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Time management masterclass: Protecting your time

NHS performance coach Sarah Christie looks at dealing with talkative patients, interruptions from colleagues and using your 'dead time'.

When it comes to good time management, it really doesn't matter how well you plan your week and schedule your activities. What matters is that you protect the time you have allocated to a specific task and ensure you actually complete it.

No time management technique in the world is going to work if you lack the willpower to sit down and get on with the items on your list. Having some compelling goals provides a good degree of motivation, but if the goals have distant deadlines, the pressure or enticement may not be strong enough to get you to focus in the present.

Limit yourself

Developing good habits around checking emails and not going to all meetings was discussed in a previous article. Now you have to develop a determination to use the time you have allocated for a specific task productively.

This may mean finding a quiet room to help you concentrate or it may be as easy as closing the door on your consulting room, having told your colleagues that a closed door means you are not to be disturbed.

Once you are in your quiet space, make sure you divert the telephone and not be tempted to review your emails first. Focus on the report or presentation you need to write and do nothing else. Think of how satisfied you will feel when the task is complete and you can cross it off your list.

Sometimes it is difficult to concentrate for an hour. Try setting yourself a twenty minute target and do as much as you can in that time. Then take a five minute break but think twice about leaving your office to make another coffee. Chances are someone will pounce on you, so just take a break from the computer and walk around. Be strict on the break time and after five minutes is up, return and begin the next twenty minute tranche. When you limit yourself you will be surprised how much you can accomplish. That sense of pressure may just be enough to help you achieve what you need.

If you really cannot find an hour in one day, then break down your task into smaller steps. Many small activities can be achieved in five minute slots and again, you will be surprised at how much you can accomplish this way. Seize the opportunity that is afforded by an unexpected patient cancellation or a meeting ending early. If you have a list of five minute actions at the ready, you will be able to make progress every day. This is all part of planning and preparation and being prepared to take action as soon as you get the chance.

Other people

GPs have often told me that people are at the heart of their time management problems. Talkative patients prevent their lists being completed on time; colleagues continually interrupt an already busy day or keep them chatting for longer than wanted; others feel powerless to refuse a request for help with a heavy workload and take on tasks that are nothing to do with them. Although not always easy, some robustness needs to be developed about holding an assertive conversation. This does not mean being rude to someone, but it does mean being firm with an individual, whilst remaining respectful.

Be clear with others about your priorities. Make it known what you need to accomplish each day and be specific about the times you do not wish to be interrupted. With patients you need to find a way of educating them around the ten-minute appointment time or advise them to book two back-to-back appointments if they have a lot to discuss. Try not to give into feelings of guilt when ending a patient appointment on time. Whilst many people do enjoy talking with their GP, you must run your practice efficiently and be perceived as an effective doctor. With good listening skills, knowing what type of questions to ask and understanding when it is appropriate to break rapport, you will be able to end the appointment on time without making the patient feel rushed or not listened to.

Dead time

Finally, make the most of your transition time. If you commute on a train or bus you have some wonderful reading time available to you, a chance to catch up on your research or other material that requires your attention. Look for other times in your working week that you would consider ‘dead' time. You may be able to get a lot more done than you had previously considered.

Develop smarter strategies about how you protect your time and communicate your needs for dedicated project time to others. Do not give into guilt and remember you are developing your effectiveness and re-claiming your work life balance. The more you practise, the more accurate you will become about how much you can achieve and how much time you need. Your productivity will rise and your stress levels decrease in direct proportion. An initial concerted effort will reap dividends in the long term, I promise.

Sarah Christie is an author and performance coach who leads management and leadership programmes for clinicians and non-medical managers. Her website is

Credit: Flickr, smemon87 Time management masterclass