Authors: Kathy Francis, MACEM&PS Executive Director and Contributing Writer
Dr. Karen Wilson, FCC Computing & Business Technology Department Chair
Do you remember the days of striving for “inbox zero?” Those videos about structuring your day that you might’ve watched, or that one book you read on organizing that you might’ve read, before 2020’s slate of crises turned up the logistical volume knob to eleven?
Maybe – hopefully, at least! But if not, or if your last year has been too much (or just too different) for all that advice to resonate or apply as well as it once did, it’s pretty safe to say you’re not alone. Change is always a constant, but as we make our way into 2021, the scale of that change and the effort of adapting to it are often much more challenging than anticipated. In a way, that’s normal: Historically, disasters have been credited with illuminating those areas and systems that weren’t working as well as they could—or working at all. Are your plans and procedures resilient enough? Are your backup systems robust? Do you have a plan or a backup system for everything you need in the first place? You can usually count on emergencies and times of strife to show you all the places where the seams are loose.
The last year has certainly done that. A record-breaking year of natural disasters, emergencies, and a global pandemic have revealed loose seams across the board—from the need for greater resilience in our community’s infrastructure, to the vulnerabilities in an optimized just-in-time supply chain, to racial inequities, and even to the ways we spend our time in balancing work and life. All of which means that as likely as you are to have company in being overwhelmed, you’re just as likely not to be alone in trying out new ways to adapt, cope, and reimagine your future. Americans of all stripes are doing the same, even public safety personnel.
Yes, public safety personnel experience stress, concern, and crises of faith too—the effects may be less visible, but they’re no less real. After you’ve conducted your after-action reports, developed improvement plans, and sought out additional resources, networks, education, and training…you’ll still probably feel the pull to rethink how you manage your time, and wonder if this all couldn’t be easier next time.
It was with all that on my mind that I decided to sign up for a class—“How to Manage Your Time More Effectively”—designed and taught by Dr. Karen Wilson here at FCC. I’d had time management training before, but it was well over a decade ago, in a different position, at a different organization, and with a much different set of professional and personal relationships and responsibilities. If everyone was searching for new ways to improve in the new situation, why not check in and see what I could learn?
As it turned out, a lot! So much so, in fact, that I worked with Dr. Wilson to condense some of her content here for sharing with the world beyond FCC. I’ve also added a few tips of my own, along the way. Here’s our combined look at her three prongs of time management in the new (often remote) work environment of 2021: Aware, Arrange, and Adapt.
Principle 1: Aware
Start by taking a realistic look at how you spend your time—not how you think you spend it, but actual time on and off tasks. As you begin to see the picture of where your time is going, check that picture to find your peak performance hours and those in which you are most likely to make an error. Peak performance occurs when you feel your best physically, emotionally, and cognitively. For some of us, it’s just after the day’s first morning coffee; for others, after lunch gives us a chance to center focus on a single project. It’s different for everyone. Same goes for those hours where conditions are ripe for error: maybe that off-hour quick email response from your phone could help save time the next day, but you’re tired and didn’t process the message (or your reply) completely enough before hitting send. Maybe you’re not a morning person, and that makes early meetings less than productive. Try to find any place you realize that “pushing through” consistently leads to spending twice as long cleaning something up later, and map them out.
As your awareness of time increases, think about categorizing it. For example, how much time in your day or week do you control directly? How much is controlled by your supervisor and required meetings, or dictated by call volume due to the nature of your work? Some positions are constructed so that most time is controlled by others, and in those cases there’s less room to optimize. But for whatever blocks of time you do get to control, these tips can go a long way—even farther, really, since you’re targeting how and when you apply them.
First: Think about what you need to get done, what you want to get done, and what you don’t want to get done. Procrastination plagues us all occasionally and leads us to think about the tasks of this week that impact the tasks of next week. Do you know those tasks? Think ahead. In public safety, we often say, “look beyond the headlights” and visualize what you cannot easily see—a good strategy to use as you prepare your work tasks for the week.
Next: Be aware of your strengths and your challenges. We all know some tasks energize us more than others—and the ones that don’t often bring challenges and tend to carry extra downtime to accomplish.
