Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time Saving Strategies (Part 2)

This is the second part of this series about time- saving strategies, divided into three categories (1. electronic communications, 2. face-to-face communications, 3. other activities that take time but don't contribute directly to science productivity).

2. Face-to-face communications (work interactions, office drop-ins, group meetings).  Interacting with co-workers, subordinates, or bosses takes up a lot of our time and is often stressful.  People dropping by the office can be major interruptions, because once in your office they tend to stay on talking about multiple subjects. And we all know that most group meetings are unnecessary, right?

What can be done:

  a. Work Interactions. The problem here is with people who want you to make decisions for them or to affirm their decisions. They bother you with a myriad of questions related to their own work--usually things that they can and should work out for themselves. These people may be staff, students, or even bosses. 

     i.  One of the best ways to minimize interruptions by subordinates is to authorize them to use their own judgment in making day-to-day decisions and in spending up to a certain amount (e.g., $100) and tell them you trust them to make the best decision.

    ii. Train staff to research solutions and organize a list of options before bothering you with a question about how to proceed.  Tell them to save up all their questions for weekly meetings, unless there is an emergency that requires your involvement.

   iii. Also train subordinates to put paperwork in your mailbox for signatures rather than knocking on your door.

   iv. If it's your boss who needs hand-holding, then you must use your own discretion. See the suggestions below, one of which might work.

  b. Office drop-ins (semi-social interactions).  Colleagues, staff, visitors, and others will stop by your office with a question or just to say hello.  One person is not usually a problem, but when a lot of people are doing this all day long, then you'll be constantly interrupted.  Sometimes these are people who have time on their hands, want to chat, and will do so for hours if you let them.

      i. If you are working on a deadline, put a do-not-disturb sign on your door. If you have colleagues or staff who ignore these signs and knock anyway, lock your door and don't answer.  They'll go away. I find that adding "conference call" to the sign deters all but the most persistent.

      ii.  If you must answer your door or want to leave your door open, then don't let people who drop by just ramble on.  Immediately say that you are in the middle of something or have a conference call in 5 minutes and ask what it is they wish to talk about. Don't let them leave with the idea of coming back later when you are finished with your call. Make them get to the point and ask whatever is on their mind right then, or tell them to put it in an email.

      iii. If they catch you in the hall, try to keep walking and say you've got to get back to your office for an important phone call.

      iv. For the persistent talkers (who ignore your hints), simply don't respond verbally or with any encouraging body language.  Keep looking at your watch.  It's nearly impossible for someone to continue a conversation when the other person is not participating.

  c.  Meetings:

      i. Don't agree to a meeting that does not have an agenda. If there isn't one, ask for an agenda (so you can prepare); this will usually force the organizer to set one up.

      ii. Don't agree to a meeting that has no stated duration. If there is none and is likely to go on for hours, tell the moderator that you have another meeting or conference call 30 minutes after the stated start time and then just get up and leave.

      iii. If possible, have one of your staff attend the meeting and report back to you (in an email) any important decisions (there are usually none). You can also get this information from one of your colleagues when you run into them at the coffee pot later in the day.  Just ask them if anything earth-shaking was announced (rarely happens). When I've done this, I've had meetings that lasted for 2 hours summarized for me in five minutes.

      iv. As soon as a meeting is announced, particularly one that you know will be a waste of your time and in which your absence is unlikely to be noticed, schedule something that conflicts and then don't show up or, if asked, say you will be unavailable due to a conflict.

The next post talks about some miscellaneous activities that take a lot of time, but do not directly contribute to your science productivity.

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