Businesses are working leaner and meaner, and individuals are packing more and more into a ‘doing’ lifestyle. The result is a demand for improved time management habits, whether that is training, coaching or online learning – but what really gets people to change habits?
I have facilitated time management training for nearly 25 years, and I can tell you from experience that changing a habit is hard. Sometimes it can be fear of the consequences, and sometimes it is clinging to a habit, even if you know it is counter-intuitive to do it.
Here are five techniques I have used to enable people to decide to change their habits.
1. Do a time log
Yes, these are worth the effort! Log where your time is spent.
If you need to save money, you log where your money is spent.
If you need to lose weight, you log what you are eating.
Time is a resource, and it is easy to get into bad habits. Logging a week, and taking the time out to review what decisions you made, what the impact was, and, if you had a Tardis and could go back and re-live the day, what other options did you have, is such a rewarding exercise.
I coached an executive assistant (EA), who managed a team of EAs and PAs. Her goal was to gain more time in a week. She completed a time log for me every day – simply writing what she did down, and emailing it to me at the end of each day.
The Friday column had four hours blocked out as ‘diary pack checking’. She had got into the habit of spending three to four hours every Friday checking the work of her team – the diary packs for directors. I asked her three questions:
- Tell me the reason you check the packs.
- When was the last time you found an error?
- Look at this habit from your team members’ point of view. If you were them, what does it say about how confident you are in them?
She stopped the diary checking habit immediately. That’s one month a year saved!
2. Ask, what are my priorities?
‘I have to clear my inbox’ is what I often hear. We are all overloaded with emails now – too many emails, emails that are for reference only, the group emails that clutter your inbox.
I ask people to write down their top three priorities.
Then I ask them to write the three main activities they do to achieve these three priorities.
Unless your job depends on email, most of the time I get an ‘ah ha’ from this exercise.
Example: my priority is to make sales for the organisation.
The three main activities to achieve this:
- Key account management
- Writing proposals
- Attending sales meetings
It’s simple when you see it written down. Focus on the big activities, and then the rest will work itself out.
3. Feel the fear, and do it anyway – go cold turkey and stop the long hours
I coached someone who said she was ‘exhausted all the time’. She was working 60-63 hours a week on a regular basis, once she had added up the travelling time, logging in at home, working on a Saturday morning etc.
She knew all the good stuff about managing time – write down your goals, have an action diary, prioritise, say no, etc. So what was stopping her?
I asked her what her worth is. She placed a value on her time.
I asked her to work out her real hourly rate. “People are paid more per hour the other side of the world,” she said. It was one of those moments, she just stared ahead for what seemed like ages, as the reality hit her.
It was the shock she needed. She decided to work her contracted hours. She took time off in lieu for travel time, stopped logging in late in the evenings, and kept weekends to herself.
The result? Her productivity increased due to a clearer focus, a more balanced lifestyle and a more creative approach to work.
4. Action learning sets
These are really useful. In an action learning set, the learners bring along a real problem they need to solve. Each individual briefly states their problem to the group. The group then decides what problem to work on in the set.
The set members then ask questions to facilitate a deeper understanding of the real issues – these might be fears the person is facing., how they feel, their thoughts, what they have tried to date, etc.
I facilitated an action learning set where the person said “I don’t have the time to write the new procedures, and that is holding my department back.”.
Many questions were asked, focused on what the person was spending their time on, options to change, and ideas on delegating the task. The individual was getting entrenched in their view, and visibly upset – ‘you don’t understand! I’m the only one who can do this!’
There was a lull, and all eyes turned to me.
I invited everyone to dig deep for the question that might move us forward.
One person said “Carol. Yesterday, you told me about the huge pile of ironing you’ve got at home. You said you planned ironing five items of clothing a day every day to get the pile down”.
There was a pause. “Could you use the same approach with the procedures project?”.
Resisting the push, and inviting someone to draw their own conclusions, is a powerful way to change a habit. In coaching, the client owns the goal, so if we can pull the answers from them, they own the habit change.
5. Complete a psychometric test
Understanding our own values and beliefs enables us to appreciate our time stealers. We use drivers from transactional analysis as part of our time management training.
There are five drivers:
- Be strong
- Be perfect
- Try hard
- Hurry up
- Please people
I’ll use ‘be perfect’ as the example. ‘Be perfect’ values perfection, detail, and getting things done correctly. Behaviourally, others may see them as nit pickers, as they delay projects by asking for another meeting rather than committing to actions.
They can be poor delegators, as they live by the mantra ‘if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well’, and the only person they truly trust is themselves. They can be a hard task master, being unforgiving if there is an error, and giving too much detail.
Lastly, they can be really bad with time, often working way into the evening to meet a deadline, or missing a deadline. Learners often challenge me about this tendency, but then I say ‘do you ever say to yourself, that’s good enough, I will let it go?’
Their response is then, ‘well, no’, Which leads to them spending too much time on everything, instead of knowing what to do quickly.
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