What do you do at work when you have free time between tasks? Are you checking your personal Facebook page? Or are you reading newspaper headlines? If you want to remain productive and at the top of your game, there are some very specific ways you should be using that time, according to Dr. Tracey Wilen, a former visiting scholar at mediaX at Stanford University who was named one of the Bay Area’s Most Influential Women of 2012 by the San Francisco Business Times. Her most recent book is Employed for Life: 21st Century Career Trends.
The five-minute break
When you find yourself with five minutes to spare between tasks, this is the time to check your text messages, voicemails and emails, says Dr. Wilen, who has worked at places like Apple, HP and Cisco.
In other words, you probably should not be checking messages all day long.
With today’s information and communication overload, Dr. Wilen explains, the onus is on each person to develop a system to manage the flow and to make sure he or she remains productive in spite of the constant grabs at our attention.
Not checking messages all day long might sound completely impossible to all those who are addicted to their devices, or who have become accustomed to receiving and providing instant answers to every question.
Yet successful executives structure their day very intentionally, Dr. Wilen noted. They use calendars to block out time for various activities, inserting the most complex tasks into the time slots when they know themselves to be most productive, and also scheduling in time for exercise and sleep. “They’re not responding to every single email or voicemail or text as it comes in,” she said.
Moreover, nothing beats turning off your phone during meetings and giving your colleagues or clients your full attention, says Dr. Wilen. “What I admire about many successful executives is their ability to walk into a room, turn off their devices, and be entirely present.”
She recommends developing a system to triage and mark emails and messages, so that when it’s time to address them, they are already flagged by topic, or by level of urgency.
As for checking personal email or Facebook during those little five-minute breaks? “If you’re being paid by a company to work, the idea is, work at the office, and address your social messages on your own time,” Dr. Wilen says. “I would encourage people to focus on the business-relevant items first.”
The fifteen-minute break
What’s the most fruitful way to spend fifteen minutes of down time?
This is the perfect window of time to take stock of how your day is going and re-visit your to-do list, says Dr. Wilen, a lifelong compiler of task lists. Use your fifteen minutes to reflect on what you’ve done so far, to decide what you will need to postpone to later or tomorrow, and to review your priorities, she advises.
What about self-care? Aren’t breaks a good opportunity to do some deep breathing or take a walk around the block? “There’s nothing wrong with taking a break,” Dr. Wilen responded. “Some people need to get up and get coffee, take a walk, gather their thoughts. If you can structure that into your day, and you want and need that, by all means, go for it.”
Whether you are planning a five minute interval or a day-long schedule, the key to successful time management is knowing yourself and your needs, says Dr. Wilen. Some people need 10 hours of sleep, so they must find a way to make that happen. Other people might need to meditate for an hour of day, so that needs to fit into their routine. “Design your life and your workflow according to what you need and what makes you happy,” she advises.