One of the great stressors in life is that feeling that we’ve forgotten something important. Each day we are bombarded with so many demands on our time that we are simply unable to act on them all, forcing us to tread carefully through a time management mine field for most of the day.
Our inboxes contain requests for the trivial and the important, all watered down by endless junk mail that is specifically designed to grab our attention. Voicemails allow others to drop off assignments and due dates over which we have little or no control. Poorly led meetings eat up valuable time, and drop off the occasional action item as well.
These are considered time management problems, but they are closer to being symptoms of the problem. The problem itself, according to Carnegie-Mellon lecturer Randy Pausch, is “The Time Famine.” Pausch uses the term “Time Famine” because it points out that the problem is systemic, and it will require systemic solutions.
We all have the same amount of time. Each day gives us exactly twenty-four hours to spend; we cannot save time to use later, and we cannot borrow against the future. Time is the great equalizer, and its management one of the most important skills for the 21st century.
When reviewing the fundamentals of effective time management, the first, and perhaps most important, area to examine is your workspace itself. An organized work area is critical if we are going to be successful in attacking the larger problem of how to spend our time.
There is something about having a clean work area that makes us more productive and frees our mind to concentrate on the task at hand. How many times have you been working diligently on a project only to find yourself glancing at a file on your desk, mentally reviewing what has to be done to get the file off your desk on onto someone else’s?
Cluttering up your work area with files, pencil holders, In/Out Baskets, note pads, etc. all fight for space in your consciousness whether you recognize it or not. A clean, organized work area is going to be a necessity if we are to deal with time successfully. “Clutter is death, it leads to thrashing,” reminds Pausch.
A great organizational tool was created by Toyota as a way to make their factories more productive. It’s called the 5S system, and while it was originally designed as a tool to help design and layout manufacturing facilities, some truly great 5S work has been done in the office environment as well.
The term 5S originated from the five Japanese words used to describe the model:
- Seiri or Sort. The first term, Seiri, means “sort.” The first step in 5S’ing your office space is to go through each and every item in your office and decide if you really need it. This is not a perfunctory effort at looking at only your desk top or the tops of your filing cabinets.
Sorting is about touching each and every item and making the hard choices. Do you really need a box of staples? Twenty different kinds of pens? A year’s supply of paper or legal pads? (Remember the great organizational mantra: “When in doubt, throw it out!”) Keep only the essential.
- Seiton or Set In Order. The second term, Seiton, roughly translates to “Set in Order.” During your Sort you eliminated everything that you did not need. During your effort to Set in Order you will determine where everything you are keeping goes.
This is the time to organize your work area, but remember that minimizing clutter is still a primary goal. Your desktop and the tops of filing cabinets are not storage areas. On your desk itself a phone, computer monitor, and keyboard are probably necessary. Everything else is suspect. Staplers, paper clips, hole-punches, etc. are best kept in a drawer, out of sight, but close when necessary.
- Seiso or Shine. The next word in the 5S system, Seiso, means to “Shine.” This is the time to clean your office from top to bottom. Every object in your work space gets a thorough cleaning. Clean everything from the outsides of filing cabinets to the insides of your desk drawers. The phone and keyboard can be cleaned using forced air if necessary.
Shine is also about restoring your work space. If you have a broken speaker or you need a new keyboard now is the time to act. Don’t allow anything in your office that isn’t completely functional.
- Seiketsu or Standardize. Seiketsu, or “Standardize,” is the fourth step in the 5S process. Standardize is also linked to Set In Order, and is about designing how everything in your office flows. Once you’ve established the optimum layout of your new lean, clean, and organized workspace, now take time to address how you will deal with the work that comes your way.
Voicemails, emails, and priority projects all need a process and a system. Haphazardly responding to whichever one interrupts you is a poor way to live.
- Shitsuke or Sustain. The last step in the 5S process is represented by the Japanese word Shitsuke, or “Sustain.” Sustain is about committing to being aware of what is going on in your work area and about being willing to take action to insure that your work area remains your own design.
The 5S process doesn’t end. Once is never enough. After you have completed the entire process once, consider scheduling a second effort not very far into the future. 5S is about learning by doing, it is not a learn by thinking about it type of endeavor.
Remember to focus on the fundamentals, but be on the look-out for tricks and tips than can help you automate how you respond to common time management problems.