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Time Management is Safety Management

by Daniel Moran, Ph.D.

Worldwide, safety champions and industry leaders strive to maximize their effectiveness on the job. I’ve noticed that no matter what industries these leaders work in, they often complain of having a similar problem: not enough time to get everything completed. Now you might think that there are many other things to discuss in a behavior-based safety newsletter, but time-management skills can certainly contribute to the overall effectiveness of a company’s safety process. When people commit to certain actions to ensure safety on the job, then those actions must be reliably completed every time, on time. And when people make such a commitment, it makes sense to remove disruptions that keep you from completing your tasks.

In my book, Building Safety Commitment, I define commitment as “acting in the direction of what you care about even in the presence of obstacles.” You can use this concept for committing to managing time effectively, as well. To be efficient with your time, you need to have a list of actions, you need to know what priorities you care about, and you need to know how to deal with obstacles, such as distractions.

Create a List of Actions

I’ve helped executives and front-line workers optimize their behavior on the job for many years, and the one simple thing that I suggest to everyone is to follow a written list of things to do. If you believe you are going to simply remember all the things you have to do, when you need to do them, and in what order they need to be done, you are very likely fooling yourself. If you are committed to being efficient with your time, keep a checklist and a calendar. 

Technical operations in the 21st century have become extremely specialized and often very detailed so that errors are more probable. Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, discusses how injuries and fatalities are avoidable, and as far as preventing them, he writes, “The knowledge exists. But however supremely specialized and trained we may have become, steps are still missed. Mistakes are still made.” Therefore, it is extremely important, for both safety reasons and time-management reasons to keep a solid list of what you need to do and when you need to do it.

Several dozen smartphone apps can help you keep track of the things you need to do, and you can even set alarms for when you need to do them.  Many of these apps are free, so try a few out to see which fits you the best. Or, simply use the tried and true method of paper and pen to catalogue the events you are in charge of completing. Make sure that you record the “who, what, where, when, and how” in your checklists . . .

Define the Priorities You Care About

Be aware of “why” you are doing the tasks on your list. After you have created a checklist, make sure that you follow that checklist all the way through. A written record of priorities means you will do the things on the list “prior” or before you do other things that are not on the list. 

The challenge is making sure that the things you are doing have meaning. If you can make yourself focus on the purpose of your actions, you will be much better at managing your time productively. All the work you do at your job—whether you are running a meeting, writing a memo, or hanging sheetrock—has a purpose. The more you can clarify why you are doing that task, the more likely you will stay motivated to accomplish it.

No matter what you are trying to accomplish, you are striving for certain consequences of your actions. There are two types of consequences to your work actions: the short-term results and long-term values. Short-term results are the immediate consequences for completing a task, and if we can set up positive consequences for checking off items on our checklist, we will more likely stay motivated to focus on the accomplishments. For example, come to an understanding that certain jobs need to be completed before you take a break or stop for lunch. Accomplishing that short-term result should be used as a requirement before you get to do the other simpler, or fun things related to your job. For instance, set a goal to hang 40 sheets of drywall before taking a break, or make sure you clear your email inbox before going to lunch. Setting some kind of short-term consequence before you do more enjoyable things will help you stay focused on those priorities.

In addition, good time managers stay motivated to finish tasks appropriately when they clarify the long-term value of their work. Ask yourself, in the long run, why do you want to do this job appropriately and efficiently? What do you value or find to be vital and meaningful in your life that will keep you motivated to behave effectively? Perhaps you desire to finish hanging that sheetrock because you care about job security so that you can provide for your family. Or perhaps you need to clean out your inbox on a regular basis because you value solid customer service. Whatever your work tasks require, make sure that you build in positive consequences, so that you focus on finishing them on time, and also ensure that you see the long-term value of doing a good job on the task, so you maintain your best efforts.

Learn to Deal with Distractions

The final part of staying committed to a task is making sure that you can deal with distractions. The first two steps of a commitment (having a checklist, knowing your valued priorities) can assist with dealing with distractions, but there is also another skill that you can strengthen to help you become better at keeping commitments. In Building Safety Commitment, I talk about the skill of situational awareness. Situational awareness is knowing what is happening in your environment so you know how to act appropriately. Surprisingly, this is a very tricky skill to develop. 

Let me give an example on how we can be so distracted by our own thoughts that it has a negative impact on accomplishing tasks that we know how to do and are motivated to complete. Have you ever been on your way to your friends’ house for a party, and while driving down the highway, you realize that you zipped right by the exit ramp for their house? You might have been so caught up in your thoughts that you missed an important opportunity for action. The exit sign was still there on the side of the highway acting as a signal to let you know that now is the time to do the action you want to do, but you are too distracted to take advantage of that opportunity. If you have ever experienced that phenomenon, you realize that sometimes you make mistakes even when you know the right thing to do, and want to do it! The problem is that we are not always situationally aware. We are preoccupied, inattentive, and unfocused at times. But we can practice exercises that build up situational awareness.

The main way to become more focused on what you are doing in the present moment is to take a few minutes every day and just maintain attention on one thing. If you like to drink coffee, take one minute per day for the next week, and simply do that one thing: drink your coffee. Notice what it tastes like, the aroma of the coffee, the feeling of the steam on your face, the warmth of the mug. Do not read the paper, answer emails, or plan your day for that one minute. Simply focus on one thing and one thing only: the current experience and actions of drinking your coffee. Next week, expand that exercise to two minutes, and then 4 minutes the week after, and stay at that four-minute exercise for a few weeks. You may begin to notice that if you practice being situationally aware of the coffee drinking, you can use that same skill for focusing on the tasks on your checklist. That skill will be invaluable for your time-management abilities.