Long and Short Time

A first grader, so an oft-told business anecdote goes, asked his mother why Daddy brings home a briefcase full of papers every evening. "Daddy has so much to do he can't finish it all and has to bring it home to work at night," she explained. Sensibly, the child asked, "Why don't they just put him in a slower group?"

Daddy could be Mommy, the briefcase could be a laptop, the slower group could be working with a tutor, but you get the point. Times change, but time doesn't. Managing it well is the hallmark of a good manager and critical to a paperless strategy.

Time Management
"Time is money," said Benjamin Franklin. Imagine, for example, at the start of each day $1,400 is deposited into your bank account. This money is yours to spend throughout the day: minute by minute or accrued and spent on more expensive items. But by the stroke of midnight your account is back to zero. You have to spend it wisely or lose it foolishly. Miser and spendthrift alike end with nothing, next morning restored to $1,400.

Likewise with time. Each day starts and ends with the same number of minutes for each of us. Thus, time management is not about finding more time -- impossible without Hermione's wizmo from The Prisoner of Askaban, anyway -- but in self-delegating how your personal time is spent or wasted. Prioritizing, decision-making and scheduling tasks are skills to learn, like budgeting money, that can help you spend wisely.

Time management is really self management, the art of making better spending decisions. Paper -- and paperless -- can help.

Tickling Time
If there are only so many minutes in the day, those "long time" issues that require more minutes need to be broken up into smaller chunks. A tickler file is a low-tech approach to accomplish this efficiently.

A tickler file is a paper-based system of manila folders labeled with days or months. If you can't get to something today, it goes into one of the folders as a reminder. When the day or month comes, you pull the folder. In this way, a long-time task can be broken up into short-time chunks.

Commonly, 43 folders are used for one year: 31 folders for each day in the current month and 12 for each month in the year. At the start of the month, reminders are pulled from the corresponding folder and placed in the appropriate day folders. It's a good technique referenced in David Allen's Getting Things Done and on Merlin Mann's productivity blog 43 Folders, according to one site.1

For example, project implementation reminders can be placed in different folders: education materials for staff on day 5, presentation at a committee on day 8, memo copies to medical staff on day 12, etc. Your preliminary work is delegated into future time slots. Specific reminders, such as a supply standing order that is renewed every September, can also be put in the tickler file. 

The Eisenhower Method 
But putting tasks into a tickler file occurs now, not in the future. These "short-time" decisions happen throughout your day as you manage information in and out of your office or tickler file. One popular technique is the Eisenhower Method, named after the 34th U.S. President.

Using the Eisenhower Method is simple. For every decision, you ask two questions: "Is it urgent?" and "Is it important?" This creates a grid as suggested in the Table,2 with examples. Grid quadrants are handled as follows:3

  • Urgent and important. Address immediately. These are often unplanned, but sometimes they need to be done to accomplish your goals. Think of this as fire fighting. 
  • Important but not urgent. Ideally, this is where most of your work is done on your time. Think of this as strategic planning. These are the items for your tickler file. 
  • Urgent but not important. These tasks should either be delegated to others or handled minimally. Think of this as somebody else's problem.
  • Not urgent as well as not important. Time wasters should be avoided altogether. Tasks in this quadrant should be eliminated or done rarely.

Table: Eisenhower Method

   Urgent  Not Urgent 
 Important  Emergencies
 Instrument failures
 Physician complaint
 Posting the schedule
 Renewing a standing order
 Attending a committee
 Not Important  Telephone interruptions
 Receiving and sorting mail
 Reviewing minor problems
 Repeatedly checking email
 Needless meetings
 Busy work

It can be worthwhile to plug your current daily activities into the Eisenhower matrix to see where you spend most of your time. Do you spend too much time firefighting? This may indicate a need for more strategic planning or delegation. Maybe, you waste too much time in meetings where information is rehashed.

Both systems can be paperless. For example, calendar software such as Microsoft Outlook, which includes desktop reminders, can be used as a tickler file with scanned attachments of pertinent documents. Reminders can be forwarded to feature or smartphones. And speaking of smartphones, there's an Eisenhower Method app for Android, too.4 You just might forget about that paper piling up in your office.

Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, Maine.

1. Wax D. Back to basics: the tickler file. Available at: Last accessed: 10/13/12.

2. Fluent-Time-Management web site. The Eisenhower method. Available at: Last accessed: 10/13/12.
3. Time Management Training web site. The Eisenhower method of time management training. Available at: Last accessed: 10/13/12.
4. Google Play Store. My Effectiveness Habits (beta) application page. Available at: Last accessed: 10/13/12.

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