Other People's Time
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
If you manage your own time well, you don't let others take advantage of your time. If you truly value time, you also don't want to waste, misuse or abuse that of others. Here are a dozen tips for good manners and efficiency with other people's time.
• Be on time for meetings, appointments, other scheduled events.
No one likes to be kept waiting. It's frustrating and anger inducing. Not only will they think you disdain them, they will believe you have poor time management. In most cases, poor time management is judged a character flaw. Furthermore, being late as a matter of habit is generally judged to be arrogant. (Yes, especially if you're the boss.) If you are running late or have to miss some scheduled event, reduce the effects by notifying, with apologies, whoever is in charge of the event.
• Start your own meetings, work, appointments, & presentations on time and end them on time.
Announce the subject, purpose and time length of the meeting in advance and stick to it all. If you have more than one presenter, give each a time limit for the presentation, hold them to it and limit the "q & a" to a time certain. Don't have a cat parade.
• Avoid dropping in unannounced.
Whenever possible, request a meeting. Identify the topic of the meeting (e.g. "It's about the invoices for copier supplies.) Identify the purpose (i.e. informative, update, solutions seeking, progress report.) Ask for amount of time you want (e.g. "I want about 10 minutes to update the boss on the Maguire case, which is going well.") Do the same for telephoning (e.g. "I'm returning his call with the information he wants on the water heater. It will take about 5 minutes.") If the person is unavailable ask for a good time to call back for a time-delimited, subject-specific phone appointment.
• Have an agenda for one-to-one meetings, drop-ins, phone calls and emails that you initiate.
You can't always avoid being a drop-in. And many occasions call for informal, unannounced contacts. Even the informal contacts you make must have a purpose, a structure and a time limit. We're not talking about social calls, after all. Of course it is desirable to "oil the gears" of business conversations with a little small talk or references to common interests and experiences. However, taking care of business is your primary focus. Prepare for scheduled and unscheduled informal contacts as well as you would for formal ones. Write out for yourself some notes about the subjects you want to cover and the information you must convey. Just like making a grocery list, write down the items you must cover. All you need is a slip of paper or something about the size of a 3 x 5 card. Take your mini-agenda with you for face to face meetings. People will appreciate that you are considerate enough of their time to write one even for the small things.
Phone calls need to be structured as much as any other kinds of meetings, so have a written agenda and an idea of how long the conversation should be before you call or take a scheduled call. Have at hand all reference materials you need for the conversation, too. As for emails, they need to be as structured as carefully and succinctly as a presentation in a meeting. Complete with boldings, bullets, diagrams, and, if necessary, graphics.
Don't just "wing it" with any kind of meeting or business communication -- you can never tell how serious or important it may become. Remember that emails have become valid legal documents. And notes of meetings and phone calls are admissible in court also.
• Make notes, messages, reports etc to leave when you drop in, phone, or meet one-to-one.
Not everyone will be in when you call or phone. If they are in, often people cannot talk for as long as is necessary to complete your business. Be prepared for those occasions with a pre-scripted phone message or some note or report you can leave behind. The subsequent contact will be much more efficient and you'll be less likely to play "tag" if the other person has a clear understanding of what the two of you need, when and in what form.
• Be prepared for unexpected drop-ins, last minute meetings and unplanned phone calls.
Expect the unexpected. Be ready for others' lack of good time management and/or good manners. Be ready for others unrealistic expectations. Keep a daily log or update notes on all your projects as you make changes. There are many software programs to help with such records, but I still recommend a small, loose-leaf day planner book that you carry with you habitually. Remember that you can't carry your computer with you everywhere. If you keep updated notes in a day planner book that you keep with you, you'll be able to give quick answers no matter where you are -- even out to lunch or in a cab -- and then make a note to follow up with more info when you get back to the office. I haven't yet found a digital substitute for a well-organized day planner. PDA's are still slower to use and more awkward than the flexible human eye and hand (not to mention the brain.)
• Learn to summarize and be succinct.
Do you like it when you ask someone a question and 20 minutes later you get an indeterminate answer after a long, rambling series of stories? Right. Neither does anyone else. You encounter variations of what we commonly call "long-winded" talkers every day. Organized people get good at organizing their thoughts and their speech. One great way to give organized and meaningful answers to questions, or to present information briefly and coherently is to give "the bottom line" first. (That's true in writing as well.) Learn to present your information like this: "I think the best answer is X. Here are two reasons why." Or, "This is a process of three steps. First you..." Or, "I don't yet know the best way to do that, but the most promising two ways my team is trying are A and B." (There are a number of good books on effective, efficient speaking and writing. A search of "get to the point" on amazon.com will uncover many. My particular recommendation is How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds or Less by Milo Frank.)
• Do the follow-through.
When you have an assignment due or a question pending, don't make people come asking. Keep people updated on your progress, and produce your results on time or early. If you can't make a deadline, updates are even more important and honesty about delays is essential. In order to be able to do their own work, others must rely on you, your communication and your timeliness.
• Take "no" for an answer.
Most of the time arguing is a serious waste. And annoying. Unless you have some reason to believe you've been misunderstood, let it go for now. Revamp the idea and present it in a different form later.
• Take "yes" for an answer.
A surprising number of people continue to support their ideas with arguments of how good they are even after they get approval. It's understandable -- they're excited about their success and want to reassure themselves and their bosses that this is going to be great. If you've gotten the go-ahead, go ahead. Your boss is already impressed with the idea; now impress him with your efficiency: say "thank you" and go get it done.
• Take "no interruptions" seriously. Don't insist upon seeing or having your call put through to someone who has requested not to be interrupted. You cannot know the reasons for the request or the consequences of over-riding the request. Unless there is a genuine emergency -- like the office is on fire -- leave him alone. Whether it's your superior, colleague or subordinate.
• Take "later" for an answer.
Again, you cannot know all the reasons the person can't see you now or the consequences of insisting on immediate attention. Respect his word that he'll get back to you. "But it'll only take a minute," is not an appropriate reply. The mark of a good time manager is that he is in control of his own schedule and order of work, and therefore he considers others' schedules. Of course, there are occasions that require urgent attention. You should explain up front that "later" will be too late. As long as others know it is not a matter of your impatience or lack of good time management, most won't mind your urgency.
One last thought: if you are a supervisor and you like the tips in this article, you could share them with your subordinates. You might enjoy having them learn respect your time.