As the economic downturn takes its toll, many a company is reducing its work force -- seeking to accomplish the same tasks with fewer employees. And time management experts say that without stop watches and other severe measures, employees can be taught to use their time far more effectively.
By the same token, employees seeking to preserve their jobs can use time management techniques to make themselves more competitive, says Michael Bryant, a consultant and president of Career Transition Services in Baltimore.
"People who manage their time more effectively are considered reliable and are more valuable to their organizations," Mr. Bryant says. Very often, they're the people who, despite a difficult economy, are retained and promoted by their employers, he adds.
Conventional wisdom has it that people are either born organized or disorganized. But Stephanie Winston, who heads a New York-based consulting firm called The Organizing Principle, says "simple education is half the battle if not more."
Ms. Winston, author of two books designed to help people get organized, "Getting Organized," and the "Organizing Principle," uses an analogy with dance. "Only a few people people are born with the native talent to be a ballet dancer, but most people can be taught to walk," she observes.
You don't necessarily need a formal seminar to absorb some of the basic techniques of using time effectively. Mastering several basic time management principles can take you a long way.
Here are the experts' pointers:
For every hour that you spend planning, you can save three hours worth of wasted time and disorganized action, says Fred Dickens, who teaches time management at Anne Arundel Community College.
An employee who has thought through his workday, set priorities and then has organized the day's tasks in an orderly manner on a "To Do" list is likely to accomplish far more than someone who moves randomly through the day, passively taking events as they hit him and counting on his memory to recall and sort all the details, Mr. Dickens says.
"You always save time by planning," Mr. Dickens, a training instructor at the Maryland Automobile Insurance Fund, stresses.
* Take advantage of your personal "prime time."
Some people are full of energy in the morning. Others don't rev up until evening, and feel foggy and unclear during the early hours. Knowing your own patterns will allow you to concentrate on your most important work when you can handle it best.
"Do difficult jobs when you have the most attention," says Mr. Bryant of Career Transition Services.
He suggests using off-peak hours at the office to accomplish necessary yet undemanding tasks, such as filing, cleaning the desk or reading the mail. Major projects, such as the key report due on the boss's desk next Tuesday, should be handled during your peak energy periods.
* Stretch your prime time periods with brief breaks.
While a break lasting a half hour or longer destroys your momentum and slows your progress through a demanding task, short, five- or 10-minute breaks can help you recharge and retain your focus, according to Mr. Bryant. Think about what refreshes you: a quick phone call to a friend, five minutes with a magazine, or a short walk outside.
"Mini-breaks give you balance," he says.
* Handle paperwork wisely.
The maxim that you should handle each piece of paper just once has fallen out of favor with time management consultants.
The idea sounds good in theory. But the fact is that taking final action on each item as it arrives on your desk could disrupt a major project that should take priority, Mr. Bryant points out.
These days consultants adhere to a different motto -- "Do, Delay, Dump or Delegate" -- as the way to categorize paperwork.
This new motto, known as the "Four D's," gives you the option of postponing action on a piece of paper -- presuming the paper has been filed and can be recovered when action needs to be taken.
* Deal with procrastination by breaking a large task into small pieces.
Although there are many explanations as to why people procrastinate, not all of them involve profound psychological explanations, time management experts say.
Often, an employee will simply fail to begin a task because it appears so large and forbidding.
The solution in such cases is to break the job into pieces and then sort those pieces into the sequence in which they must be done, Mr. Bryant advises. The words "write the marketing report" may seem forbidding when they appear on a "To Do" list. But you're likely to be less intimidated by the phrase "read magazine article for report" when it appears on the same list.
* Do a challenging task on deadline if that increases efficiency.
Some people actually perform better when the adrenalin is flowing. They shouldn't always be persuaded to curtail their tendency to procrastinate, time management specialists say.