Avoiding Time-Wasters

Last night I had a terrifying nightmare – I dreamt that I wasted an hour waiting for a cab. How weird is that? When I woke up I was so relieved to realize it was just a dream – it was almost as good as waking up from the ‘missed my exam’ nightmare! Then it hit me – after 20+ years as a professor, my worst fears have evolved. Now the scariest thing I can imagine is not failing a course or even missing an exam – it’s wasting an hour of my time. In fact, nothing stresses me out more than the prospect of wasting time – so much so, that I have developed an arsenal of strategies for effective time management.

Today I’m going to focus on how to deal with the biggest time-waster of them all – the unexpected visitor; the person who stops by your office without warning and for no apparent purpose. It might be a former student who happens to be on campus and decides on a whim to drop by to see you, or it might be a bored colleague who’s feeling chatty. This person has time to kill and they’ve targeted you to help them fill that time.  The worst experience I’ve ever had with this happened about 15 years ago – the day before my NSERC Discovery Grant was due – a former student “dropped in” and stayed THREE HOURS – talking incessantly for the duration. I was pulling my hair out by the time he said, “Sorry, I’d better run, I’ve got work to do!”

Like I didn’t? What on earth was he thinking? I ended up working until 3:30 am that night, to get my application in by the deadline. Yet I sat there for three long, stressful hours, totally unable to hurt his feelings by asking him to leave so I could get MY work done. The sad thing is – I would have enjoyed that three hour visit if only he had called ahead to arrange it, instead of appearing unexpectedly.

I decided that night that I needed to have plans and strategies in place so that this never happened again. So I came up with the “Time-waster Avoidance System”  – or TAS, as I call it – a multi-stage emergency response system that has never let me down to this day. It’s pretty simple actually – here’s how it goes…

 Stage 1 – Defense Preparation
The premise here is that the most dangerous thing you can let a time-waster do is sit down. If you let them get comfortable, they’ll stay there for at least an hour, possibly longer. So prepare your office by covering all of the chairs with precarious stacks of paper. Your desk must also be covered with tall piles of paper – otherwise the determined time-waster will think nothing of lifting a pile off the chair and putting it on your desk. Some people even have the floor of their office covered with paper skyscrapers,  but personally I find this a bit claustrophobic. (…and you thought all those stacks of papers were a sign of disorganization. Ha!)  If my time-waster has the gall to move the pile from my chair to the floor, I move immediately to TAS Stage 2.

Stage 2 – Rise to the Occasion
The idea here is that your time-waster is less likely to sit down if you stand up. We women are at a bit of an advantage here since there are still some men around who were taught to believe that it’s impolite for a man to sit when there’s a woman standing. That’s actually a very weird and old-fashioned custom, if you think about it – but not one you’ll ever hear me complaining about. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of TAS Stage 2. Normally, I’ll wait to see if the time-waster is going to try to sit down before I get up, but if I see a repeat offender pushing my door open and peeking in, I’m on my feet before they cross the threshold. I also invoke TAS Stage 2 if my standing time-waster looks to have stamina. I generally give them about 10 minutes, then I get up, pretend to look in my filing cabinet and remain standing. In extreme cases, I may even start inching towards them – edging them back towards the door. Here’s where it helps to have a line of filing cabinets stretching from the desk to the door.

Of course, there are some people who can stand and gab forever, and thus who are totally immune to TAS Stages 1 and 2. Not to fear, for the really relentless time-waster, you need to pull out all the stops and invoke TAS Stage 3.

Stage 3 – Abandon Ship
This one is idiotically simple, yet has never failed me. If your time-waster won’t leave, then leave yourself. Grab your laptop, your smartphone, and/or a couple of journal papers that you need to read or review, as well as a pencil and a notepad, then look at your watch and say, “Sorry, but I’ve got to run to a meeting.” The trick here is that you really have to leave, so take some work with you. I generally go to the library or a meeting room and hide out for an hour. It’s inconvenient, but at least you’re not wasting that hour. And personally, I’d rather have to tell a white lie than offend someone by telling them to leave and stop wasting my time.

Over the many years that I have been employing the TAS system, I have only had to go to Stage 3 twice. The first time was only a couple of weeks after the three hour marathon with the former student – he came back! He was out in the hallway, talking to one of my colleagues, and I almost had a heart attack when I heard him say, “Well, I’m just going to drop in to visit, Faye…”  I was so alarmed by the prospect,  I breached protocol and entirely skipped TAS Stages 1 and 2. I jumped out of my chair, grabbed some papers and my coat and met him at the door.

“Oh, hi there,” I said with mock surprise. “Sorry, I can’t stop to chat, I just realized I’m late for a meeting.” I nearly knocked him over on my way out.

Have you been tormented by time-wasters? If yes, I hope you give the TAS system a try. If you use it on me though, I’ll know ! 😉

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