Growing up on a farm in upstate New York, Julie Gray thought she was learning lessons that she could share with executives and entrepreneurs in virtually every other line of business. It turns out she was learning lessons that today’s farmers need to learn too.
From her office near Washington, DC, Gray is now an internationally recognized time coach, with clients all over the world, including Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Most come to her feeling overwhelmed and close to burn out.
Sometimes, her advice is highly practical.
Among Gray’s first questions for clients, for instance, is to ask them how much sleep they are getting. “You’re going to feel disorganized if you are not getting enough sleep,” she explains. While our natural tendency is to work more hours, often stolen from sleep hours, sometimes the cure for not having enough time is to take a bit of time off.
As counter-intuitive as it sounds, productivity research shows the importance of taking breaks, says Gray. Giving yourself permission to “be off” at times through your day will go a long way to restoring your focus and energy.
Another problem she sees frequently is people who are trying to hold too much information in their heads. You need to build a system and get the information out of your head and into a notebook or use an app on your phone, she says.
The important thing is to find systems that work for you. We all have different strengths and our brains work in different ways, she says.
But time management is also a sophisticated science. Not all generic time management information will apply to any individual or circumstance. Nor will all time coaches recommend the same strategies.
For example, some time management experts are adamant that you should never touch a piece of paper or read an email more than once. Gray says the problem with that is that it can backfire, because some people will become paralyzed by the extra pressure they perceive with this approach.
To find strategies that work for you, Gray recommends that that when you read a piece of time management advice that resonates with you, “Try it out. Experiment with it. Notice what works for you and what doesn’t. Tweak it from there.”
Gray also emphasizes the importance of thinking in terms of holistic time management. Your best success will come if you balance your mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.
As the pace of life speeds up, it is increasingly common for more and more distractions to pervade our day, sapping our brain’s energy and leaving us exhausted, whether those distractions are technological or otherwise.
Gray is a big believer in unplugging for one hour each day while you focus on what you really need to accomplish. Take five minutes at the beginning of each day to decide what your three biggest priorities are, she says.
Email has become ubiquitous in business communications and can be both a time saver and a time waster. On the plus side, you have more control over your time with email. You can answer emails at a time that suits you and you can avoid playing phone tag.
Bruce Court, owner of Court Farms near Courtland, Ont. says communicating via email and text messages frees up a lot of time. This is especially good if it is just a quick question, he says. “There is less small talk, he says. The other advantage is that you have a record of what happened during the day and can look back and see if there is anything you need to do when you get back to the office.
Rhonda Driediger, owner of Driediger Farms and Blueridge Produce in Langley, B.C. agrees. She says her iPad and iPhone are her most important time saving devices. “I have switched most of my customers over to texting or email so I no longer have to answer the phone day and night.”
On the downside, if we’re not careful, email can gobble up hours of every day while not really accomplishing much. You may not even be aware of how much time gets wasted.
For example, if you get 100 emails in a day and you spend 30 seconds reading each one, that’s almost an hour spent just reading emails. And then if you spend 10 minutes answering even five of them, that’s another 50 minutes. In total, that’s 100 minutes, more than an hour and a half, spent on email. That adds up to more than eight hours a week.
This underscores the need to use email efficiently. Don’t “cc” people who don’t really need to know. Unsubscribe from email lists that aren’t useful (or use a separate email address so you can more easily choose a different time to read them.) Pick up the phone if it will be faster than writing a long email or a series of emails. And if it’s a sensitive topic, be aware that it is difficult to convey emotion in an email. Some discussions are better done in person or by phone.
Gray also recommends processing email in batches. It’s more efficient to set aside small chunks of time to deal with email rather than jumping back and forth between tasks, she explains.
Many of us sit down to read our emails first thing in the morning. Many time management experts are dead set against this. They say this time of day should be reserved for the tasks that are most important and valuable to you. Often they recommend getting the jobs you really dislike out of the way while you are still fresh.
Sharing the workload is another important time management strategy. “Farmers need to move away from the “I might as well do it myself” mantra and work instead to identify what skilled employees can bring to their operation,” emphasizes Driediger. “Now that we have several full-time skilled staff members, I am free to do more business development that focusses on improving our bottom line.”
Gray also advises looking for opportunities to outsource jobs that aren’t a good use of your time. House cleaning, mowing the lawn, and cooking are jobs that could be given to others. There are also virtual and personal assistants that can be hired to help out.
With the cost of technology always coming down in price, what technologies could you use to save time? Driedger installed cameras throughout her facilities so she can answer questions without having to track down an employee for an answer. With the cameras she can see what trucks have arrived, how much fruit is in the cooler to be packed or shipped, etc.
Court says auto steer and a smartphone have made it a lot easier for him to stay in touch during the day by answering text messages, emails and phone calls on-the-go.
While it’s important to make sure that field equipment is ready to go for the planting season, Court makes sure he is ready to go too. He tries to schedule all of his meetings, licensing courses, and appointments with doctors and dentists during the winter months so there isn’t anything that gets in the way during the busy seasons. “Otherwise it never fails that those things happen on the nicest harvest and planting days!” he says.
This article was originally published as ‘When things get busy… keep your sanity’ in the March 31, 2015 issue of Country Guide