Become a Better Manager

As a manager, you're expected to motivate your staff, control resources and adapt to change. Your style and skill largely determines your success. But of all the skills you need to manage well, none is more revealing than how well you manage yourself.

Imagine Two Managers

Felix is organized. His office is neat and tidy with plenty of open space and bare surfaces. His bookshelves contain only the latest reference texts, and his files are dated to purge. Much of his work is done online; his e-mail inbox has only current messages. Everything that enters his office is immediately sorted and then delegated or purged. His peers think he's always in his office, but Felix works in short bursts of an hour or less, frequently leaving his desk to interact with staff and peers.

Oscar is disorganized. His office is piled high with stacks of paper and old magazines, legal pads scribbled with notes, minutes of meetings attended long ago, unopened mail and an extra file cabinet. His bookcase is crammed tightly with reference texts, outdated catalogues, outdated coding books, and old procedure manuals. And while Oscar has two computers in his office, both covered with sticky notes, he can only get to one of them. His inbox has countless unread e-mails. Oscar seems to rarely be in his office, but in fact works late hours and an occasional Saturday catching up, often with the door closed.

Felix and Oscar have the same time to do similar jobs. But Felix is more responsive and able to take on new projects. Oscar is still playing catch up. Which extreme is more likely to adapt to change and motivate staff? Who would you rather work for? Who would you rather be?

While you may never be Felix, a simple strategy and a few guidelines can improve your self-management skills.

Time Poverty

According to Stephen Rechtschaffen, MD, cofounder and director of the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, over 90 percent of those attending his workshops declare a sense of "time poverty." Greater speed and efficiency of technology has created ever-decreasing units of work time, making us too eager to reach the next event. "We divide our attention and awareness," Rechtschaffen writes, "between the task at hand that we're rushing to complete and the next item on our planner."1

Indeed, a group of activists have designated October 24th as "Take Back Your Time Day," a nationwide day off to acknowledge our overworked, overcommitted, and overstressed lives.2 They lament that the U.S. is alone among industrialized nations in not protecting vacations and have called for Congress to guarantee three weeks of paid vacation for all workers.3

But the problem isn't new. In 1974 the Harvard Business Review asked, "Why is it that managers are typically running out of time while their subordinates are typically running out of work?"4 While a manager's time is divided between supervisors, peers and subordinates, "boss-imposed" and "system-imposed" time can't be controlled.

But you can control "self-imposed" discretionary time, defined as time left over from tasks that must be done to avoid penalty (two examples are mandatory meetings and performance evaluations). You may have more time than you think.

Your next step is to decide what to do with it.

Proper Planning

Planning equals efficiency: to-do lists, calendars, reminders, task lists, flowcharts, software reminders, handheld electronic organizers and other tools make you more efficient. Does more planning mean greater efficiency?

According to Eric Abrahamson, co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, each of us has a "sweet spot" at which any more or any less time spent organizing would make us less efficient. "If you devote all your time to organizing," says Abrahamson, "you won't get anything done."5

You only need to be organized enough, in other words. You may seem disorganized to others, but efficiency is your goal, not appearance. Thus, use whatever tools work well and focus on using your time and not planning to use it. You need to be aware of your own sense of "disorganization."

This strategy of planning just enough will help you use your time wisely. Let's consider a few guidelines to help get you there:

  • Seek a mentor-other managers who have "been there, done that" are willing to listen, empathize and offer good advice.
  • Learn to delegate. This skill involves giving others the authority, and in some instances autonomy, to complete jobs on their own. Ask yourself, "If I delegate everything I possibly can, what is left?" This can help you prioritize tasks.
  • Respond to root causes. Experienced managers learn to respond to the problem that creates a crisis and not just the crisis.
  • Monitor your work hours-working too many hours is the first sign that things are getting out of hand. While your goal isn't to work fewer hours, greater efficiency is. If you're working too many hours, you need to delegate tasks or ask for help, particularly with "boss-" or "system-imposed" time tasks.
  • Monitor your stress level. People react to stress in different ways, and your own reaction to stress can affect work, home or both. Take a moment every week or two to write down how you are handling stress.
  • Communicate. Hold regular staff meetings, not just when there is something to say. Your staff always what to hear what's going on and may offer to help.
  • Recognize accomplishments and include time to acknowledge what people have done to avoid simply jumping from one problem to the next.

Any strategy of planning just enough to get a job done should include the human factors that make your management style unique: how you learn, how you communicate, and how you decide. How well you manage yourself can help you and others to reach goals that result in better patient care.

Scott Warner is laboratory manager, Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, ME.


  1. Rechtschaffen S. Time-shifting. The Psychology Today website. Psychology Today, Nov/Dec 93. Article ID: 1582. Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-19931101-000027.html.
  2. Sexton T. Take back your time. The Psychology Today website Psychology Today Magazine, Sep/Oct 2003. Article ID: 3082 Available at: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/pto-20031023-000011.html.
  3. Press release: Take back your time launches campaign for vacation law - leaders hope to make the issue part of the 2008 presidential campaign. 05/01/07. The Take Back Your Time website: Available at: http://www.timeday.org/press-release-050107.asp.
  4. Oncken W, Wass D. Management time: who's got the monkey? The Harvard Business Review website. Available at: http://harvardbusinessonline.hbsp.harvard.edu/hbsp/hbr/articles/article.jsp?articleID=99609&ml_action=get-article.
  5. Meeting the masterminds: Eric Abrahamson on the benefits of messiness. The Management Consulting News page. Available at: http://www.managementconsultingnews.com/interviews/abrahamson_interview.php.
  6. McNamara C. Free basic guide to leadership and supervision. The Free Management Library website. Available at: http://www.managementhelp.org/mgmnt/prsnlmnt.htm#anchor262914.

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