Barbara Bissonnette: Time Management

MJ: I was very pleased to see that you wrote a piece on Time Management because, without a doubt, it is an area where I have in the past generally performed weakly. I am sure that many of the issues I face in this area are directly related to having Asperger Syndrome (AS). They have certainly affected my performance at work. You cover some of the areas in your latest newsletter, but there are other areas in addition I would be keen to explore with you.

To start with, before I ask questions about the five areas/headings you list in your newsletter, can I ask you what you understand by the words “Urgency Addiction”?

For me, this is the root cause of so many of the issues and problems that I face in relation to time management and work productivity and I would be interested to learn what you think about it and its impact.

To me, “urgency addiction” is a situation where every task is treated as a top priority, whether it really is one or not. Jumping from tasks to task probably means that important assignments that are not getting done on time.

MJ: Estimating Time

Moving on to the five areas you specifically address in your newsletter. You begin by saying that people with AS have no concept of time. I am not sure that this is true for me, but a key issue personally is the time it takes to complete tasks and, subsequently, the quality of the work I deliver.

Mostly, the quality of my work is good, but it takes longer for me to complete. I have read often how people with Asperger have an excessive attention to detail; how they take excessive amounts of time to complete tasks.

The problem I have is not just time but quality in relation to time: I don’t seem to be able to strike the right balance between getting things done quickly enough to satisfy deadlines whilst, at the same time, maintaining the minimum level of quality that I want to deliver and feel comfortable with.

What currently happens is that I won’t compromise what I do for fear of producing work that is subsequently open to potential criticism.

Do you have any thoughts on this?

BB: First, I’ll clarify that not everyone with AS has a poor concept of time. Some of my clients are very organized, and have no trouble meeting deadlines. The individuals who do have difficulty often do not have a sense of what time means. So, for example, if a manager asks them to do something in a half hour, they do not have an intuitive awareness of how quickly they need to work, or whether that time frame is realistic or not. Another problem is becoming so absorbed in a project that a person loses track of time altogether.

You mention not completing tasks quickly enough to meet an employer’s expectations. In my experience this is a common theme among AS individuals. Some have lost jobs as a result. Some report that they miss certain steps in a process, and need to go back and redo their work. Others become so caught up in details that they spend large amounts of time following tangents that are unrelated to the project. Anxiety can cause the obsessive re-checking of work. I wonder if you are describing another characteristic, which is perfectionism that can be driven by a fear of criticism.

In most business situations, a balance must be struck between quality and speed. Several years ago I had a coaching client who took great pride in writing “the Rolls Royce” of computer code. However, he spent so much time trouble-shooting future scenarios and perfecting his work that he fell far behind his deadlines. He neglected other projects, which created problems for co-workers who couldn’t get their work done. He was angry when he received a low performance review, however he had lost sight of the big picture. The company did not need top-of-the-line code. They needed products that reliably answered customer needs.

Striving for perfection is a trap. It is an impossible standard to meet. Pretty much everything can be improved and improved and improved on … with the result that nothing gets done!

You say that you fear producing work that might be criticized. I wonder if you are spending more time than necessary because you are not sure of what is expected. Are there examples of similar projects that might clarify what is needed? Would a discussion with your supervisor be helpful?

MJ: Keeping Track of Time

You talk quite extensively about distractions at work and how these impinge upon work productivity.

For me there are two aspects to this. Firstly, like most people, I experience significant interruptions whilst at work, many of which I do believe are unavoidable.

The second point is that my Asperger makes me prone to diverting my attention onto different tasks, especially answering/accessing my e-mails along the lines that you refer to.

Taking the first point first. One of the things that I find hardest of all as a person/manager with Asperger syndrome is making a start. I don’t know why, but the hardest thing for me is to make the mental step of actually beginning something.

Once I have started, I can then usually get into my rhythm and begin to work productively. The trouble is……..there is then an interruption which puts me back to square one; only this time there is even more mental pressure on me that negates my propensity to recommence.

With regard to the second point, strange as though it sounds – and entirely contradictorily – I need those [e-mail] breaks. I think that this is due to my concentration threshold; or at least, my ability to work productively for any period whilst expending high levels of mental exertion. The breaks provide the lapses that re-charge my batteries in the immediate term.

What can you suggest/recommend that may strike a better balance?

