Wednesday, January 19, 2022 Jan 19, 2022
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A creative approach to time management


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A RITUAL IN corporate America that has become as universal and symbolic as the presentation of executive washroom keys is enrollment in a time-management course. Both indicate that the recipient is on the corporate fast track; the rationale behind the latter being that the young executive’s time has become so valuable that it should be managed.

And once the aspiring young executive masters the elusive art of managing the clock and the calendar, he or she can go on to new plateaus of creativity, taking basic innate talents and multiplying their potential.

That logic is so universal that it’s difficult to find a manager these days who will admit to not having taken a time-management course. But there’s one problem with the time-management-course phenomenon. For half the population, the logic is often dead wrong.

The salient irony behind time-management courses is that, unlike the keys to the executive washroom, they often don’t unlock anything, but rather constrain many people to the point where they lock out the creativity and productivity they are designed to maximize. As a result, the corporate world is filled with many frustrated but talented executives who wonder why the time-management methods they’ve learned won’t work for them.

Enter Dr. Ann McGee-Cooper, a former SMU professor with a doctorate from Columbia University. As a prophet in the business wilderness, Dr. McGee-Cooper has built a considerable corporate following by advocating the very progressive concept that traditional time mangement courses need to go one step further for creative people. Most creative people, McGee-Cooper contends, are physiologically different from others.

Dr. McGee-Cooper of North Dallas, who recently wrote a book called Time Management for Unmanageable People, has become something of a corporate Pied Piper by touring executive America, touting the philosophy that for creative people at least, the management of time is more complex than “to-do” lists, sorting priorities and other skills that conventional programs teach. As a former time-management course instructor, McGee-Cooper now understands why the courses were helpful to only about half those she taught.

“The thing that is counterproductive about time-management courses is that people involved with creative jobs-designing new technology, coming up with clever advertising campaigns or teaching a newly choreographed segment-have to deal with time in a way that’s different from someone who schedules 30-minute appointments from 9 to 5,” says McGee-Cooper. “And when these people don’t stick to the rules-which is inevitable-they have the added problem of feeling guilty about the fact that they just aren’t using the system that their company paid good money for them to learn.”

McGee-Cooper’s own philosophy of time management goes deeper and farther than “to-do” lists, calendars and “tickler” files. It embraces such concepts as assessing energy patterns, redesigning physical work environments and networking personal relationships for higher productivity. Her philosophy also embraces some basic physiology: specifically, that which deals with the dominance of one brain hemisphere over the other.

Researchers have known for years that the two frontal hemispheres of the brain, which are connected together by a bundle of nerve fibers called the corpus collosum, have two distinct “personalities” of their own and process information in opposite ways. The right hemisphere of the brain tends to be the creative center and is also the child in all of us. It is illogical, intuitive, playful, spontaneous and, perhaps most important of all, the area in which the brain creates new ideas. The left side of the brain is the accountant. It’s logical, rational, serious, linear and nu-merative. The left brain is the rule maker that prefers gray flannel, while the right brain is the Rembrandt who could never pay the electric bill on time without help from his neighboring hemisphere.

Behavioral scientists have also known for quite a while that in each of us, one hemisphere is usually dominant over the other. Even though our behavior constantly switches back and forth, this is the basic reason why some of us are composers and others are computer analysts.

What McGee-Cooper has extrapolated is that time-management systems were originated by left-brained people for left-brained people, and that there is more to creating new ideas than lists, rules and scheduling can accomplish. And because such systems are processed mainly by the left hemisphere, they are almost guaranteed to block creativity that would result from both hemispheres working together.

She has devised a system of time management that is designed to stimulate both brain hemispheres, to promote whole-brained approaches to daily tasks and to enhance creativity. The system, according to Dr. McGee-Cooper, is geared to make creative people more organized and organized people more creative. And, if all this sounds like so much snake oil salesmanship, consider this: McGee-Cooper has clients ranging from Electronic Data Systems (EDS) to the big eight accounting firm, Arthur Young & Co. singing her praises.

