Fast Track: Help Desk - I can't find time to study

Your career problems solved by the experts
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The problem

I was recently selected for the graduate recruitment programme of a leading international retailer.

My degree has stood me in good stead, and summers spent doing temporary work in the retail sector make me feel comfortable in my new environment.

However, I am having a real problem keeping on top of all the new information I have to absorb as a trainee, at the same time as working. There are a number of projects that I find extremely tedious and instead of getting on with them, I procrastinate. As a result I am starting to miss important deadlines.

At university, I did have a tendency to leave papers and swotting for exams to the last minute, but I don't think that this habit affected my grades at the time.

I have even bought a book on time management, to try to tackle my problem, but haven't got past the first chapter because there isn't time to read it!

Now I am worried that this issue is starting to affect my performance in the workplace and that I will not progress within the company unless I sort it out.

S Batten, Northampton

The solutions

Jurgen Wolff, director of Brainstorm Creativity Workshops (0171-323 3037), says:

Asking for help before there are dire consequences shows that you are already on the road to controlling your procrastination. One of the best methods is mind-mapping, an effective way of organising and reviewing information. Tony Buzan has written several books on it, and it takes only 15 minutes to learn.

For tasks you find tedious, here are four strategies: first, break the work down into small steps you can accomplish quickly, and sandwich them between more enjoyable work. Second, link a boring task with an activity you like, such as listening to your Walkman. You could also give yourself a small reward for every tedious task you accomplish, and a larger one upon completing a project. Finally, try to tackle a tedious job a few days before the deadline itself. In the run-up, allow yourself to feel guilt-free - you will be procrastinating, but in a controlled way.

`The Mind Map' by Tony Buzan, published by BBC Books, pounds 14.99

Charles Kingdon, retail executive search consultant of Odgers International, says:

It's normal to have to learn organisational skills when making the transition from university into the workplace. If you feel uncomfortable about speaking to your line manager, consider approaching a more experienced graduate who could act as a mentor. Someone who has been in the business for a couple of years is likely to have been through similar issues. Alternatively, ask a colleague for informal advice, or try a personnel manager.

Remember that retail is a practical business: working hard and being organised are crucial in the early years. However, retail is heavily management- oriented and once you have finished your initial training and development, you will move quickly up the ladder.

Dr Diana Winstanley, lecturer in organisational behaviour, Imperial College Management School, says:

You are not alone! What's more, as self-esteem and confidence drop, anxiety and stress follow, making it harder to concentrate on anything - and a vicious downward spiral is established. It seems to me that you have three main problems. First, you suffer from "butterfly management", that is, you flit from one task to another without getting closure, and so you get into a muddle and feel powerless. Second, you are not a "completer- finisher" and therefore don't get the satisfaction of seeing results, which would raise your confidence and self-esteem. Third, you'll never do today what you could do tomorrow - but by the time tomorrow comes, there's no time left to do a good job.

Possible solutions seem to revolve around learning to prioritise. Make a to-do list and rank tasks according to what you need to do now, tomorrow, next week - and keep it up-to-date. You need to manage your time by setting aside periods when you can work undisturbed on these important items.

Don't get side-tracked - if other ideas crop up, put them on your to- do list which you can come back to later. Sign up now to one thing that you are willing to change and begin only with this. Otherwise, this time- management approach will become yet another unfinished task, too mammoth to tackle!

Interviews by Carmen Fielding

If you have a work problem and want expert advice, write to Carmen Fielding, Fast Track, Features, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail: c.fielding@ independent.co.uk

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