BB: Trouble getting started on tasks can be due to not knowing what the first step should be, what the finished product should look like, or difficulty prioritizing. People with AS tend to think about details first, and commence working without understanding the purpose of what they are doing. If the purpose of a task isn’t clear, it is hard to know where to begin, or what information is important.

Start by clarifying the purpose of the project. Then, break large tasks into smaller steps, so that you can methodically follow the plan.

It is good to take breaks. Concentration takes a lot of energy. Many people have had success by scheduling specific times during the day for reading and responding to emails. Here is a tip: long emails take a lot of time to compose. Do not use email for detailed discussions that should happen face-to-face or on the telephone. If you are spending hours per week writing emails, you are not using time efficiently.

MJ: Pacing & Efficiency

I found this a very interesting area. As I think you correctly say, speed of work is an issue given that some tasks require more pace than others – when needing to satisfy an imminent deadline for example.

The first thing that came into my mind when I read this was anxiety. If I know I have lots to do I can make me anxious – especially if the task is important and I am under time-pressure – and this means I “jump into” work and try to complete too quickly.

The net result of this is that, not only to I tend to not work productively, but I make errors which I have to go back and rectify. The end result is reduced not enhanced productivity and poor time management.

I am not sure that I concur entirely with the first solution that you advocate – asking a co-worker how they handle projects – as a person with Asperger does have (and needs to develop) their own, distinct way of working based on their own specific, unique requirements.

However, I do believe that finding past solutions based on experience and using them as a template when working on something new for the first time can be enormously beneficial and helpful.

The one thing that I have learnt very belatedly in my career to do is, as you suggest, ask for help. Previously, I would have regarded this as a sign of weakness allied to the danger of appearing reliant on others which is another common problem for someone with Asperger.

How can the latter issue be avoided?

BB: Finding out how co-workers handle projects may not work in every situation. In my experience, individuals have sometimes been amazed to discover short cuts and processes that saved hours every week. Many realized that they were spending time on activities that were not important, or doing things that were completely unnecessary.

Virtually every person I have coached with Asperger’s Syndrome has been reluctant to ask for help. Now, it is possible to ask for too much help. If you ask questions when you already know the answer (just to “double check”), or panic and ask how to do any new task without first thinking it through, it can be annoying. If you have questions about each step of a process, it could mean that you need more training.

There are many other times when asking co-workers for their ideas and assistance is the smart thing to do. One of the signs of a good leader is “knowing what you don’t know,” and surrounding yourself with others who have the necessary expertise. This is good advice for people in any management role. Look at it as a skills exchange. What expertise do others have to share with you … and what can you share with them?

MJ: Reality Check

Your opening statement that “some people are simply unable to meet performance requirements” was something I found somewhat disconcerting.

The reason I say this is, not because I feel that I cannot meet performance requirements – far from it. Technically I have always produced good work and have often gone beyond what is required.

What I have found challenging with a manager with Asperger of course, is the associated issues that go with the territory and which have, I believe, been largely responsible for holding me back and realising my full potential: corporate politics, anxiety, inter-personal relationships etc.

In my experience of the corporate world, it is those with the political skills or ability to “play the game” that tend to succeed; or at least, you must have these attributes in addition to technical capability if you want to get on.

I was interested in the solution you advocate, i.e, “talk to someone”. Who you confide in however is far from straightforward. In the most problematic career situation that I have found myself in, my boss – who was and will always be my mentor – was unable to advise me in the sense that he was also unable to change things above him. His solution was not something that he could advocate and support.

In situations like this you need to navigate round the issue but, because of the issues that I have listed previously, i.e. corporate politics, a person with AS is far less capable of coping and steering themselves through the minefield.

Do you have any thoughts on Asperger-related strategies that are of use here?

BB: My comments about meeting performance expectations relate to the importance of understanding one’s strengths and limitations, and finding jobs that will emphasize the former. A good example is someone who lost a customer service position because she could not simultaneously listen to customers and type what they said into a computer.

I think it is essential to understand how Asperger’s Syndrome impacts one’s executive functions, sensory processing, and interpersonal communication. It is my experience that management roles are especially difficult for people with AS. The further one advances, the more important “soft skills,” such as interpersonal communication and dealing with office politics become. Management jobs are about the big picture: strategy, planning, evaluating results. Instead of doing tasks yourself, you oversee others who are executing the tasks. This requires the ability to motivate and influence, mange your workload and that of your staff members, solve problems, make decisions and lead.

