Saturday, 24 March 2012

Managing your time more effectively - where do we begin?

Mind mapping
Time management is something that every busy professional thinks about from time to time - are we getting the best out of the time available to us in the working day? How much time do we simply fritter away, starting one task, starting another, and feeling like we never really fully accomplish what we set out to achieve?

I took part in a session really which was all about the concept of 'mind mapping' and how this tool can be applied to many aspects of life - not just to help you become better organised at work. It can be used to help you plan a project, or assimilate a large amount of information such a studying a particular topic for an exam.

I was intrigued to discover that I have been using mind maps on a basic level since I studied for exam at school - and also for planning essays! Basically, you start off with a blank sheet of paper and in the centre of that sheet of paper, you write down the topic/subject, and then from that, you have a number of different branches stemming from this main topic. These branches you draw initially are the 'parent' branches, and are labelled with just one key term. From these parent branches you then add sub branches, allowing you to drill down into a particular key topic by as many level as you wish. It was also suggested that if there are any links between ideas on different branches, then show this link with a dotted line.

You can also use images on your mind map - a lot of the time it just depends how your mind works - some people remember things better in graphic form, others (like myself) are more 'wordy'. That having been said, I did study for a physics exam at school by illustrating practically every unit in my textbook into a mind map!

I don't think the concept of mind mapping is necessarily new - in fact it is in my eyes more of a step up from the 'spider diagrams' we were taught to use at school, for example when brainstorming ideas for an essay. I think they are a great way of breaking information down though, and in the workplace, I would like to consider using them more for large scale enquiry project planning, or where I am simply trying to think of all the various options open to me when carrying out research.

The session I was involved in definitely reminded me that mind maps can be as simple or as complex as you want them to be, but fundamentally they are an excellent way of helping you organise your thoughts, problem solve and analyse situations.

Improving time management

I came across an interesting white paper produced by Citrix online which focused on how to run meetings in the workplace more effectively. This is definitely something that I have always found particularly frustrating - when a meeting is allowed to drift on long after it's 'official' finishing time. This can often be caused by poor chairmanship - it is up to the person running the meeting to ensure that it does not overrun significantly. The key suggestions to prevent this from becoming an issue are:

- Determine who exactly needs to be at the meeting in order to achieve the desired objectives - eg. who are the primary decision makers; who only needs to be there for a short time and so on.

 - If you are chairing the meeting, make sure that the agenda also fits in with the objectives and what you want to achieve, or be decided by the end of the meeting. Make sure you politely stop people who simply like the sound of their own voice! Summarise decisions/results as you go along to make sure everyone is on the same page and knows what is happening.

- View the agenda as the plan for the meeting - and make sure you stick to it. If you run out of time, suggest another meeting rather than letting this one drag on painfully.

- Someone should always make sure that minutes are taken and consequently all decisions/discussion outcomes are documented. If you don't do this then the meeting will have been pointless.

It is interesting to know that only 20% of meetings produce 80% of the results - food for thought next time you are planning that team meeting!

Controlling the inbox
Time management also touches upon a subject that is of great interest to me - information overload. The white paper gives us a few suggestions with regard to how to keep on top of your inbox and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

- Decide quickly whether to respond to a message immediately, archive or delete it.

- Remember the telephone! Nowaday it's almost instinctive to hit the 'compose new message' button but sometime a 60 second call can clarify what a chain of emails will take far longer to!

- Don't feel that you need to respond to people immediately - within 24 hours is normally acceptable.

The last point is one which can't really be applied in the law library - if we were to simply leave enquiries sitting in our inboxes, we would not curry much favour with the fee-earners! However there are other emails that we can put this into practice with, eg. non-urgent communication from suppliers and so on.

Email overload is also looked at from the opposite perspective, i.e. what can we do to make sure that we don't contribute to other people's overload? This is a point that I have addressed in the past - as information intermediaries, we are at risk of bombarding our users with too much information - how much is too much is the million dollar question and to be honest, it varies from lawyer to lawyer in my experience!

The white paper suggests ensuring your subject line is clear and concise, a well-structured email using short sentences, bullet points and paragraphs to ensure that the reader isn't immediately overwhelmed by a wall of text!

If you are giving someone instructions make sure you only include a small number and you give a clear deadline.

I think these tips are definitely useful to me from my perspective of giving people instructions by email. Sometimes if I am managing a particular enquiry project, I try hard to ensure that the email containing the details is as clear and concise as possible. It is very important not to ramble, but to ensure that everything included in the email is non-repetitive and necessary.

I think that time management will always be something that will be of significance to any law librarian, because the lawyers we work for are often working to very tight deadlines and this pressure is tranferred to us as a result. It's important to be as efficient with how we use our time as possible, in order to ensure maximum productivity, but also ensure that we feel in control in the workplace and not overly stressed.

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