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Ask Tom: My co-worker has bad time-management skills

Dear Tom,
How can I get my co-workers to read your book? We bought her a copy but she hasn't read it. She's so disorganized! She's not uninterested, just doesn't even have the skill to organize her time well enough to read it. She breaks down in tears when we bring up the subject of her not getting enough done. Both the project manager and myself have talked with her. At this point it is causing morale problems for other co-workers because her workload is half of everyone else and she doesn't get tasks done. What do we do?
Stressed Sara

[ Read my answer behind the link... ]

Dear Stressed,

Sadly, there's no way to force someone to read a self-help book. Imagine if I handed you a book on weight loss and said I thought it would really help. I wouldn't hand you self-help book like that because your reaction would be so negative the book would end up in the garbage. If she's already under pressure to perform better, then anything direct will feel like an insult. Instead, it is more effective to let her pick.

I have to say that I made the same mistake myself in a big way the first time I was in a supervisory position. When I joined Bell Labs I was really excited about two classes that I had recently taken: "Communication Skills" and "Time Management". As team leader, I told everyone that I wanted them all to sign up for these two classes. In my enthusiasm I put a chart on my whiteboard track who had taken which class. I couldn't understand why nobody was signing up! Then someone told me that she didn't understand why everyone was being punished. Punished? Oops. Obviously I hadn't stressed enough that I had taken these classes myself and found them useful; that I just wanted everyone to have the same terminology, and that I thought everyone would be helped by the classes too. I also realized that by putting this chart on my whiteboard it was embarrassing everyone and their reaction was to "fight back" by resisting.

Instead I should have just handed out copies of the course catalog and let people know that the budget includes no more than 5 days of training. If one person signed up for my two preferred classes by chance, it would have been more than the number of people that signed up when I tried to force them (zero). If they liked it, they would have spread the word and others might have signed up too. In today's world we would have called it "viral marketing" but back then it would have just been co-workers spreading the word that you can get out of work for a week if you sign up for classes.

A self-help book will only be read by someone that feels they have a problem, and they have to pick (or think they picked) the solution.

You say "she's not uninterested." Did you ask her if she was interested in improving her time management skills, or did you ask her "What areas would you like to improve?" See the difference?

At the retirement party for a successful Bell Labs director he revealed his secret to management: If you want people to work hard on something, let them think they invented it. He told stories of how he would be so sure that a particular technique would solve a problem his team was working on. However he knew that if he hinted around it rather than saying it flat out, people would "think it up" themselves and then be motivated to work on it. In his career he was the manager of many people when they made some big breakthroughs. It really worked!

I also noticed that you said both you and your project manager are mentoring her. It can be quite stressful to have two managers saying conflicting things even if the deviations are slight (when one is emotional everything is magnified). If she is indecisive, maybe two people talking to her is too many. It might be better to have one person be her mentor.

Ask her, "What areas she would like to improve in?" rather than "What do you want to do to improve your time management?" The former puts an emphasis on what she wants to do. She probably won't say the exact answer you are hoping for, but suppose she says she has a hard time being interrupted and wants to learn to context switch better. You can ask, "Where might you find help for that?" If she doesn't think of Time Management for System Administrators, maybe you can ask her to check the table of contents to see if there is one chapter that might have answers in that area. Because she does the research, she'll feel like she "invented" the solution.

Handling interrupts is 80% of time management. I'm sure she'll find that chapter.

My friend Cicely has taught me to never say, "You should do such-and-such" but simply to say, "Doing such-and-such worked for me." If the people are interested, they'll try it too.

It's difficult to make choices when one is stressed. If she is feeling stressed it can be useful to gently help her make decisions by providing focus. When I had difficulty narrowing down a list of choices, a manager I once had would ask me, "If you had to eliminate one choice, which would it be?" That would shift my focus and soon I was eliminating many items down to one selection.

Ask her to read ONLY one chapter. Discourage her from reading any more than that, but give her space to actually read that one chapter. That may help her focus.

You might allocate time for her to read, offer to let her lock her door or go to the library. I find that "sooner is better than later" in these situations. If she's picked a chapter, send her off to read it right then. Offer to guard her door so that she isn't interrupted.

The chapters are short. I bet once she reads one chapter she'll read a few more.

Or she might ask to just read a bunch of articles she finds via That might work too.

Let me know how it works out!


Posted by Tom Limoncelli in Time Management

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Stressed Sara,

You and your boss should read or listen to Good to Great: by Jim Collins. I think it will help you all.



Hi Tom,

The first time I saw your book, there was only one reason I didn't buy it. I said to myself, "Nah... this book is probably written for 'normal' people." I've got attention deficit disorder.

System administration is a career where I have generally been able to succeed in spite of the lack of a college degree. It is an interrupt-driven job, and hands-on experience or week-long technical classes often sink in where extended training does not. However, my ADHD does have a negative impact on the way I can perform that job if I become overwhelmed, am given additional responsibilities that do not gain my interest, or have other environmental factors in play.

ADD/ADHD is a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities act, yet a lot of people still operate under the impression that it is "not a real condition" and that people who claim to have it are just "making excuses". Ignorance on the part of supervisors and coworkers can only make the situation worse.

People who do recognize that they have adult ADHD also have to wrestle with the thought that disclosing it to their employers means that they might lose their jobs. When I read about the lady in this post, I didn't have to work too hard to understand why she was at the point of tears. If she outs herself to the wrong person as having ADHD, her career could be toast the next day. I'd be in tears too.

I think that there are a lot of people with undiagnosed or untreated adult ADHD in this career field. For years I was one of them, self medicating with excessive amounts of caffeine - which has become an industry-wide joke at this point.

It's gotten to the point where I have had to address it with ritalin. As I've gotten older, the caffeine just no longer works - and caffeine addiction can come with it's own unlovely set of physical and mental health issues.

So all that said, I would like to know - do you cover the issue of ADD/ADHD, and/or the "geeks on caffeine culture" in your book? Because I do think it's relevant for a significant subset of the book's target audience.

Thanks for asking!

First, I should say I'm no expert at ADD/ADHD. I was diagnosed as "hyper active" many years before there was ritalin or even the term "ADD" and I think that I developed some of my techniques out of trying to survive being hyperactive.

I know that some people with ADD/ADHD find it comforting to be able to "fall into" a structured system like "The Cycle". Certainly when I'm feeling frustrated and flustered, I find that if I "turn on" The Cycle, it makes it easier for me to "turn off" the distractions.

I do mention ADD/ADHD at one point in the book: multi-tasking. Too little multitasking is inefficient, and too much is confusing. I've had friends with ADD/ADHD tell me that they feel more comfortable multitasking. My suggestion here is that the "right balance" is different when you are younger than when you are older: consider re-evaluating where the pendulum has swung every few years. Everyone is different, and we change over time. Working where you are optimal is important. Personally, I a different every day depending on how much sleep I got the night before!


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