"Time Management: The New Rules of Engagement"

Today’s employed professionals are feeling more overworked and overwhelmed than ever before. Why? Let me think of a few things. Start with the Internet and add email. Get fewer people to do more work for longer hours in tiny workspaces. Add efficiency and overtime demands by the employer, coupled with unrealistic deadlines. Throw in some high stress levels, no time with family, and reduced budgets. Stir and simmer. The result: a lot of wigged-out employees. Time Management: The New Rules of Engagement

That's the new reality. You can stay in your situation and do nothing (that's not working). Or you could leave ("Are you crazy Laura, I've got a kid in college!") You could try to change your employer (a futile effort...stress is everywhere). So all you're left with is the possibility of changing your behavior. Time management is self-management, activity management, and priority management. It's about you in relationship to the things you choose to do and people you interact with.

Things would just be perfect if it weren't for other people, right? You've got this perfect little to-do list and your day scheduled out perfectly, then WHAM! Other people ruin it. And for the most part, you let them. I believe we need new rules of engagement to help us deal more effectively with other people. New ways to play the game, instead of old rules meant for the old game. Desperate times require desperate measures!

So here are the new rules I propose. I'm going to start the list, and I'd love for you to email me with the rules you'd like to add. I'll list your submissions in the next email.

1. Eliminate the "Baby Diaper" syndrome. As you move up in responsibility and leadership, you'll have more and more people who want to come into your office or email in-box with their messy diapers and show you what they've made. This is a ploy to have you reinforce their importance. Since I'm up to my elbows in diapers (James, age 1, and Johnny, age 2), I can speak authoritatively on this topic. <grin>

Email politics is the biggest waste of time I see in many of my client organizations. People send annoying "Me too!" or "I agree!" email messages, adding nothing to the discussion, but wanting others to see their names and how important they are. Or people hit "Reply to All" instead of "Reply." Simply have a rule that you're not allowed to do it! If you'd like to toss an issue out to 8 people for input, state specifically your email, "DO NOT reply to all. Reply directly to me with any questions or comments." Or every person will get 8 more messages cluttering up their email boxes. 

We HAVE to get out of this CYA, CC: mentality and cut down on the politics. Create a policy. Mention it in your next meeting. Talk about the proliferation of courtesy copies on email. Give examples (without naming names) of the type of email you do NOT need to see. Then if any of these messages are sent to you, reply to the individual saying, "This is the type of email I do not need to be CC'ed on." Turn them into negative brownie points. Then if it continues, don't respond to it. I guarantee you this will cut down on a lot of your wasted time. Don't feel guilty. Don't make excuses.

2. Get Therapy for Your Obsessive-Compulsive Relationship with Email. Turn off the beep. Close your Outlook window. Control your mouse-happy trigger finger. In other words, stop checking email so often! DO NOT check email as it comes in. Put yourself on a schedule and control yourself. You can't focus on high-priority activities and projects if you're constantly interrupting yourself and being distracted by email. 

Figure out how often you can get away with checking email during the day. Most people can live with four times: first thing in the morning, right before lunch, in the afternoon, and an hour before you leave. Since you know me and the "6-D" system, you know you can't check an email without making an immediate decision on what to do with it. So it has to be an event and can take 30 minutes. Then if someone says to you, "I sent you an email, 20 minutes ago," you can respond, "I check email four times a day" and cite your times. Again, you train people through your actions. If you are known for responding within seconds of the person hitting "send," others will assume that's the way you are. 

3. You Aren't My Bartender or My Spouse. The workplace isn't a bar. We don't whine over our beer here. I'm happy to listen to challenges if you come to me with an open mind, a good attitude, and positive intentions for finding a solution. If you don't have a solution or suggestion to overcome a problem, don't simply complain about it. So much time is wasted going round and round and round complaining about a problem (WAAAA--AAAA! as my baby James says), without ever coming to a resolution. 

"But I have no authority to make decisions," you may say. Remember, it's easier to get forgiveness than permission. If something happens that's an anomaly and is very unlikely to ever happen again, just handle it and move on. Make a decision; be brave. Why do we have to make a policy for every single thing? As a leader, you must empower your people to implement this new rule. When employees come to you with a "problem," ask them about the alternatives and what they are recommending should be done. If they have no idea, send them away until they come to you with alternatives. If they have alternatives and no recommendation, ask "What would you do if I were on vacation for two weeks?" Develop problem-solving, creative employees who are capable of making decisions without you. If you don't, you're training them to believe that they aren't smart or capable enough to think for themselves or make decisions without your wave of approval.

4. Get Rid of "Gotta Minute?" It's 11:30. You've got a 12:00 meeting, and you're busy working on an important report to take with you. Jeannie pops her head in your office. "Gotta minute?" You hear those dreaded words. "Actually, no," you respond. "I'm working on a report for a meeting in 30 minutes. Can I call you at 3:00?" "Sure!" she replies and leaves. You grumble as you click over to your Outlook calendar, schedule a 3:00 appointment and reminder for you to call Jeannie. Then you click back to the report and ask yourself, "Okay, where was I?" That entire shenanigan claimed a precious three minutes. Why do you do that to yourself? 

You need a signal. Something that your entire staff/department/key co-workers can agree to. At the next meeting, discuss the importance of being able to protect some of your time when working on an urgent and important activity. Review the priority matrix so that everyone remembers what activities constitute a priority ONE. Then agree on a signal. It could be a red baseball cap like they use at Coca-Cola, orange armbands at an architectural firm, police tape across the cubicle like they do at the Denver Academy, or mini desktop flags like Hallmark. You could use a chair in front of your cubicle door, a big DO NOT DISTURB sign, or a clock with hands that say, "Be Back At." Whatever the signal, everyone must agree to it. Then when you're working on a priority ONE task, you put up your signal. 

Then when people come to your office, they see the signal. THEY DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES whether the item they have to discuss is also a priority ONE and worthy of interrupting you. If not, they choose for THEMSELVES to turn around and come back another time. Now you didn't have to say ONE WORD to the person and didn't lose those precious minutes. You are also developing problem-solving people who can make decisions for themselves. Is everyone going to follow the signal? When they don't, you use instant OTJ training. "This is an example of an issue that isn't a priority ONE and should wait until my signal isn't up." Use it faithfully and honestly, and it will be the best tool you've ever implemented.

When you read these rules, please don't gasp and think, "How rude! This would never fly. Others would never allow it." I think the opposite: your co-workers would be relieved if everyone abided by these rules. You never know whether the new rules will work unless you try them out. So share this newsletter at your next staff meeting! Discuss some ideas with your boss. Initiate some changes. And remember this: you train people how to treat you. If you continue to allow people to do things, you are implying permission and consent. It's your responsibility to open your mouth and request a change. Enforce it a few times, and people will treat you differently as a result.

© 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