Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Protected time

Posted by Jean Adams
When I was medical student, lunchtime training events were held in most hospitals I passed through. The presence of a free lunch made these high priorities for student attendance. However, I think there was only one hospital that put such a high priority on staff attendance that the time was protected – as signalled by a bleep collection at the door. The sessions were specifically for newly qualified doctors in their first year of practice. Staff deposited their bleeps in a basket outside the training room. If any went off during the session, a secretary would respond saying when the session was due to finish and asking that urgent issues were referred elsewhere. At other hospitals, training was something you went to if you had the time and left early if something more urgent occurred on the ward.

When you go to time management training, they always tell you about the important vs urgent matrix. Some things are important but not urgent, others are urgent but not important etc. The idea is that you identify the not important or urgent tasks and get rid of them. Then you allocate your time to the three other groups of tasks ensuring that the important gets done and you don’t end up focusing solely on the urgent. 

Surely there must be some 'pleasant activities' in The Zone?
Emergencies hardly ever happen in research. Which, for me, is part of the attraction. Lots of important deadlines exist – grant applications, conference submissions. But fair warning is generally given, meaning that it is theoretically possible to stop these becoming too urgent. Many, many other things that need attention crop up all the time. Quite often I find these are of the urgent and certainly important to someone else, but not massively important to me variety.

My – not entirely effective – approach to this is to routinely work at home on a Friday. The idea is that this provides me with one full day per week to focus on extended important but not urgent tasks that matter to me – writing papers, reading and commenting on large documents, catching up with the literature. The reality is that I mostly spend Fridays catching up on urgent and some-what important tasks that have accumulated through the week - nudging my me-tasks to next Friday at the earliest.

Sometimes, when my to-do list gets overwhelming (which is admittedly more often than not), I protect other time too. I schedule in a few hours to do a peer review for a journal, half a day to prepare teaching, 30 minutes to make a phone call that absolutely must happen. At the very least this makes me feel slightly calmer that there is definitely time available to do everything. It might also make me slightly more efficient by reducing the number of times I get to my desk with a few free hours ahead of me and have to work out which of the tasks on my list to do next.

But, like making the most of Fridays, the problem with protected time is the self-discipline required to actually do the scheduled task at the scheduled time, and not get distracted by apparently more urgent things. I find this is massively facilitated by having a secretary deal with meeting arrangements and I know that I am exceptionally lucky to have the luxury of even part-time secretarial support. Every time someone asks me directly for some of my protected time I feel I have to weigh up the pros and cons, wonder if their thing is more important than my scheduled thing, make a decision about when the scheduled thing is going to be re-scheduled, feel bad if I ‘choose’ to say no. A secretary, on the other hand, is slightly more remote. Obviously they want to be helpful and will try and fit people in as soon as they can. But they genuinely seem to be consummate experts in just saying no – without explanation or guilt.

This leads me to those pesky people who have worked out that if they ask me, instead of the secretary, they’re more likely to get a yes than a no.

What are your time management solutions?


  1. A friend of mine (who wishes for obvious reasons to remain anonymous) offers a slightly different version of this.

    Cell 1 (important + urgent): Things that matter to me
    Cell 2: (important + not urgent) Things that matter to you
    Cell 3: (not important + urgent) Things that matter to my employer
    Cell 4: (not important + not urgent) Things that matter to everyone else.

    He uses this system ruthlessly. He seems happy at work and seems to achieve all of his career goals with a minimum of stress.

  2. When I'm very busy, I've recently started experimenting with putting myself into "isolation", at the suggestion of a project manager I work closely with. Essentially, I take myself our of my normal office and put autoreply on my email explaining that I'm not reading or answering today, and giving people a number to contact me with urgent stuff. This has worked particularly well since my workplace has upgraded to whichever version of Outlook gives you notification before sending an email if an internal colleague has an autoreply on.

    It doesn't work perfectly because there are always a few urgent interruptions, but I've found that people self-filter pretty well with this fair warning, and are pretty good at identifying urgent stuff.

    1. I like this approach. I do it informally occasionally - turning everything off and hiding in a small meeting room - but without the autoreply. Maybe I'll start doing this more and take it more seriously.