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SPIE Professional October 2007

Five Ways to Improve Your Productivity

The idea of managing time might be a myth, but there are steps you can take to become more organized and less frazzled.

By Susan de la Vergne

Everyone, it seems, shares this problem: too much to do, too little time. That's why we find all kinds of "time management" advice on the market—books, articles, classes, consulting—all about how we can "manage time" to get more done.

Truth is we aren't managing time. Time waits for no one. You can't save it up for later when you need more or spend it faster than it comes to you. If you want to manage many priorities, don't focus on managing time. Instead, manage yourself—your energy, creativity, self awareness, and communications.

Here are a few tips to help you do that.

Take Advantage of Your Best Hours

Are you a morning person or a night owl? Know what your best time of day is, and use that time for the most difficult or complex jobs you face. Start working on a difficult, long, or otherwise intimidating assignment when you're at your best, not when you're dog-tired and have nothing left to give. Whatever your best time is, to the extent you can, take advantage of it.

Don't Try to Multitask

We've come to believe we can do several things at one time and that's how we'll get through the long and winding "to do" list. But the fact is that human beings can't multitask. We wish we could. We wish we were like computers, which can actually perform two cognitive-intensive functions at once. But computers have parallel processors. Human beings don't.

When you think you're "multitasking," you're actually just switching from one task to another, and all that switching takes time. So don't multitask. Focus on the task at hand and you'll get it, and more, done sooner and more efficiently.

Put it Away

We're all guilty of this: "Well, I'll just put this here for now and then I'll put it away (handle it, file it, do something intentional with it) later." Then later never comes. Avoid put-it-there-for-now syndrome. To keep a neater workspace, one where you can put your hands on what you need when you need it, put things away instead of putting them just anywhere "for now."

Manage Unwelcome Interruptions

Ever been stopped in the hallway, after a meeting, or in the parking lot by someone who says "Got a minute?" You don't, but you don't know just how to say "no." Practice—and be ready with—a few well-turned phrases to keep you from being derailed at inopportune times. "I don't have a minute right now, I'm sorry. Can it wait?" or "I'm right in the middle of something, let's schedule a time to talk."

Minimize E-mail Handling

You get a lot of e-mail. Don't we all? You open one and read it, don't know what to do, put it back, open it again, still don't know, put it back, open it again . . . you get the idea. Minimize the number of times you handle the same e-mail. Whenever possible, read it, decide, and move on.

Susan de la Vergne
Susan de la Vergne is a writer and keynote speaker whose 25-year career in information technology management fuels her services in engineering communications and leadership. She wrote the just-released book You Can't Manage Time - But You Can Manage Many Priorities. Learn more at www.susandelavergne.com.

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200710.03