In the few years she’s been in business, McGee-Cooper’s staff has grown from two to 12, and she currently jets around the nation teaching organization to the creative and creativity to the compulsively organized. One of her star students, a teacher himself, credits her program with turning a good but creatively constrained schoolteacher into the 1983-84 Dallas Independent School District Teacher of the Year. That teacher, Duane Trammell, who holds a Ross Perot award for excellence in teaching, has made a further transformation since meeting McGee-Coop-er. He’s now expanding from being an elementary school teacher to being an educational and management consultant-working with McGee-Cooper Enterprises.

The jargon used by Trammell, McGee-Cooper and company is quite similar to what you would hear in any classic management classroom. Terms like “goal setting” and “discovering potential” are commonplace. But there is a major departure from conventional wisdom regarding time management.

“People need to put as great a priority on what they like to do as what they have to do…as great a priority on fun as they do on work,” says McGee-Cooper. That statement, of course, would be heresy in the eyes of the traditional time-planner, especially when you consider that it is one of the fundamental planks of McGee-Cooper’s platform.

But it’s all based, according to McGee-Cooper, in very sound psychology. Fun stimulates the right brain hemisphere. Work mixed with periodic play not only makes the work more creative but also more efficient. It brings more synergy (energy derived from the momentum of both hemispheres working together) to the process. The methodology is more complex than that, but the concept is that simple.

The first thing McGee-Cooper’s clients receive is a quick course in recent research on brain physiology. A part of this study includes a simple self-test to help clients discover which hemisphere they call upon more to process information and solve problems. Sample questions might include:

1. How do you approach your day? Do youstart by making a list, setting priorities andsticking with them? Or do you just get startedand work best by having several projects going simultaneously?

2. Do you solve problems more easily bycharting a step-by-step approach, or do youcome up with your best answers spontaneously, skipping steps when needed?

3. Do you find it easy to assess time commitments and say “no” to people when theyask for help on projects that will consumeyour time? Or do you usually find yourselfeager to please and then find yourself spreadtoo thin?

4. Do you require a lot of notice beforescheduling a business or personal lunch? Ordo you welcome spontaneously made, spur-of-the-moment plans?

5. Do you enjoy the planning and organization of a project, following through on the details? Or would you rather be responsible for the insight, innovation, or conception of a new idea and leave the details to someone else?

By looking at questions like these, clients can get a feel for which hemisphere dominates their thinking and problem-solving abilities.

Next, McGee-Cooper’s clients are quizzed about something very unconventional for a time-management course: their individual sources of fun. Clients are instructed to fill out a “joy journal” in order to gain insight on new sources of energy. It’s divided into five sections: “Joy I can claim in two to five minutes,” “five to 30-minute personal joys,” “30-minute to half-day joy,” and “half-day or longer joys” and “dreams.”

“You’d be surprised,” says McGee-Coop-er, “at how few two-to-five-minute joys most people can name. Most people have never thought about joy that much.”

For those who lack ideas, McGee-Cooper offers some of her own personal joys, ranging from drinking a cup of herb tea to checking the restaurant review in the newspaper and making a lunch date with a special friend. Clients are urged to take a week or so to contemplate the joy journal, filling in their personal joys each time they think of them.

Once the journal is complete, clients are then instructed to plan a conventional calendar that has one major difference: The new calendar should include planned play as well as planned work.

“From your two- to five-minute list, put two or three joy breaks in your morning. It’s easy to include a five- to 30-minute joy break into lunchtime,” McGee-Cooper instructs her students. The students’ afternoons are to be structured similarly to their mornings, with two or three planned “joy breaks.”

Perhaps the most useful concept in McGee-Cooper’s game plan is that of “contaminated” time-that is, work time that is not productive because the worker is daydreaming about play, or play time that is not relaxing because the player is busy feeling guilty about not working.

