Out for the count

18th September 1998 at 01:00
Does the daily battle to fit everything in leave you feeling shell-shocked? If time is always against you and you want to fight back, think about how you organise your days, writes Chris Johnston in the second of three articles on making the most of yourself

Time - it's ticking away . . . it's of the essence . . . it's on our side. We are preoccupied with time. The clock (with its evil twin, the alarm) governs so many of our activities - waking up, leaving home to get to school or work, eating lunch, going to bed. So why do we let ourselves be ruled by the ticking tyrant?

Long before the clock was invented, daily routine was determined by the sun. It was difficult to do anything else at night but sleep. Although our hunter-gatherer ancestors may not have had to clock on every morning or be in the office by 9am, they knew the more time they spent in the cave, the less chance they had of bringing home the bacon.

Because we grow up knowing our lives are regulated by time, most people never question the system. Those who do move to Devon and become hippies. So if the clock does control us, surely we don't need to think about it - just watch the time and get on with the daily grind. But there are only so many hours in the day, and all too often they seem to be taken up by what we have to do rather than what we want to do.

Most people have at some time said to themselves: "There never seems to be enough time to do everything". It's true, there isn't. But if you sometimes - or often - feel this way, perhaps it is time to think about the way you manage your days. Everyone organises their time in their own way. Even people doing the same job will go about it differently. Many workers, teachers in particular, always have too much to do and too little time to do it.

According to Rob Briner, a lecturer in occupational psychology at London University's Birkbeck College, the key to time management is prioritising. But, he says, in a work environment such as education, where priorities keep changing, identifying what you need to concentrate on can be difficult. This means expensive time-management courses are rarely effective because participants are not allowed to manage their time in the workplace.

Those who have trouble identifying the most important tasks are often poor time managers. "The people who are good at time management just decide. Maybe they get it wrong but they learn from that," says Dr Briner.

But he believes thinking about priorities in terms of making lists is not the answer. Teachers should stand back and think about their position in the context of their lives as a whole. Those who fail to learn how to manage their time well early in their careers will suffer considerable heartache, he warns.

One of the most important things is to decide how much time to devote to the job. "Your work has no obvious end point. Teaching is not like other jobs which have a finite number of tasks and you know they are finished when you've done them," Dr Briner says.

The most persuasive argument against working all hours is the risk of ill-health. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says working consistently long hours causes stress and damages your physical and mental health.

He also says prioritising is essential. This can be done either by completing tasks so deadlines are met, or so the truly significant or important jobs come first. And if possible, delegate to reduce the workload.

Although the odd extended week is inevitable, trying to do too much can have a disastrous impact on a teacher's personal life. "Many teachers take too much work home. Some would say 'I have no choice', but others may be failing to manage their work properly," says Professor Cooper.

Dr Briner adds that teachers must look at how their job fits into the rest of their life and ask themselves if they really want to be working for a good part of the weekend. Professor Cooper even suggests teachers' partners should try to stop their spouses from working too much. While this would not be easy, the intervention could be what is needed to make some teachers reassess the way they work.

Part of the problem may be an insufficient understanding of the time it takes to complete all the tasks that need to be done. Dr Briner says it is easy to convince ourselves we spend more time than we actually do on certain activities. Conversely, those things we think we do efficiently, can take far longer than we imagine. The only way to determine just what is going on is to keep a diary for a week or even a month. "This doesn't give you the answers but it can help identify the problems. Most of us are not terribly aware of how we spend our time," he explains.

John Bangs, the National Union of Teachers' head of education, says understanding of time management in schools is poor, partly because teachers are not trained in it.

While information technology can help reduce workload, when it comes to producing reports, for example, he believes headteachers have an important role in keeping staff positive and motivated and warding off external pressures.

It is all too easy to claim you are too busy to think about the way you manage your time, but taking a few hours out to reconsider the way you work could make life a lot easier in the long run. Work smarter, not harder, then sit back and think about how to fill all that newly-discovered time.

next week: Public speaking

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