able to put in place to gain some control. If you would like a Time Log form and directions, I’ll be happy to email you a Word document to assist you in this activity.

© 2002 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at