Time management: the key to a better life

Philip Schofield on Britain's long-hours culture and ways to improve it

Sunday 05 December 1999 00:02 GMT

BRITONS work the longest hours in Europe, with almost a third of full-time UK employees working more than 46 hours a week, according to new research by Eurostat. Managers and professionals tend to work the longest hours of all. A recent large-scale Institute of Management (IM) survey found that around a third of managers regularly work 51 or more hours a week. Eight in 10 managers claim long hours are necessary to meet deadlines, and more than half say that this is the only way that they find time to think strategically.

There is, however, a price to be paid by both individuals and employers. Nearly three-quarters of managers say it harms their health and even more find that it affects their relationships with their partners and children, and also disrupts their social life and leisure time. In turn, employers lose out because two-thirds of managers at all levels claim that long hours adversely affect both their morale and their productivity.

Nevertheless, there is growing evidence that even if employers are willing to accept this, employees are not. For example, the authors of the IM Quality of Working Life study, which tracked managers' views over the past three years, found that "managing the home and work balance is very problematic for many managers" and that there is now a very "slight trend towards managers seeing home as more important than work". Time management is the key. "Managers must learn to prioritise their work to differentiate between those tasks requiring immediate attention and those of a less critical nature," said a recent IM study. "Effective time management, which may necessitate formal training, enables individuals to work at optimum efficiency ... it is equally important to recognise that time should be allocated for life outside the business environment."

Prioritising work and putting on hold that which can wait, however, is not quite as straightforward as it sounds. As a study on Defining Management Skills by the Institute for Employment Studies points out, managers are engaged in a vast and fragmented range of activities. Many take only a few minutes. Some, like thinking, are invisible.

Moreover, managers often have considerable choice in how they define and carry out their tasks. A lot of management time may be spent on dealing with unexpected problems as they arise. And people increasingly work in project teams, which means that managing one's time is dependent on other team members.

So what is the solution? There are now many time management systems on the market, which range from the relatively simple Filofax to more sophisticated business planning. Perhaps the most thoroughly researched are the likes of paper- based Business System and its software equivalent TaskTimer, both developed by Copenhagen-based Time/system International. Time/system operates in 38 countries and its products have around one million users, 41,000 of them in Britain.

Such systems are based on a ring-binder holding A5 sheets under three sections. There is usually a databank section, which enables users to set goals and then break these goals down into concrete activities. Users then work out how long they need to carry out each task, determine its priority, and decide when to carry it out. These activities are then transferred to annual, monthly and daily plans in a time section. These systems are designed so that, as a team member, one can keep track of who's been allocated which task, what project deadlines have to be met, and when. Finally, an information section is used to maintain an address book, expenses, and annual accounts as well as more general information such as maps, flight times, conversion tables and much else.

However, it is not usually enough just to buy a business system and expect someone to use it effectively. Too many time management systems end up as no more than a diary and address book. A day's training is a good investment. One in three Time/system users have been on such courses - many run in- house courses for their employers.

A study conducted by the Institute for Personnel and Organisational Research at the Military University, Munich, showed that the use of such system tools in six companies, in combination with a one-day training course, "significantly improved efficiency for the individual and the work group". Less time was spent on goal-setting and planning, although goals were more clearly defined and plans became more concrete and detailed. In implementing the plans, people got a better overview of tasks and deadlines and were able to concentrate on the specific tasks they had to carry out.

You might assume, of course, that the time taken to maintain such a system would negate any time savings made through better planning. But a survey of 5,000 users in 10 countries asked how much "personal efficiency improvement" they estimated they had gained from using the system. The average given was 25.3 per cent.

Time-management has been shown to free up to a day every week for busy managers, while also making them more effective at their jobs. In other words, managers can cut their working week from 50 to 40 hours and so achieve a better balance between home and work.

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