Time Management Skills and the Extreme Work Week

Time Management Skills and the Extreme Work WeekLet’s face it: despite the management cliché claiming otherwise, you can’t just “work smarter” if you expect to compete in the modern workplace. You’ll also have to work harder, and probably longer. In today’s high-pressure office environment, the real go-getters generally put in half again more hours than their 9-5 co-workers; and in many cases, management expects and requires them to do so. Indeed, some professions now view a 40-hour work week as part-time, at best—which means that if you limit your hours to the traditional number, you also limit your opportunities for advancement.

As a result, many white collar professionals end up working a minimum of sixty hours a week in order to meet their job requirements. And that doesn’t include drive time, work-related calls and email, required reading, and any time spent thinking about work issues. Add it all up, and the 60-hour week may expand to 70 hours—or more.

If history serves as a guide, things will probably get better as the new information-based economy settles more firmly in place. But that’s cold comfort for those of us caught up in the current workplace hamster wheel. We have to deal with the state of affairs as they exist today, and figure out how to adjust.

If you expect to have a life outside of work—or if you just want to survive the extreme work week with your health and sanity intact—then you need to buckle down and put some realistic systems and delimiters in place.

Plan Your Work, and Work Your Plan
True productivity requires careful planning, persistence, and unremitting time management efforts, no matter how many hours you work in a given week. An extreme work week just means all that on steroids. To win through, formulate a logical battle plan, focus on your primary goals, and attack your overcrowded schedule head on. Schedule everything, including your breaks if you must, and do your best to stick to your plan. But since you can’t account for everything in advance, remain somewhat flexible as you navigate your way through your week. If necessary, drop or push aside those things that matter least—and make sure you understand the difference between what truly matters and what does not.

If you ever have trouble getting into the flow, take a little time to center yourself. Meditate, take deep breaths, or pray: whatever works for you. At the very least, spend five minutes clearing your head, visualizing your successful completion of the week’s requirements, and then go for it. Stop occasionally to assess your progress; then, if you must, reweave the frayed threads of your focus and get back in there.

Speaking of focus: the only way to really push through a tough week is to put your head down and bull on through. Tighten your concentration to a keen edge, working on just one thing at a time. Resist the allure of multitasking, and cut yourself off from unnecessary social interaction. You don’t have time for it. Nor do you have time for smoke breaks, playing on the Internet, or perusing social media. Those things will absolutely shatter your focus, forcing you to stay at the office longer than necessary just to catch up. Take brief breaks occasionally, and make sure you get away from your desk for lunch—but don’t waste time!

Don’t let negative self-talk spoil your battle plan, either, especially self-pitying thoughts like, “No fair! I don’t deserve this. I shouldn’t have to work like a dog.” True or not, such thoughts will only drain your energy, dragging you down until you can’t get your work done at all. Focus on the now, telling yourself you really can do it. If you resent your long work weeks, or if they cause you physical or psychological damage, then find a way to do something about it later. Otherwise you’ll shoot mortal holes in your workplace productivity here and now.

Just put your head down, focus, and get to work, so you can get everything done and get out of there ASAP. That way, you can go home and give the best part of yourself to your family and friends. Once everything has settled down and you’ve recovered a bit, spend a little time reviewing your extreme week, so you’ll know what to revamp for next time.

Who’s the Boss Here, You or Your Email?

Computers, handhelds, the Internet, email, and all the encumbrances they bring with them have obviously made us more productive. So much so, in fact, that said technology represents one reason we work harder than ever: simply because we can. But the very same technology also allows us to waste time more creatively, even when we think we’re actually working.

A quick example: when you hear your email alert ding, do you immediately stop to check your email? If so, big mistake. Sure, it may only take a couple of minutes to answer a message and get back to work, but then you have to spend a while recovering your train of thought, and just as you get back on track—ding!

