Friday, May 18, 2012

How leaders can set the stage for a more productive workplace

Today's post is a "reprint." with permission, of an article I wrote last month for the Spring 2012 WESH Spotlights newsletter, titled  "Early career faculty time management challenges: The role of the leader."  
WESH,  Women Executives in Science & Healthcare, is the new name of the organization formerly known as SELAM.  Please check out this great organization, and the benefits of joining, here. 

My motivation for this topic has emerged from conversations with junior faculty and trainees in academic medicine, and professionals in a variety of other industries.  I have learned that while each of us as individuals can make changes that will improve our own productivity, some impediments to effective working can only be changed by the leadership.  
Although the article focuses on early career faculty in an academic health center, I believe the problems, and possible solutions,  apply to all work places.

There are no doubt many other ways that leaders could help -- I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this issue.

Here we go...

"Early career faculty time management challenges: The role of the leader."  

" is mainly through the control of time that academic power is exercised." - Pierre Bourdieu
As a leader in an academic unit (director of a research group or training grant, division chief, department chair, or dean) you have a responsibility to help your faculty succeed. You know the basics: mentoring for research, teaching, and general career development, support for grant and manuscript preparation, and provision of "start-up" (laboratories and other resources) so that research gets off to a good start. Hopefully your institution and/or professional society offers programs to which you can send your early career faculty to enhance skill building in these areas, as well as the "softer" skills of people management, negotiation, and so on.
You may not think that you have a role in helping your faculty use their time more effectively.

You should think again.
In my conversations with faculty members around the country, "too much to do" is a major source of stress. Although life in academic medicine has always been busy, the pressures these days are particularly intense. You know the effect that, for example, current dwindling of funding and constricted hospital budgets have on everyone. Based on a survey of early career academic medical center faculty, Bellini and colleagues(1) reported 21 workplace "stresses" identified by the group. Forty percent were time-related issues. Nearly 80% of the group felt stressed by both lack of work-life balance and "too many time pressures," and nearly 70% were already concerned about burnout.
Some of the specific issues will sound familiar:
● too much paperwork,
● not enough time for research and other academic pursuits and
● lack of control over how time was spent.
I believe that senior colleagues, and especially leaders, have a responsibility to attend to these issues. Faculty members who have a clear idea of what they should do, and effective processes for getting that work done will be more likely to succeed, and this success contributes to the success of the unit and institution.

When I began work on this article, my idea was to offer the typical sort of "self-help" advice along the lines of "Seven easy steps an academic leader can take to ensure good faculty time management among..." -- but I soon realized that the issues are too complex for facile solutions.

Here is a nutshell message: simply telling someone to be more efficient does not work.

Now for the long version: click here to read the entire article.

Friday, May 4, 2012

What to do today. PART 3 Triage new tasks

Welcome (or welcome back) to the Thriving blog.

First,  you may have noticed a problem with internal links in the last post -- as in a blank screen, or some other unintelligible response.  A Blogger program upgrade may have been the problem.  I'm hoping its fixed - but let me know if you encounter problems ( ).  In case today's links don't work, I've include the title and the date of any old posts referenced. 

Second, devoted readers (who have really  long memories) will notice that I changed the promised topic for today.   I am always on the lookout for improvements, and today's new topic just works better.

Finally, a reminder that you can receive these posts  directly by email.  Just sign up in the little box on the top right of this column. I am very considerate of your time, and only post occasionally.  (This is the best rationalization for procrastination I have ever concocted!)

The Daily Plan, reviewed

The basic method

If you have been following the method I have been describing for planning your day, you have had lots of practice by now in identifying (and hopefully completing) tasks that MUST be done today, and three tasks you AIM to do today.

Is the plan working for you?

MUST do today

You are using "MUST" correctly if tasks are not falling through the cracks, and, you only rarely defer MUST do items to the next day.  The first means you are identifying really must do's, and the second, that you are not including tasks that really don't  have to be done today.  Remember that there is not "right number" of must do tasks;  the number depends on what has to be done.

AIM to do today

You have been limiting yourself to no more than three tasks, and as a result, you (almost) always select tasks related to high priority work. 

Why your perfect plan goes wrong

Your day would now be perfect, but  instead, new tasks show up throughout the day and your carefully made plan gets derailed. 

Triage will help get you back on course.

How to triage new tasks

Triage is (originally) the medical care practice of sorting persons with injuries into those who need immediate treatment and those who can wait; it originated in war time practice, and is used by emergency rooms everywhere.  

You can use the method of triage for new tasks that show up as well - no injuries required.

The core question is obvious: "Does this new task need to be dealt with now, or can it wait until later?" 

If you have a daily plan, you can use it to answer this question in a way that better preserves your priorities:
  1. Ask yourself if this new task is something that MUST be done today.  If so, add it to your MUST do's.  Remember, be stringent!
  2. If it does not have to be done today, ask "is this task MORE IMPORTANT than the tasks on my AIM to do list?"   If it is, swap out one of the three tasks you had previously selected, and replace it with this new task. By forcing yourself to make this swap explicitly (by re-writing the plan) you will be more likely to make a good decision.
  3. If the new task does not need to be done today, and is not more important than remaining items you have aimed to do, write it at the bottom of the plan. You can call this section of the plan "to do when I am done with my musts /aims."

Here is what a "triaged" daily plan would look like (new tasks added in red)

    This is the end of the Daily Plan posts. I've love to know if you find this method helpful, if something is not clear, or if you have a better idea.

    Contact me directly by email (  or by using the comment feature on this post.