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The secret to successful time management is working to your personality’s strengths. So, are you an action hero, diva, workhorse, yes-man or perfectionist? Matthew Jenkin reports
From coaches to apps, there’s no end to the products and services promising to help you better manage your workload and increase your productivity. But while Lucy in marketing seems to sail through the day ticking off tasks as she races towards home time, why have you barely made it halfway down the to-do list when the clock strikes 5pm? Because effective time management is not determined by the hours we work – it’s down to our personalities.
Employers have long suspected there is no one-size-fits-all approach and personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)(1) have become a popular way for businesses to assess employees. The MBTI’s success, many claim, lies in its simplicity. With 93 questions, loosely formulated from the work of Carl Jung, it can divide all staff into 16 distinct types: combinations of introverts, extroverts, thinkers, feelers, the judging and the perceptive.
Management consultant and behavioural expert Beverly Flaxington agrees that in order for any time-management method to be successful, you have to take into account people’s individual behaviours at work.
“I remember years ago hiring someone to help me declutter and be more efficient. They put everything in boxes and hid it away,” she says. “Well, I am a highly visual person, I like things in front of me, so I crashed. I could hardly work. That’s when I started to learn that this has to be oriented around someone’s natural personality style.”
So what are the five most common personality types, and how can each one manage their behaviour to improve their time management?
1. The action hero
Like Wonder Woman or Superman, this person will see a burning building and run towards it without waiting for the fire brigade. Give them a seemingly impossible list of tasks and they will have them done and dusted faster than a speeding bullet. The Achilles heel, however, is that in their effort to clear their agenda for the day, they can miss things, says Flaxington.
Time-management transformation: These people are results-driven and will often act without much thought for the urgency or importance of the task, claims Susy Roberts, executive coach and founder of people-development consultancy Hunter Roberts(2). She advises this type to step back and think carefully about what should be done first rather than immediately doing whatever pops into their inbox.
Stephen Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People(3), agrees and suggests ranking tasks across four metrics: important/not important and urgent/not urgent.
2. The diva
Fun to have at the office party but, considering the time they spend chatting, it’s a wonder this type gets any work done at all. They may be upbeat, friendly, talkative and fun-loving, but the day will slip by with few tasks on the to-do list attempted, let alone achieved. Roberts claims their tendency to boast about their achievements can give the impression they are more productive than they really are.
Flaxington observes: “All of a sudden time has elapsed. They thought they were going to get 15 things done today but have been in a conversation, enjoying themselves, and didn’t even notice the time disappear.”
Time-management transformation: These are the people who really benefit from having a strategy. If you have a large project to do, Flaxington advises, break it into tiny steps, put tasks in the calendar and set reminders. A master calendar keeps your work and personal events in one place, making scheduling faster and simpler, resulting in less rescheduling.
Email management is also crucial. More than one-quarter of a worker’s day, on average, is spent answering and reading emails, according to 2012 research by the McKinsey Global Institute(4). It found that email is the second-most time-consuming activity for workers, next to ‘role-specific tasks’.
Writing for Fast Company(5), Zach Hanlon, a marketing and sales expert, says that the secret is to stop ‘organising’ emails by subject and start thinking of them in terms of deadlines. He proposes a move from viewing your inbox as a to-do list to creating five folders based on chronological urgency/importance.
3. The workhorse
Slow and steady wins the race with this personality type. They think everything through thoroughly, are cautious and methodical, and quite independent in terms of how they carry out tasks, explains Roberts. So, they will plan and prioritise really well, but may be seen as overcautious, while others can be frustrated by their inertia. Their dedication to the job can also lead to an unwillingness to share the burden of work.
Time-management transformation: “Handing something over and trusting somebody else to do it is just not in their DNA,” says Flaxington. “So, look at your day and pick out the three or four most important things that you need to focus on. Isolate what you know you absolutely have to do and decide which tasks you can delegate.”
Delegation seems to be a common problem. A 2007 study on time management(6) found that close to half of the 332 companies surveyed were concerned about their employees’ delegation skills. In an article for Inc(7), Jayson DeMers – founder and CEO of content marketing firm AudienceBloom – offers advice for leaders struggling to delegate. On top of prioritising, he suggests giving work to staff with the most skills for the task rather than the lightest workload, for example.
4. The yes-man
The ultimate team players, all these people want to do is help and support their colleagues. Sharing is caring, of course, but the danger is that this type is reluctant to push back and can end up biting off more than they can chew. Therefore, they either end up working extremely long hours or missing deadlines, explains Roberts.
Time-management transformation: Learn to say no, says psychotherapist and life coach Hilda Burke(8). “Challenging this type of work programming can take some time, but it can be done,” she says. And if you still struggle to push back and are feeling overwhelmed then it’s important to take breaks.”
It sounds obvious, but research has found that taking regular breaks improves productivity. DeskTime, a productivity app that tracks employees’ computer use, has found that the perfect length of pause is 17 minutes. And in 1999, Cornell University’s Ergonomics Research Laboratory used a computer program to remind workers to take short breaks.
The project concluded(9) that “workers receiving the alerts [reminding them to stop working] were 13 per cent more accurate on average in their work than co-workers who were not reminded”. This simple-but-effective method has spawned many an app, from the Marinara Timer(10) to the PomoDone(11).
5. The perfectionist
This type may take the longest to finish a task but, as the name suggests, is very much focused on quality over quantity. Flaxington explains that, because accuracy is so important to them, they can feel overwhelmed and struggle if they have too much on their plate. And they will get very stressed if you try to force them.
Time-management transformation: Clutter is enemy number one for the perfectionist, so a messy inbox full of unread messages can be terrifying. With email traffic predicted to increase by four per cent(12) year on year, the sooner you get on top of the problem the better. There are, however, a number of ways you can deal with email overload.
One of the best-known methods is called ‘inbox zero’ – by which you keep your inbox empty or almost empty at all times. It’s probably a job in itself, but the inventor Merlin Mann says(13) you have a five-fold choice when faced with a new message: delete, delegate, respond, defer or do. This effectively turns your inbox into a to-do list, involving hard choices about how to prioritise and get things done effectively.
Matthew Jenkin is a British freelance journalist and the former editor of Guardian Careers, The Guardian newspaper’s community site for job seekers and career changers