Are You Available?

When I was running a busy physiotherapy clinic, carrying a full clincal load plus admin, plus preparing conference presentations, university lectures and researching/writing academic papers or book chapters my work days were pretty much full on.

A bit like the analogy of time management where you consider your day is an empty bucket and you ‘fill’ it with rocks (rocks are the big jobs).  Your day now looks full, but then you tip in some smaller pebbles (smaller jobs) which seek out the small gaps between the rocks.  Now your day is very full.  But if you pour in sand it will filter through the rocks and pebbles and fill the crevices with even smaller jobs – surely now your day is as  full as your bucket.  You wish.  If you now pour in water it will flow down between the rocks and pebbles, through the sand and fill all remaining microgaps until your bucket is now brim full of tasks, jobs, meetings and chores of all shapes and sizes.

Nothing else can now be fitted into your busy day.  You are operating at maximum time efficiency.  These were my typical days – patients (rocks), admin tasks (pebbles), reading, writing, preparing lessons, reviewing papers (sand and water).  Until one day my practice administrator mentioned that she often wanted to speak to me during the day, to bring important matters to me about our business, our employees or even just to chat but she didn’t because I seemed to always be so busy that her interruptions would not be welcome. 

My days were full.  But I was no longer operating with any measure of time efficiency.  Not if important things, including social contact, were unable to be accommodated. 

So I changed my attitude and freed some time for ‘soft meetings’.  I set aside 30 minutes a day when I would be in my office and welcome any visitors who had need of me for quadrant one or two activities – those that were important irrespective of urgency.  Sitting blankly for 30 minutes waiting for contact scared the bejillikers out of me, so I made sure I had a simple task to do that was easily halted and resumed as necessary.  I mastered the art of putting it aside as soon as someone arrived, leaving a blank desk space in front of me: simultaneously removing distractions and inviting interaction.

Team members now had both permission and opportunity to drop in and keep me informed, let me help or direct them, tell me about their weekend, check some procedural matters, say Hi, share information about their families, report progress on our projects and so on.  They loved it, more importantly I loved it.  Most importantly the business ran better and I noticed less interruptions during other times of my day as they knew they would receive my focussed attention during the soft meeting time.

However, even good ideas need tweaking……

I noticed after a while that people were coming in to my office anytime they noticed I was at my desk.  Perhaps interpretting my physical presence as permission to approach!  Despite a pile of paperwork and my frantic keyboard clicking.  Not wishing to undo any good will I might have engendered with the soft meeting system, I sought an answer in the management wisdom literature. 

One boss used a flag system on his desk to indicate his availability.  If the green flag was up he was 100% available (my soft meeting time); if the yellow flag was up staff were free to approach with caution (it better be important); if the red flag was up he was most definitely NOT available.  I didn’t have any flags but I did have a red cap in the office.

Company Policy #42 – If Craig is wearing his red cap he must not be interrupted for anything less than emergency evacuation for fire or flood.

Simple, effective but not stylish.