For example, if you are a strategic thinker, proofreading may be a challenge. Performing a task outside of your area of expertise takes a great deal of time, even if you’re fully motivated. Doing something well and quickly simply requires practice that you (understandably!) don’t yet have. So to smooth that wrinkle, consider reaching out to a colleague with a critical eye and skills in copyediting. They may be able to get the job done well in less time than it would take you to do it passably. Then make a habit of returning the favor, offering your expertise to make their to-do list easier in turn.
This not only makes more of everyone’s work enjoyable, it also serves to guard against losing “sunk cost” time—those hours spent chasing a problem just because you started and now “have to” keep going. By sharing or delegating in a way that’s okay with everyone, you break that cycle, allowing each task to be put to rest by an expert at doing so.
Now that you have a solid idea of how you spend your time and where you can make change, it’s time to arrange your schedule itself. Paper or electronic, nearly everyone needs to use a calendar to keep track of our busy schedules. That said, not everyone’s calendar needs to be the same! Take the time to make it—and everything it’s attached to—work for you.
Let’s take an email inbox as an example this time—how can you set up categories that’ll make not just receiving and sorting easier, but also storing and accessing them when their data is useful? Building folders for general topics, like “research and development” or “evaluation materials” might suit you. Or maybe dividing by projects is more your speed—each active effort with its own folder, a space you can digitally walk into and out of, with all relevant information readily available.
The same “chunking” concept can work for your schedule overall, too. Splitting a complex task into reasonable portions and assigning each a chunk of time, or grouping a handful of smaller routine items together into a single period devoted entirely to getting them done. However you choose, the chunking provides focused, uninterrupted time to concentrate on one thing at a time. Contrary to what most of us might wish, the human brain does not multitask effectively. Identifying your priorities and designing time in your schedule for each can save it from needing to try, and at the same time make it easier both to plan and determine how long something actually takes to produce.
Then, reassess your arrangement regularly—your needs might change over time! Ponder the items that can (or should) be delegated or given to someone else to do better. Could anything be addressed differently, streamlined? Are your “chunks” still good for your workflow? Develop a habit of routine project and schedule review. Learn to assess, reassess, regroup, shift to Plan B, or completely U-turn. There’s no shame to feel; there are only possibilities to improve each time.
This is the “bring it all together” step. All this work building your understanding of how your time is spent, who controls it, and how you can best divide and allocate it only means something if it’s applied. So start somewhere comfortable—define your “chunks,” rearrange your calendar in a new way, and stick to it for a while. As you practice, you’ll form new time management habits, until the new way is your normal way again.
Developing the habits usually also makes refining them with more and more specific improvements easier. If you started just by looking at your regular work practices to schedule things generally according to your peak hours, then your next adaptation might be noticing finer details: Do you have “surge” hours to keep in reserve? Is there a 15-30 minute block of regular downtime you can carve out for routine tasks like email or payroll? Does keeping a spot for rest or exercise make more of your hours comfortable to work in? Answering this sort of question will let you make your schedule increasingly your own.
And remember, if it’s a challenge, that’s okay! Time management in our hyperconnected, high-activity world is tough. It requires us to reflect, increase our awareness, make arrangements with intention, develop adaptive skills, practice…and even then know that it still won’t be perfect the first time. But before you feel discouraged, remember that we’re all in this together: If you’re practicing, then we’re all practicing too. As long as we’re on the path, we’re better off than if we’d never started. So why not take the first step?
About the Authors: Karen A. Wilson (BSMT [ASCP], PhD, MBA) is currently a full-time faculty at Frederick Community College. Dr. Wilson has more than 30 years of management and leadership experience, including time as Clinical Laboratory Supervisor/Manager at various hospitals in Maryland and West Virginia. She is the Program Manager for Business Studies and currently serves as the Department Chair for Computing and Business Technology. Dr. Wilson is an experienced instructor and curriculum developer and serves as the Curriculum Committee Chair.
Kathy Francis (MS, CEM, MDPEMP) is a frequent contributing writer here and in other emergency management & public safety academic and popular publications. Her background extends from police investigations to governmental emergency planning and risk mitigation, with her last several years spent developing and leading the MACEM&PS, where she now serves as Executive Director.