Saturday, 7 December 2013

Time to Kill - A lesson in time

So it’s approaching midnight and me and my two colleagues have worked ourselves up into a lather of indignation. In between ploughing through the day’s backlog of paperwork and problems, we draft a strongly worded letter to our superiors. We tell them we will not put up with our current workload any longer and state our list of demands. As we all wearily clamber into our respective taxis home, I look forward to the repercussions our martyrdom shall surely reap the following morning. To say we were pretty smug and self-righteous at this point, is an understatement.

It was the early 90s and long before I’d even thought of taking to the stage, I worked in television post production, arguably the least glamorous part of the television-making process. The work is predominantly technical and I wasn’t even a technician. I was part of the team that scheduled the work the technical guys did. They gave us fancy titles like project managers or bookings executive but we were just administrating worker bees. A post production supervisor who was employed by their production would come in and tell us, not ask us when they wanted their editing and sound work done. We just booked it in.

And just to make things more fun, none of this admin was computerized (it was the 90s. The iPhone was but an itch in Steve Jobs’ underpants). There was a ton of paperwork, triple duplicate jobsheets, tape reports, quality control assessments, all of which had the miraculous ability to disappear at precisely the moment you needed them making what should have been quite a mundane, even benign job, insanely stressful.

Often one or more of the bookings staff would still be at their desks well beyond 8pm finishing tasks they were unable to do because they’d spend the day firefighting. I’m sure anyone who’s ever worked in an office will be familiar with days like that.

So, me and my two night owl colleagues decided, it’s time to tell our bosses, enough is enough and so we drafted our missive. The next day, as soon as all three of us had arrived at work we were summonsed into our boss's office. Not just A boss, but THE boss, the head honcho. We shared a knowing smile. We saw pay rises, new job titles, probably computers, oh we could dream… or at least a wipe-clean whiteboard. The guilt would be unbearable for him. He’d lavish us with benefits and bonuses. We just had to hold our nerve.   

He sat us down, poker-faced. We had no idea what he was going to say first. As it turned out it was, ‘Morning” after which he, of course, acknowledged the letter. His next move, took me totally by surprise. He completely laid into us, reading us the riot act. What the hell were we doing that it took you until midnight to get your work done?!

Far from sympathy and praise, he was stunned that we were working so inefficiently. Suddenly, my list of demands seemed as embarrassing and child-like as me going to see him with a list that started, Dear Santa.

I went back to my desk to lick my wounds. I was dumbfounded. Later that day, after the dust had settled, our financial director, a Severus Snape type character named Marcus, drifted into our office like a fug of black smoke for a quiet word. Now what?

He didn’t say much and he didn’t stay long. He implied that Mr Head Honcho may have had a point and suggested that perhaps I should think about where efficiencies might be possible. His parting gesture was leaving me a book. It was called something like, The Time Management System. He encouraged me to read it, telling me it had made a huge difference to him.

Still stung by my head honcho encounter, I figured I had nothing to lose and it would be good use of those forty minutes on the tube every morning. After all, there’s only so much Snakes you can play before your brain starts to atrophy.

As it transpired, I finished the book in lightning speed and by the end of it, my view of my work life was completely transformed.

It was a real paradigm shift for me. Suddenly, I could see the mistakes I’d been making that meant that I was not using my work time efficiently, making my professional life far more complicated than need be. Seeing it all laid out in the book, it was all clear. I felt like Neo in The Matrix. I was The One… who would leave the office on time!

My first and probably most fundamental mistake was time keeping. All edit and sound sessions started at 9.00. Even though I was the point person for the producer, our client, I sometimes wouldn’t rock up to work until 9.30. And, I would assume that if I hadn’t heard from anyone, all was well in the editing session. Big mistake. This meant that I was simply waiting for the shit to hit the fan rather than stopping someone throwing it. I started arriving before each session and making sure that everything was fine before I would take care of my less pressing work.

Also, the book said, that one of the mistakes we often make, when the shit does hit the rotary blades, is we try and deal with all our other work at the same time. This doesn’t benefit anyone. The best action to take is to stop what you’re doing and deal with the most urgent situation with 100% of your attention. Firemen don’t keep trying to coax a cat from a tree whilst putting out a house fire. This means that whatever emergency situation that comes up gets dealt with immediately and efficiently.

This also leads to another important factor in good time management. You must decide what’s important. The book suggested making two to-do lists. One is a list of things that have to be done that day and the other is a list of tasks that need to get done at some point.

For me, this was a stroke of genius because up until that point, I would work through all my tasks chronologically which is of course a much more reactionary approach. It also meant that when I scanned my to-do list at the end of the day, I saw that there were a tonne of things that needed to be done before the following day that I hadn’t accounted for and that, guess what, I would have to work late to finish.

Keeping a diary made a huge difference in ensuring I got things done when they needed to be done. Everything that I don’t think I’ll be able to remember, gets written in the diary, everything.

Diarising takes you from being reactive to responsive. Rather than bumbling, reacting to each situation as it occurred, the Time Management System said that one can anticipate much that happens. The term unexpected tax bill should become a thing of the past.

Another useful tip which has helped me is using my email inbox as a to-do list. Once actioned or dealt with, an email gets consigned to a folder so that the inbox only contains emails that require your attention.

The book also tells you to decide what time you want to leave work. Rather than working until the work was done, I decided, at 6pm, I’m out the door. This focusses the mind in a really useful way as you mush then back-calculate all the that day’s tasks to make that happen. Once you make the choice, it’s surprising how easily it happens.

From that day on I hardly ever left work after 6.30, usually, I was done at about 6pm whilst some of my colleagues were still at their desks in amongst mounds of job sheets and paperwork.

I was really grateful my FD, Snape had shared this book with me. My only regret, was that I hadn’t learned these valuable tools earlier.

It’s so easy to think that you are overwhelmed with work but sometimes, a little re-evaluation can reveal some incorrect assumptions you’ve made about your workload. A little rejigging, some negotiating and you can suddenly find yourself freed up with more time to do what you wanna do- like play snakes!

And if you still find yourself burdened by more work than is acceptable, talk to your boss. Why suffering in silence. Part of your boss’s job is to look after your work place welfare and if they’re not, go higher until someone listens (this could be a tricky if you’re self-employed).  

I can’t remember the exact name of the book but I just checked on Amazon and there are loads of books on time management so if you’re feeling swamp, remember, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Good luck!


  1. That's another useful thing they don't teach at school.
    They often make PhD students plan their work, but they don't necessarily tell them how; and I'm pretty sure they don't help them plan their days.
    Peter C

  2. There's a whole raft of life skills that dont get taught. Ah well. Sometimes you need to learn through trial and error anyway.


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