|The Value of Structure
© 2006, Don Mize
When learning to play chess, I made one mistake repeatedly: I would focus on
checkmating my opponent and neglect playing the whole board. Just as I was
about to checkmate my opponent, I would lose the game. When I learned to
focus on all the potential moves as a continuing process, my chess game
Consider a woman who appeared at my office demanding that I immediately
make phone calls to take care of a task. I tried, even though people were
arriving for a meeting. Unfortunately, the people we needed to reach were not
available. The woman was intelligent, had attended an outstanding university,
and possessed great drive. In college, she informed me, she had learned the
wisdom of doing one task at a time and completing that task before taking on
another. On that particular morning, her self-appointed task included my time,
and I had to leave her unhappy in order to meet my commitments.
She was not playing the whole board. The strategy that worked as a university
student studying alone did not work in the marketplace. In most situations, we
must play the whole board. Laundry must be done, housekeeping must occur,
reports must be written, several assignments must be kept in play, people must
be seen, and several projects must be managed at once. For that reason,
learning to structure one’s time is essential. Let us start with structuring the
month and week.
Structure the month and the week
By placing regular monthly tasks on an appointment or deadline calendar, time
is immediately structured. However, structuring the week requires more
thought. If one works long hours during the week, Saturday may fall naturally
as the day to do laundry, buy groceries, or mow the lawn. Sunday may become
a day of rest and worship. However, some structuring requires more thought.
James, a sales representative working entirely on commission, barely scraped
by. He read an article describing different types of time and decided to apply
the ideas. One type of time was creative time: the time in which a person
considers ways to improve job performance. James started with creative time,
setting his alarm an hour earlier to make time to study his performance.
The first morning James applied the other types of time mentioned in the article
to his work. James realized that his productive time (the time that actually
made money) was the time spent making a presentation to a client and asking
the client to buy. He then focused on how he could increase his productive
time. Since he knew that his clientele preferred to work by appointment, he
decided to spend Fridays making appointments for the next week. Rather than
starting Monday under pressure, he would start the week with his productive
time already secured.
In summary, certain things must be done each week, and structuring time eases
stress and increases efficiency. A homemaker might make Monday laundry day
and Tuesday grocery-shopping day. If a friend is having surgery on Monday,
the homemaker knows that Monday is taken and move laundry to Sunday
night. Reinventing the wheel every week increases stress and inefficiency;
invent the weekly and monthly structure once and make adjustments as needed.
Structure the day
Once James realized that his productive time was the time he actually spent
selling, he decided on the tasks that should be labeled overhead time: writing
up his sales orders, writing his monthly report, totaling his expenses, clearing his
desk, and other details. For example, James knew that “buyer’s remorse”
occurred after a client placed an order, so he mailed a follow-up letter restating
why purchase was a good decision. While increasing overhead time, the letter
assured a continuing relationship with his client.
James then gave thought to tasks that should be labeled preparation time.
Although he had developed a basic sales presentation in which he “told his
story” to a prospective buyer, he needed to practice, improve, and update the
presentation. In addition, he needed to study each client. James realized that an
avid outdoorsman would buy when he realized the product would give him more
time for his hobby while a detail-obsessive client would buy when he understood
the product would help monitor details. In addition, James also needed to keep
up with updates in his product.
While James could see the wisdom of labeling his tasks as productive, overhead,
preparation, and creative time, how could he keep all these tasks in play each
week? In other words, how could he play the whole board?
During his creative time, James thought about the problem. All his
appointments occurred during the office hours of his clients; therefore, James
set aside 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. to take care of his overhead time (writing reports,
processing orders for the day, answering letters, and any other details.). Thus,
he structured time for the overhead tasks that left his day free for appointments.
James decided to get up early, spend an hour on creative time, exercise, dress,
and arrive at his office by 6 a.m. Until 9 a.m., he would prepare by reviewing
his presentation, studying his clients, and catching up on any changes in his
product. At 9 a.m., he would take care of details and leave for his first
appointment (which was rarely scheduled earlier than 10 a.m.). Between
appointments, he would take care of any overhead task (such as writing up an
order) and thus have less to do at night.
No matter one’s occupation, everyone must deal with four types of time:
productive time, overhead time, preparation time, and creative time. Days can
be efficiently structured into three-hour blocks: a morning block, an afternoon
block, and an evening block.
For many, the day is already structured by office hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).
The most stressful jobs are those in which the worker has no control over the
time (secretaries, blue-collar workers). However, some workers control how
they spend the working hours and can plan a basic structure to the day (when
to answer mail/email, when to return phone calls, when to work on projects). If
your daily structure is not determined for you (as in the case of James), you
must decide how to maximize your productive time while taking care of
preparation and overhead time.
In summary, you must attend to productive time, overhead time, preparation
time, and creative time. Most people neglect overhead time (writing reports,
sending follow-up letters, writing thank-you notes, etc.) Overhead time is not
exciting, but overhead time cements relationships. Also, creative time is often
pushed aside, reducing a person to maze-running rather than innovative
Defining your productive time may not be simple. James, a salesperson
working entirely on commission, could easily define his productive time as time
spent actually selling. However, a mother who does not work outside the home
receives no financial remuneration for her myriad tasks. A pastor who defines
productive time entirely in economic terms perverts the gospel. Each person
must define specifically the tasks that compose productive time in order to
accomplish the strategically important.
In other words, a person must play the whole board: perform many different
tasks on a continuing basis that usually involves other people. Structuring the
month, week, and day keeps us from starting each week with a blank sheet of
paper, allows us to make adjustments quickly, and assures that essential ongoing
tasks are performed on time.
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