Many of today’s medical laboratory professionals are busier than ever, and simultaneously face restrictive budgets and limited human resources. Thus, good time management techniques are vital to providing the safest and highest quality health care possible. To this end, there are seven techniques that if mastered, can induce significant positive change in how laboratory directors perform to expectation. These seven techniques—monotasking, speed reading, prioritized task list creation, workflow analysis, effective meeting management, optimizing email use, and workspace organization—will help free up time that can be dedicated to your most important tasks.
The 7 Techniques
The business culture of clinical laboratory practice glorifies multitasking. The ability to juggle multiple projects or tasks at one time has long been considered a virtue. While multitasking can be a key skill at times, it also can result in substantial inefficiency. Given that most tasks in the clinical lab require focus and concentration, switching from task to task often necessitates significantly more time to refocus and engage with new tasks.
Alternatively, monotasking, or creating focused blocks of time for a single task or project, can be more efficient. Being fully present and using all of your mental resources to complete one thing at a time will help set an efficient precedent for lab tasks in general and help create a natural flow to the work. Capitalize on this approach by batching tasks. If you have several emails to write, do them one after the other. When all pending emails are complete, move on to the next batch of tasks (ie, returning phone calls). Task batching helps avoid unproductive breaks in concentration.
We live in a knowledge-based society and effective leaders tend to be readers. Every year, laboratory leaders read thousands of items: emails, discipline-specific journal articles, external mail correspondence, internal memos, operating instructions, etc. As this necessity is unlikely to decrease, regardless of how the information is delivered, increasing reading speed can be key to greater efficiency. The easiest way to become more efficient at reading is to avoid wasting time on reading things that are of little or no value. Use the delete button and get rid of emails that add no value before you open them. Speed reading courses and books on speed reading techniques also are helpful. There are three general speed reading tips that are easy to adopt:
- Try to avoid saying the words aloud in your head
The information we read is already absorbed visually, yet we tend to say the words aloud in our heads as we read, which slows the process down.
- Read groups of words at a time
One trick is to ignore the spaces between words. Our cognitive abilities allow us to group words in bunches, two or three words in a row as a data set. With practice, this will seem natural.
- Use your finger to trace underneath the text
It is rather amusing that simply tracing the text you are reading with your finger allows you to increase your reading speed just by increasing the speed of your tracing. Start slowly and increase the speed of your finger until you are reading about twice as fast as usual.
Prioritized Task List Creation
This method alone has great potential to increase productivity. Each morning, make a list of priorities for the day. Then label each task on your list with a letter:
A. Important and needs to be done immediately
B. Important, but can wait
C. Beneficial, but not important
Any task that does not fall under the categories above can be eliminated. Next, rank all A-list tasks in order of priority, all B-list tasks, and so on. As a general rule, you should never start a lower level task before finishing a higher level task. Start the day with your A1 task, and even if you do not complete every task on your list, you will have spent all of your time on your most important tasks.
Focusing on your task list is paramount, but interruptions are inevitable during the course of a workday. If the interruption can be handled quickly (ie, a coworker with a basic question), then it should be addressed at the time. If the interruption will take more than 5 minutes to resolve, add it to the daily task list and prioritize it appropriately.
Workflow analysis is vital to efficient laboratory productivity. Review common procedures and evaluate how many steps (physically and procedurally) are performed to complete a series of tasks and then compare that to the number of steps that would be required in an ideal state. For example, equipment (eg, centrifuges, refrigerators) can be poorly placed within a laboratory, forcing personnel to perform unnecessary physical actions during testing and processing. Therefore, consider placing cabinets, shelving, and modular equipment in a way that reduces the number of physical steps required and change
processes to eliminate or combine procedural steps.
Hold Effective Meetings
Meetings can easily consume several hours in a work day, many of which are held out of habit and lack true value. Often, a well written email can take the place of an entire meeting. Further, ineffective meetings yield significant costs to the employer in the form of wasted time paid. Thus, do not hold meetings simply because they are traditional. Set a goal of mitigating physical meetings through proper utilization of concise group emails.
The following are tips to achieve brief and focused meetings:
- Create a written meeting agenda and stick to it. Explain to staff the importance of limiting unrelated conversational tangents.
- Set a timer. Decide how long the meeting should be and when the timer goes off, end the meeting, even if unattended agenda items remain. After cutting one meeting short, staff will recognize there is a definite time limit and abide to the agenda accordingly.
- Remove chairs. If staff members have to stand, they are less likely to waste time as a matter of comfort. You may be amazed at how short and to the point a meeting can be with this exercise.
- Start on time. Punctuality is a key virtue in the laboratory, and the failure of leadership to begin meetings on time can lead to attendees wandering in whenever they please.
Constantly checking email can be a significant waste of time, as it often involves a break in concentration and focus from your most important tasks. Limiting this task to 2-4 times per work day/shift, equally interspersed, allows for batch responding (ie, monotasking). Establish a frequency for checking email as part of your daily task list, and delete junk mail immediately. Be sure to inform staff and coworkers that you can be reached for important issues by phone.
Organize Your Workspace
Although the idea that a disorganized and messy desk or workspace is part of a personalized “system” is common, this concept is generally false. An enormous amount of time can be wasted searching for items in piles of paper. Clutter distracts the eye while working, causing a loss of focus. A positive habit is cleaning your desk at the end of each day/shift so that you arrive to a neat and organized environment the next day.
Mastering these seven techniques will help free up additional time for your most important tasks. Start with one technique and incorporate it into your daily work schedule. After it becomes a habit, add another one. Time is our most valuable asset, and these techniques can help maximize your own.
Major Edward P. Griffin, MS, MBA, MLS(ASCP)SBB, CQA(ASQ), of the United States Air Force has over 20 years of laboratory experience and is currently stationed at David Grant Medical Center Laboratory, Travis Air Force Base, California. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the Air Force or Department of Defense.
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