Make time, cut stress

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Today's managers have never worked harder - and their health and effectiveness is suffering. But a little planning can turn everything round, writes Philip Schofield

MANAGERS are working harder, and for longer, because of delayering, downsizing and other cost-cutting measures. Numerous surveys by the Institute of Management and others show that managers no longer have a fair balance between work and leisure.

One major study of 1,361 members of the Institute of Management (IM) found that half now always work in excess of their contract hours, with almost 40 per cent working over 50 hours a week on average. This study, The Quality of Working Life reported that 59 per cent of managers often or always work in the evenings and 41 per cent do so at weekends.

This confirms the findings of a previous IM study, Survival of the Fittest, which also found that two-thirds of managers find their work a source of stress.

Many, if not most, managers today are overworked as organisations "make assets sweat". Few managers can work any harder, yet they are under constant pressure to do so. So they need to work more efficiently.

Another IM study stated: "Managers must learn to prioritise their work to differentiate between those tasks requiring immediate attention and those of a less critical nature. Effective time management - which may also necessitate some measure of formal training - enables individuals to work at optimum effic- iency." It added: "It is equally important to recognise that time should be allocated for life outside the business environment."

Prioritising work and managing time sounds easy. But managing is complex and subject to unexpected interruptions. An institute of Employment Studies study, Defining Management Skills, said: "Managers are engaged in a vast range of activities, many of which are also invisible - like thinking! These activities are very fragmented, and many tasks may only take a matter of minutes ... and job holders may also have considerable choice in how they choose to define and carry out their tasks."

Managers must also prioritise the work of their teams and ensure that projects are on time. Moreover, many projects are run by multi-disciplinary teams. Sometimes the leadership of these teams moves from one person to another as a project goes through various stages. Other teams are leaderless. Prioritising tasks and organising time in these situations is even harder.

Several time management systems and personal organisers are available - some paper-based, others PC-based. They range from the original paper- based Filofax with its wide, general applications through to the more sophisticated electronic Psion organisers. Among the best researched and business-focused planning and organising tools are those developed by Copenhagen-based Time/system International founded in 1980 and now operating in 26 countries.

It offers both paper and software-based systems, which can be used as a stand-alone or integrated. The paper Business System is based on an A5 sized ringbinder divided into three sections: a "DataBank", a "Time Section" and an "Information" section.

The DataBank helps managers to set goals and then break these goals down into concrete activities. Users can then work out how long they need to carry out each activity, determine its priority, and decide when to do it. These activities can then be transferred to yearly, monthly and daily plans in the Time Section. The information section is used to keep addresses, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses, as well as more general reference information such as conversion tables, travel timetables, maps and so on.

The software version, "Tasktimer for Windows", is particularly useful for team use. Using a network system, a project manager, for instance, can set up projects, allocate tasks for members of the team, schedule meetings in everybody's diaries, and feed information back to team members on the status of current projects, including time and costs.

Time/system now has 900,000 active users, 53,000 in Britain, and is used in many major companies, including BP, Coca Cola, Hewlett Packard, Lotus, Price Waterhouse, Proctor & Gamble, Sony, Texas Instruments, 3M and Unilever.

However, just buying a system and making it available to people is a waste of time and money. Too often they are used as a diary and notebook or as one of the trappings of executive status, not as practical planning, organising and time management tools.

Independent research conducted for Time/system among managers and members of the teams found that while most were familiar with the concept of time management, for some their knowledge was hazy of what it actually constituted. The study said: "Most did not spontaneously feel the need for a system. It was not top of their list of priorities, particularly since they thought they were well organised already. However ... some became more interested, especially if they felt there might be solutions available which they had not yet thought of."

The study added: "Several mentioned having been issued with new software systems by their IT departments, without sufficient training, which they and their staff were unable to use."

Only one-third of Time/system users have been on planning system courses of any kind, although the company runs training in-house and in hotels in the major cities. This appears to be a false economy.

A detailed study carried out by the Institute for Personal and Organisational Research at the Military University of Munich into Time/system found that a day's induction training led to improvements in goal setting, planning, and implementation of plans; a reduction in inefficient working practices; and a range of general benefits, including improved time planning and a resulting drop in personal stress levels.

The better time systems undoubtedly improve personal and team effectiveness, but only if people are trained to use them. And ideally the training needs to be tailored to the specific needs of the users.