Dustin Levy

Interview Topics: Time Management

Blog Post created by Dustin Levy on Oct 3, 2016

Two recent Ph.D. graduates, one spent 40-50 hours a week in the lab, the other spent 70-80 hours a week in the lab.  Which one is the harder worker?

 

On the surface, the 70-80 hour individual may be the harder worker, but they could also be inefficient and poor at time management.  Conversely, it’s possible that the 40-50 hour individual is a bit lazier, but it could also be possible that they are very efficient and excellent at time management.  As companies and organizations are being asked to do more with less, hiring employees with strong time management skills is essential.  The implications when hiring for a role based on hourly pay are obvious – if one person can get an allotment of work done in 40 hours while another takes 80, you definitely want the former.

 

Things get more interesting for salaried roles where overtime hours aren’t paid.  Now the 80 hour a week individual could be a great bargain if their output would exceed what another candidate would accomplish in 40 hours.  Some key considerations become, Will that 80 hour a week “work-a-holic” eventually burn out?  What will happen to their output and morale should they decide to start a family?  If I need that 40 hour individual to put in 60 hours now and then, will they do it, or be out the door at 5 pm no matter what’s going on around them?

 

These uncertainties faced by a hiring manager relate most to motivation.  As a manager, I can motivate employees to an extent, but this is a two-way street, and I can’t influence an employee’s motivation level fully.  What I can do is hire individuals with strong time management skills, so that as their motivation waxes and wanes, and outside influences place additional demands on their time as they mature (raising children, home ownership, declining health, etc.), they have the skills to maintain a consistent, predictable level of output that I can rely on.

 

In an interview, I’ll ask a candidate to describe their time management strategy.  Here are some red flags I look for and some good habits I’ve seen, heard, and try to practice myself:

 

The red flags:

 

1. Can’t articulate a strategy or any elements thereof.  For the 80 hour worker, this implies that they meander through their day inefficiently.  For the 40 hour worker, this implies that they’re also inefficient but punch the clock and leave anyway.

 

2. Their strategy is to rely on their manager.  This may be okay for certain roles, but we generally want employees to self-manage to some extent, particularly if there is an expectation for the role to eventually advance in scope and responsibility.

 

3. The strategy doesn’t also consider non-work related tasks.  For the 80 hour worker, this may indicate a lack of work-life balance that could lead to burnout.  For the 40 hour worker, this may indicate a 5 pm clock puncher who compartmentalizes their life and doesn’t give up any personal time when required for the betterment of the organization.  This may be acceptable for an hourly role, but not a salaried one.

 

The good habits:

 

1. The master “to-do” list.  With notebooks, multiple electronic devices, and calendars, it’s easy for our to-dos to become scattered all over the place.  Good time managers list all of their to-dos, professional and non-professional, in a single list to aid in managing their time.  To the third red flag above, this practice provides visibility to when you can and can’t put in some extra time at work (and keep your manager informed ahead of time).

 

2. Plans are created at the end of the current period instead of the start of the next one.  Whether planning on a daily, weekly, or monthly horizon, creating the plan for the next period before the current one ends is a positive behavior.  First, the fact that you have this time available means you’re likely working efficiently and finishing ahead of schedule.  Second, it’s a great feeling to arrive at work on a Monday with a plan put in place already on the previous Friday afternoon, and really, what meaningful work are we getting done at 4 pm on a Friday anyway?

 

3. Consultation with others.  Few of us work in a vacuum.  The timely or untimely completion of our tasks impacts others.  Seek others’ input to your plans and share the relevant parts of your plans with your stakeholders.  This doesn’t mean that you rely on others to manage your time for you, rather it means that you create your own plans in alignment with the needs of those around you.

 

4. Eat the frog first.  This saying goes back to Mark Twain and was the subject of a recent book written by Brian Tracy.  Imagine coming to work every day with a frog on your desk and your job is to eat it.  If you choose to procrastinate, that frog will be on your mind all day and make you miserable and ineffective.  You’re better off knocking out that ugly task early in the day when you’re the freshest, then spending the rest of your day doing more enjoyable work (instead of driving home with fresh frog guts on your lips).

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