Happy UN Career Podcast / Episode 25

The Secret Tool for Time Optimists in the UN

Happy UN Career Podcast / Episode 25

Episode 25 / 31 May 2022


Are you a time optimist?

Do you often take on a new task thinking: “No problem, I can easily squeeze this in between the next two meetings”? Only to find that you needed the time between meetings to go to the bathroom, find your papers, respond to an urgent email and a question from a colleague.

And at the end of the day, you’re feeling deflated and behind in your work – even if you’ve been crazy busy all day?

If you recognize this kind of scenario – then today’s episode is for you! It’s the 5th episode in a small series I’ve called: “Plan and Succeed”.

I’m going to share what I call “3 secret steps” to how time estimation can make your workday less frazzled and support your UN Career.

And it’s not a gimmick when I talk about secrets here, because the skill of time estimation seems to be a well-kept secret in most organizations I’ve worked with, and definitely also in the UN!

Lack of time estimation = lack of realism

Does that sound dramatic? Well, I’ve taught personal effectiveness tools to hundreds of clients and whenever we discuss to do lists and the value of time estimation, people will jump through all kinds of hoops to avoid doing it.

But when they sit down with me and we go through their to-do list together, it turns out that often their lists are off the charts. And sometimes wildly off the charts.

Because what they write down is what they’d LIKE to get done. Not what they have time to do.

I see people planning tasks for 8 or 10 hours, when maybe they only have 3 or 4 hours, considering meetings, lunch and other planned events.

What does it mean for your workday, when your planning is unrealistic?

It means that very often you don’t get done what you had planned which has at least 2 unhappy side effects:

  • You feel behind – and that makes you feel deflated
  • You easily get into situations where you have trouble delivering what you have promised to others

Both of which are bad for your self-esteem and can affect your reputation in the long run.

Time estimation can improve your work AND your UN Career

Without some element of time estimation, it’s impossible to get a realistic picture of how much time you have available – and how much time you need.

So, why don’t we all do it? Well, as far as I can see there are three reasons for that:

  1. Nobody taught us that we should do it – or how to!
  2. When we learn about it we suspect it will be difficult and take too much time…
  3. We don’t want to face the fact that we don’t have time for everything (and I’ll share an example of that a bit further down).

Time estimation in 3 simple steps

So, these are the three simple steps to make realistic and effective planning with time estimation:

  1. Write your tasks down
  2. Estimate how much time you think you need for each task, and write it down next to the task
  3. Add up the time you’ve estimated and compare it to how much time you’ve got available

As you can see, it’s not rocket science. The secret lies in being consistent!

If we for example look at your workday in the office, it might look like this:

  1. Write your tasks down:
    Be specific and use action verbs to describe the task. That will make your planning more concrete and realistic. And it will make it easier for you to do the time estimation.
  2. Then you Estimate how long time you need for each task
    1. For smaller tasks (like checking for emails, work planning, phone calls, clearing your desk) you just make a guess. This works for tasks lasting up to an hour.
    2. For bigger tasks (like writing reports, preparing for bigger meetings, field trips, etc.) things will probably take more than an hour.
      These you split up in smaller sub-tasks, in that way they’re easier to estimate.
    3. Sometimes you won’t have any experience with a task and therefore it will be difficult to estimate. That’s alright! Make your best possible guess. It’s always better to have some estimate than have no estimate at all.
    4. And very importantly, keep track of your estimations as you go. In the beginning, it’s normal to realise that you’ve been too optimistic with your plan. That’s ok – just revise your plan accordingly. In that way you can also update your clients or partners about the changes in the plan before it’s too late. Or you can revise the scope of what you’re doing according to the time you have available.
    5. The important thing is that you’re not working in the dark! Hoping that time will somehow magically stretch and allow you to finish in time something that was never realistic in the first place!
  3. Finally, you add up all the tasks on your plan and compare to the time you have available. See how your day is realistically going to go.

Time estimation will make your team more collaborative and more effective

Follow these three steps whether you’re planning on your own or with your team.

If you’re in a meeting, planning tasks together with the team, talk about this. Don’t ever allow yourself or others to just pile tasks on each other’s plates without doing estimations of the time needed.

Help your supervisees by asking: “how long will you need for this?” – Or if it’s about your own task, say: “OK, I will prepare a first draft of the presentation – I probably need two hours for that, so I won’t have time today, but I can have it ready for Wednesday.”

In this way, you remind yourself how much time you need for different tasks. And you help others realise that all of these tasks have to somehow fit in with everything else you have on your plate.

Or when you discuss common tasks in the team, ask “How long will we need to complete this?” in this way inviting everybody to help realise all the different task elements and the time and resources needed to complete them.

If you did the exercise in episode 2 (the one called “Your UN Career Project starts here”) you already have some experience with this, so I’d encourage you to go back and revisit that. And if you haven’t, maybe you want to pause here and go and read that one first.

What if it looks impossible to get it all done in time?

Which, honestly, is what we all experience regularly!

Then it can be tempting to ignore the time estimation part. This sounds odd, but a surprising number of people and organizations do exactly that – somehow hoping that if they pretend that they don’t know that there isn’t enough time – just pushing things through – then somehow it will work out after all.

And frankly – I’ve been there myself…

Putting on the blinkers

I very clearly remember a situation – now many years ago – where I was sitting in my supervisor’s office. She smiled enthusiastically at me and said: “Barbara, I think it would be great if you would get involved in project X!”

I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for praise! But it wasn’t only that I was flattered – I really thought that project X was exciting! I wanted to get involved.

And when I look back, I can almost picture how in that moment I put on the blinkers. I pushed away all thoughts of all the other projects I was working on. All the other things both on my plate and on my to-do list.

So, I said “Yes, of course, I’d love to join project X”. And in that moment, I had fully convinced myself that I would find a way to make it all work out, timewise.

Only later, did I return to reality. Remembering that the day still only had 24 hours. Feeling the knot of pressure in my stomach.

The thing is, that if I had not put on those blinkers, it would have been obvious that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do.

That I had to prioritise. Say no to some things in order to be happier with the work I did on other things. And to feel happier while I was working on those projects.

So, time estimation is a very simple, but excellent, way to help you take off the blinkers and be real about your work and your time.

And considering that so many people ignore time estimation, you can easily get ahead of the game, when you start doing it!

I wish you lots of luck with introducing time estimation in your own planning.

It can be very powerful to take responsibility for the time you have available – both at work and in your private life!

With time estimation:

  • You’ll become more realistic and effective with your time
  • Your work and planning will improve
  • And so will your output and your reputation

Planning for your career will also become more tangible and realistic. It will help you move from dreaming of doing something, someday – to taking action!