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Written by:  Tammy Holoman
Date: September 1, 2011

For many parents who work full time, 40 hours a week on the job isn't the norm. When the final working hour rolls around, it should be time to head home and carry on with family life, but employees often work long past that point. There is hope, however. Time-management experts share their best strategies to help busy parents make it home at a reasonable hour.

1. Manage your inbox.

Using email effectively can make a big difference, says Geralin Thomas, owner of Metropolitan Organizing in Cary.

"No one runs up and down their driveway 13 times a day to check their mailbox," she says. "When checking my email, I try to follow the 10 a.m., 2 p.m., 6 p.m., 10 p.m. schedule."

Thomas says many clients may not fill in subject lines, or they write emails that are too long or indirect, which wastes time.

"If the entire message is not visible in your windowpane, you need to condense it and say what you want in the very first line: 'I need a response by Friday.' Make it an action to be taken," she says. Thomas also recommends including a phone number in your email signature, in case a verbal conversation is easier.

Jeff Davidson, a work-life balance expert in Raleigh, creates email folders for specific projects, months and individuals, allowing him to prioritize tasks and stay organized. You have four options, he says: Delete it, file it for later, pass it on or act on it yourself.

"Email is usually not urgent, or the person would've called instead," he says.

2. Keep a calendar and a to-do list.

Whether you prefer an electronic or paper calendar, it's essential to record tasks and obligations for easy reference. "If an electronic calendar doesn't work as well for you, don't force it," Thomas says.

Davidson agrees that it boils down to what works best for you. "The moment you don't maintain a calendar, it will let you down," he says. "Decide what's a priority and protect your future calendar steadfastly. You can say 'no' to things even if they're scheduled for six months out."

Although all professions don't allow this luxury, learning to decline appointment requests can prevent overextending yourself, Davidson says. The same applies to projects, committees and meetings, although you don't always have a choice. If you can predict your busiest times, avoid tackling jobs that aren't urgent during those periods. If your afternoons slip away, use your computer or phone alarm to notify you when the day is half over so you'll know when to wrap up.

Davidson also recommends having a daily to-do list. "It's OK if you cross some things off and then add five more, as long as frivolous items don't make your list," he says. "And don't juggle multiple lists. You're creating more work for yourself. Use one."

Multitasking is overrated, Davidson says. "Let go of that concept. You end up making more errors, and you'll do your best work if you focus on one thing."

3. Respond to voicemail at the right time.

Depending on your profession, most voicemails can wait. "A lot of times what people want is someone to put out their fires for them," Thomas says. "I've advised clients to not respond to calls for 24 hours. I know it sounds counterintuitive; most people think if something's only going to take a minute, they should knock it out. But when you always respond immediately, you end up reacting to people's crises all day."

Sometimes these issues are resolved before you even become involved, she says. "When you start letting folks know on your phone message, 'I will respond in 24 hours,' a small percentage may be irritated, but they will often find other avenues to solve their problems."

4. Delegate and remove distractions.

Make the most of human resources available to you for help with certain tasks whenever possible. "Delegating responsibilities is a huge way to lighten your load," Thomas says. "Geese never fly solo; they always fly in formation. Know who to have with you in your formation."

She also recommends removing candy dishes and extra chairs from your office or cubicle to discourage others from stopping by for extended chats. If you have a door, close it to create a barrier when necessary, or even wear headphones to discourage trivial conversations, she says. As for meetings, asking for an agenda beforehand can save time. If you're not required to speak, ask to be excused and request follow-up notes instead when possible.

5. Be your own problem-solver.

Willy Stewart, president of Stewart Consulting Group in Raleigh, works with businesses to show employees how to solve their own problems and better manage their time. He says a good problem-solver identifies a problem and its causes, considers alternatives and solutions, chooses the best course, and creates an action plan with a timeline.

"The reason some people work long hours is because they're solving other peoples' problems ... but we need to create a solution-driven environment from the top down," he says. "In this economy, so many are just happy to have a job that they say, 'Sure, I'll take on more responsibility' and create added stress."

The trend of working 60-plus hours a week is on its way out for most professions, Stewart believes. "Time management will always be important, but companies today are becoming more sensitive about family and time off," he says. "It's a new level of consciousness."  n

Tammy Holoman is a freelance writer in Winston-Salem.



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