Social media offer just as many opportunities for diversion, if not more. Too often, we respond to Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn immediately whenever something changes, and we otherwise fritter away bits and pieces of our time we could use for something productive. Let’s say you spend just ten minutes per workday Tweeting—a minute here, a minute there, stolen on the sly. Not only have you derailed your train of thought repeatedly, as with over-attention to email, but over the course of a year you’ll have wasted 67 hours—roughly the equivalent of one of your more extreme work weeks. Imagine what you might have accomplished instead.

So stop answering to your little electronic masters—in fact, stop treating your productivity tools as masters at all. They exist for one reason: to help you get your work done, not to take over your life and actually hinder your workplace productivity. Remain bluntly practical about their use. Close your email client, send your calls directly to voicemail, turn off those disruptive alerts, and deal with your electronica once or twice a day at most. School yourself to avoid the Internet and social media altogether. Stop paying so much attention to your Blackberry, and put solid barriers between your work usage and private time—or you may never get any rest.

Take Care of You
Energy is the key to maintaining your productive edge in any workplace environment, extreme or otherwise. A number of health-related factors influence and inform your personal energy supply, often interacting in unexpected ways. The most critical include adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

More than 400 years ago, Shakespeare pointed out that sleep “knits up the ravel’d sleeve of care,” and I doubt anyone would dispute his statement. We’ve all stayed up too late now and again, or suffered from the bane of insomnia. However it happens, too little sleep can have a variety of negative effects, from simply leaving you feeling wrung-out to contributing to obesity. Believe it or not, lack of sleep causes an overproduction of ghrelin, a natural appetite stimulant, while inhibiting the production of leptin, an appetite suppressant. In other words, too little sleep makes you hungry, potentially resulting in weight gain, which negatively impacts your energy levels.

Most experts recommend 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Start there, and experiment with what works best for you. If you just can’t sleep, try the methods I outlined in this month’s tip to help you drop off.

Your diet has a significant effect on your energy levels. First of all, don’t skip any meals, especially breakfast, so you won’t suffer a blood sugar crash that crashes your personal productivity. When you do eat, limit your portion sizes, and avoid overindulging in starchy and sugary foods so you can keep your weight under control. Carrying around even a few extra pounds can negatively impact your energy budget, and thus your productivity. As for liquids, be sure to stay hydrated; drink plenty of water, while limiting your intake of caffeinated beverages like cola and coffee. Not only do they keep you awake, damaging your efforts to get enough sleep, they can dehydrate you, and the caffeine can make you jumpy and ill if you drink too much.

Exercise also acts as an effective foil against the stresses of the extreme work week. It can help you control your weight, work off frustrations, and otherwise keep the blood pumping and your energy levels high. It doesn’t take much exercise to make your body happy: as little as 20-30 minutes per day can keep you on an even keel. At the very least, take a brisk walk early in the day or at lunchtime. I’m a big fan of what I call “subversive exercise,” i.e., sneaking little bits of exercise into your day. Taking the stairs rather than the elevator, pacing around the office while using a speakerphone or a headset, or doing leg lunges while reading a report or article can help you stay fit and energetic. If you can spare the time, consider establishing a more formal workout routine, too.

Needless to say, the relative importance of each leg of the sleep-diet-exercise health triumvirate varies from person to person; no single prescription works for everyone. But you need all three to some extent, so it’s up to you to juggle them to see which mix works best for you. Just remember: while you can get by for a while without an ideal balance of these factors, if you ignore any of them for too long, your productivity at work will eventually fall apart.

The Bottom Line
The 40-hour work week has become a rarity in the modern office. It doesn’t seem to matter that working 60 or 70 hours a week is counter-productive, given the drop-off in alertness, the high levels of exhaustion, and the need to redo tasks flubbed due to both factors. At the moment, many of us just have to deal with what our bosses hand us, on pain of unemployment. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t despair. You can survive the extreme work week with your personal productivity intact, as long as you take good care of yourself and leverage your time management skills to the utmost. Follow the pointers I’ve outlined here, remain positive, and you’ll make it through.