Someone with Asperger’s Syndrome must look at whether he or she has the interpersonal and organizational abilities to cope. I know of several people who did well in jobs that utilized their technical expertise, but could not handle management roles.

Those who do want to pursue management should pay close attention to company culture. Some organizations are much more competitive and political than others. Networking with other professionals in your industry is a good way to learn about the culture of various firms.

Be honest with yourself about how much interaction you want to have with other people. Even if you do not have direct reports, managers have to interact with people in other departments of the organization. These colleagues may have personality styles and agendas that are very different than yours. Managers are expected to have “open door” policies. That is, to be available to speak with others during the workday. Anyone who would find these interruptions irritating or distracting – or uncomfortable – should not pursue a management job.

MJ: Additional Topics

I would like to now move on to some other issues that you haven’t discussed but which are, I believe, related to the topics that you discuss in your Newsletter.

Firstly, mental tiredness/exhaustion. My capacity to work on complex data and under pressurised situations and timescales is more limited. When I am fresh and not under pressure, I can work very effectively and produce work of a very high standard.

The key problem that I have is that my mental “engine” and associated energy are limited and also that problems occur when the opposite conditions prevail, i.e. when I am not fresh mentally or under pressure. These problems are often unavoidable in more responsible, senior managerial positions.

Do you have any thoughts here?

BB: You are exactly right that senior managerial jobs come with more pressure – to manage time and get results. Many of my clients who hold management positions say that they are so exhausted at the end of the day, all want to do is go home. For some, working more slowly and methodically means overtime hours.

It may be possible to schedule certain tasks for times when you are rested and relaxed. Complex assignments are best handled when one is mentally alert. Taking short breaks, especially if you can get outside for a few minutes, can be restorative. Physical exercise before or after work not only relieves stress, but improves sleep.

See if you can delegate tasks that are especially draining.

MJ: Space Management

I am not good at it! I am sure that quite a few of the difficulties that I face with time management stem from my weaker organisational and administrative skills.

A few months ago I cleared my desk and put papers and information into neat files under associated headings. Basically, I got my workspace under control.

The problem was, as I started to try and satisfy timescales and towards deadlines, the orderly management of my information started to slip, even though I knew I should focus at the time on maintaining it.

I am also finding a difficulty in relation to digital folders on my PC where I store things. Needless to say, storing things digitally on a PC is a great way to organise things, but I am not sure that I am going about it in an inefficient way.

I tend to inefficiently allocate material to inappropriate or limited files initially by not thinking ahead as to how the topic in question breaks down and is subsequently extended, i.e. different presentations for different subject matter.

I suspect that this may be down to the way my mind thinks and categorises products and is, therefore, related to my Asperger way of thinking.

Do you feel that this may be correct?

BB: I think that you are correct. Filing systems are hierarchies. They are effective when you consider the big picture about how the information will be used, and then work down to different levels of detail. NTs usually think in this way; Aspergians think details first.

This is a situation where asking a colleague for ideas could be very beneficial. A co-worker will be familiar with the company and the projects, and be able to offer specific advice. Choose someone who is organized, and ask if they could share some tips with you. They will be flattered that you asked!

Once you have a system, make it part of your routine. “Saving” organizational tasks until you are at the end of a project defeats their purpose.

MJ: Finally I’d be interested in hearing about your view on the role of technology and its ability to assist a manager with Asperger syndrome in relation to time management.

A couple of years ago someone posted a really interesting piece on the forums of AspergerManagement about using technology, i.e. Microsoft Office, to help manage his schedule.

Can you cite any particular examples that you have come across and any associated lessons that you could pass on?

BB: Technology can absolutely improve time management. For example, you can email reminders to yourself, and leave yourself voice mail reminders. If loosing time is a problem, electronic timers can be used. There is a company called Time Timer that makes visual clocks and watches, which help people keep track of the passage of time. There are all sorts of electronic scheduling devices and software.

Two cautions. Experiment with several tools, and pick one or two that work best for you. I have had clients who became overwhelmed trying to update all of their different organizers! For some, a simple paper appointment book worked best. Whatever system you choose has to then become part of your regular routine. It can take discipline and lots of reminders at first to use the organizer on a consistent basis.

MJ: Barbara, thank you very much.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome