Former Technologist Discovers the Secret Behind the Precious Gift of Time

Don Tennant

She was an engineer whose technological prowess was sought by the likes of AT&T Bell Labs, IBM Global Services and EMC. Today, she’s a professional development and management consultant whose advice is sought by the likes of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and Learning Tree International. Her name is Dana Brownlee, and I sought her insights on how to obtain more of one of the most precious commodities available: the time we need to accomplish what we want to accomplish.

I spoke with Brownlee last week, and the first thing I wanted to know was what prompted her own transition from technology strategist to professional development consultant. She said it actually wasn’t all that big of a switch:

When I was at IBM, they said there are three elements to the work that we do: There’s technology, process and organization. Even though we tended to focus on the technology, where the real work comes in is the organizational stuff, because the technology, for the most part, works. If it doesn’t, you send it back to the vendor and say, “Make it work.” So where I started getting pulled, even when I was at IBM, was into the organizational development side. To be honest, that’s a lot of what the client needed, even if they didn’t realize they needed it. That’s what was killing us on projects, was the organizational side. So I did a lot of that work before I went off on my own.

Brownlee has developed a new time management model that she calls, well, the “New Time Management Model.” To segue into a discussion of the model, I asked her if she had any sense of whether IT professionals tend to be better or worse at time management than people in other professions. She said she didn’t know if anybody knows the answer to that, but then she gave me a pretty good answer anyway:

Certainly they’re quicker to adapt to changing technologies and to be early adopters, but to a certain extent they might really think that they’re more efficient than they really are. I think they have more of a tendency to multitask—to have five things going at one time. A lot of times, technology can be helpful, but my whole focus with the New Time Management Model is not how quickly are you doing it, but are you doing the right things to begin with. I’m not really a techno-weenie, but I’m a math person, an analytical person—that’s the way I think, so I love those people. But I think we can get caught up in analysis paralysis—you can get so caught up in the minutiae and the details, and that kind of hurt me in my career, early on. I think that’s a little bit of a danger with IT people and technical people, because we’re so trained to analyze, analyze, analyze.

The key to the New Time Management Model, I learned from doing my homework, is to shorten your to-do list rather than to try to figure out how to get more things done that are on the list. The problem is, I said to Brownlee, that sometimes you don’t have the option of unilaterally shortening the to-do list, because the list is given to you by somebody else, like your manager. So I asked her if you can’t shorten the list, what’s the next best approach? She said it’s all about partnering and prioritization:

The next best approach is to partner with them to get them to shorten the list for you. You can’t just skip things that are on the list—clearly, that’s career suicide. One of the things I talk about in my project management training is the triple constraint—we’re all constrained by cost, time and scope. Typically, you can’t have all three at the same time, so it’s classic prioritization. If they throw eight things at you, say, “Hey, I want to be sure to get you what you want in the order you want it, so please help me prioritize.”

I had touched on the topic of time management in a recent interview I did with Dr. Laurie Helgoe, a psychologist, author and speaker on the topic of introverts, who drew my attention to the work of Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor. Perlow championed the concept of “quiet time,” where blocks of time are set aside during the workday when all messaging and phone contact is banned. I raised that topic with Brownlee, and I’ll get to her response momentarily. First, a little background on Perlow’s “quiet time” concept, from a 2010 article on

Ten years ago, Harvard Business School's Leslie Perlow famously chronicled the interruption of a high-tech software company. Its engineers were interrupted so often they had to work nights and weekends. After studying the workplace for nine months, the source of the dysfunction became clear: No one could get anything done because of the bombardment of messages. Perlow came up with an intervention: Quiet Time. For four hours in the morning, the 17 engineers worked alone. All messaging and phone contact was banned. In the afternoon, communication could resume. Given time to concentrate, the engineers got a project for a color printer completed without the graveyard shift.

Intel is using Quiet Time at two of its sites. Other companies, including U.S. Cellular and Deloitte & Touche, have mandated less e-mail use, encouraged more face-to-face contact and experimented with programs such as "no e-mail Friday." The results often are surprising: employees build rapport with colleagues--and they save time. Co-workers can settle something in a two-minute phone conversation that might have required three e-mails per person. Each change reverberates throughout a company, especially since--as a University of California, Irvine, study found--44 percent of interruptions an employee experiences are from within the company.

Back to Brownlee. As you might imagine, she’s all for it:

I one thousand percent support that. There’s something about quiet time—when I go jogging, when I take a shower, when I finally wind down to go to sleep, almost every night this epiphany pops into my head. Giving your mind a chance to rest and reboot is wonderful.

I asked Brownlee if she had any sense of whether women or men tend to be better at time management. She said it was a dangerous question, but she answered it anyway:

I’m sure it’s a learned skill, just like anything else, so anything you do repeatedly you tend to become better at. I think in general, women tend to have more on their plates, and more different types of things on their plates. I think we get more practice, just because of the way our society is, so I think we become much more comfortable with it.

I pointed out that there are different schools of thought as to whether multitasking is a good thing or a bad thing with respect to time management, and that it sounded to me like Brownlee was coming down on the side of seeing it as a good thing. She said no, not really:

We’re all going to do some amount of multitasking—that’s just practical. But at work, when you’re trying to do two or three things at the same time, you might be thinking you’re getting a lot more accomplished, and you’re really not. So personally, I think it’s much, much better to focus on one thing. There’s a momentum that you develop when you’re in that zone, so take advantage of that momentum—don’t switch gears and try to do something else and something else, and then come back to it. By the time you come back to it, you’re kind of cold. So in general, it’s better to avoid multitasking if you can, but it’s a necessary evil. We’re not going to eliminate it completely.

I asked Brownlee whether there are any generational differences in how well people manage their time. Her response:

It’s fairly obvious that younger generations tend to be much more comfortable with things like social media and their own wikis—they’re collaborating that way. They’re leveraging other people’s experiences—the good, the bad and the ugly. I think that can make you highly efficient. And there are huge differences in the way the generations prefer to communicate. Again, the older generations tend to prefer face-to-face and phone calls. That can be highly effective and very rich, and I would recommend that in certain situations. But obviously, they’re not nearly as efficient from a time-management perspective. You have to customize your communications mode to the message, and to the receiver.

Finally, I asked Brownlee if she had to cite one change that people could make that would have the greatest impact on how well they manage their time, what it would be. She asked if she could cite two things. She was on a roll, so I relented:

Before you put something on your to-do list, truly question whether it should be there in the first place. Just because you don’t put something on your to-do list doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done. Think about alternate ways of doing things—you can delegate, you can automate. Look for opportunities to work smarter, instead of working harder.

Secondly, most of us, when we plan our day, are reactive—we tend to put things on our calendar, and then we just react to them. We don’t proactively block out time on our calendar for us to work—to actually do things like think, and plan, and strategize.

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