Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Working Mum: Achieving the 40 Hour Week

I've been meaning to write a post about some of the techniques I use to keep my work week to something close to 40 hours (most weeks). I've touched on this topic a few times in comments on other posts- most recently in my post about combining motherhood with a career in science. I really think that one of the reasons I'm a happy working mother is that I don't have to work (most) weekends and I almost always leave work early enough to have some time with Pumpkin before dinner. I do this without guilt, because I have always worked this sort of schedule. I guess I've always been the sort of person who needs a break from work in order to be productive. I'm satisfied with the career advancement I've achieved working this schedule, so I don't feel much pressure to work longer hours.

I will admit that my choice of fields certainly plays a role in my reasonable schedule. I work at the interface of biology and computers. My current job is a mix of management, information technology and science. Even when I'm doing pure science, I'm working on a computer. I do not have to plan around the sometimes fickle growth schedules of bacteria or the length of time it takes to run a protein purification column. I'm familiar with these sort of scheduling problems from graduate school, and did occasionally have really long days because of them. (However, I mostly remember working reasonable days in grad school, too- I was lucky to have chosen an adviser who judged on the amount of work produced and not the number of hours in the lab!)

As I've thought about this topic, I have come to the conclusion that the most important technique for working reasonable hours is prioritization. I always know which of the tasks on my to do list are the most important- and I generally consider "important" to mean "has the earliest due date". In general, I work on the things that are coming due the soonest. This method helps to minimize the number of times I have to stay late to meet a deadline. I don't achieve my reasonable work schedule by letting deadlines fly past me. I hate missing deadlines- in fact, I pride myself on NOT missing deadlines.

Another thing I do is negotiate my deadlines. If someone asks me to do something, I usually ask when it needs to be done. If they give me a schedule that I can't meet, I tell them so. I'll discuss the task with them, and see if there is some meaningful portion of it that I can complete in time for their deadline. If we can't agree on a schedule, I tell them when I CAN get the task done, and promise to try my best to get it done earlier. My reputation for not missing deadlines helps me with this discussion. People know that if I say I'll get X done by next Friday, I really will do that.

I will occasionally stay late for a day or two to meet someone's deadline, but I'll only do that a limited number of times. If someone habitually brings me tasks without allowing enough time to complete them, I miss their deadlines. I tell them I can't meet their schedule, and I don't meet it. I tell my boss what has happened so that he or she will be prepared for anyone who complains, and I've never had an negative repercussions from this approach. I suppose I'm lucky that I've never had a boss who habitually sets unrealistic deadlines. I suspect that if I do come across such a boss, I'll start a job search. I always make it clear that I'm willing to work long hours for short periods of time to meet important deadlines- and I back this up with action. I find that I can sustain a 50-60 hour work week for a month or two without losing productivity.

The third thing I do is write lists. I have written before about how lists helped me function at work despite the sleep deprivation of early motherhood. I love lists, and always have. I particularly love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I cross things off my lists. I don't just have a to do list- I have an entire system of to do lists:
  • I have a few "global" lists of things that need to get done. Items on these lists are always associated with a due date of some sort, even if I have to assign one myself. These currently include my departmental goals list, a running task list I share with the other person in my department, and a list of things that have to be done before I go out on maternity leave. These lists are usually stored in files on my computer. (We have a global to do list at home, too- but that is perhaps the subject of a different post.)
  • I have an "upcoming tasks" list, which includes only the tasks that I plan to complete in the next week or two. This list always has my top priority items (according to due date). It usually also has some "gee, it would be nice to get this done" tasks. These are tasks I can work on if I finish all my top priority tasks, or if I am having a low motivation day and need something lighter but still productive to work on.
  • If I'm really busy and/or really struggling with motivation, I also make a daily to do list. This list actually sometimes lasts for a couple of days. If I'm really busy, it has only the most urgent things on it. If I am struggling with motivation, it has "component" tasks on it. I take whatever big task I can't motivate myself to tackle and break it down into little tasks. Then I put some of the little tasks on my daily to do list and put the list in a place on my desk where I can't avoid seeing it.
I'll be the first to admit that my to do list system might not work for everyone. I think that work organization is a very personal thing. However, I think that the prioritization piece probably would be useful for most people. I have noticed a strong correlation between the unwillingness (or inability?) to prioritize work and long hours worked to meet deadlines. People like that sometimes look at people like me and assume that we must not have as much work to do. I don't think that is true. At times, I have ridiculously long to do lists. I always leave work with things left to do. Its just that none of the things left on my to do list are due the next day.

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