McGee-Cooper instructs her clients to develop the ability to “decontaminate” time by totally shifting mental gears between work and play. During joy breaks, the client is to concentrate totally on fun; during work, the client is to apply his or her concentration on the task at hand.

But the purpose of McGee-Cooper’s “joy break” system goes deeper than just the obvious function of providing a stairstep method by which one can play his way through a difficult task. The alternate work-play system is designed to stimulate both cerebral hemispheres, thus promoting a “whole-brained” approach to tasks and making work time both more productive and more creative. Says Jim Young of EDS, “I’m sure that there is a link between this type of approach and the unleashing of creativity and problem-solving ability. I think I’ve been taking joy breaks all my life and never called them that.”

Trammell attributes his ascent to teacher-of-the-year status in DISD to the effectiveness of joy breaks. “I do some of my best thinking during play time,” he says. “Perhaps the best example of that was one day when I was at Tapelenders, a friend’s video store, and I climbed in the display window and started clowning around with some props of Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark. From that I got the idea for an adventure writing program for my students called ’Writers of the Lost Art.’ Doug Fox of Channel 8 News developed a special segment on it, and it kind of took off from there.”

Clowning around, of course, is not the major goal of McGee-Cooper’s program, but the program does use any avenue that’s efficient and produces better results, no matter how unconventional. For example, right-brained (creative) people are taught not to try to overcome their right-brainedness but to embrace it. Right-brained people, for instance, aren’t likely to be able to follow a specific regimen on a daily basis because new insights and innovative breakthroughs are not predictable. McGee-Cooper’s solution: Don’t be limited to pre-planned schedules. A right-brained person should be willing to use one system one day and be free to abandon that system the next day for a completely different and better one without feeling guilty about it, she says.

McGee-Cooper’s own working environment is a classic example. Her office is filled with “toys,” which she calls energy items. Stuffed dolls, sleek computers, giant crayons and other creative trappings abound. Calendars are color-coded according to priorities. “Sometimes,” she says, “I’ll change color codes because I just feel like different colors. That’s the way creative people are. We get bored doing the same old thing. So why not shift gears?”

Another major emphasis of the program is ignoring distractions that take away from concentration. To do that, McGee-Cooper urges her clients to develop what she calls a “PSD,” or personal screening device, to block the stimuli that distract them from their goals.

As an example of a PSD at work, she cites the method by which someone might look through the classified section of the newspaper looking for a duplex to rent. An intelligent person won’t bother reading each classified listing in its entirety, but will simply read those containing the word “duplex” and will automatically screen out all the rest.

McGee-Cooper contends that we should do the same thing with stimuli that obscure our goals and dreams. “Taking time to reflect on our future and on play allows us time to reset our PSD,” she says. “For this reason, it can be extremely valuable to take time each month for dreaming, a kind of long-term planning. This process expands our expectations, which actually expands our future.”

McGee-Cooper’s background is in education. (At SMU, she founded The Experimental Arts Program, a model teacher training program; her doctorate is from the Teacher’s College of Columbia University in New York.) The thrust of her time-management program reflects this background in education . One section of her time-management book is devoted to time-management tips for students and teachers; still another deals with what she calls “harvesting” or learning specific lessons from mistakes by analyzing those mistakes.

“Lots of precious energy gets lost through guilt,” she says. “Periodically, we need to review the basis for our guilt. We may be wasting energy and emotions on inappropriate guilt, such as how we feel when we aren’t perfect in every way. A more resourceful response to mistakes is to harvest the lessons one can learn from each failure or error without investing energy uselessly in guilt.”

Procrastination, McGee-Cooper contends, has a direct link to fear of failure, which in turn has a direct link to guilt. The solution to the problem of procrastination, therefore, is simply to eliminate the guilt-inducing fear of failure by concentrating on failure as a learning experience from which one will benefit. “When you fail, learn to fail forward!”

Although the program delves into the analysis of emotions like guilt and fear in relation to how they affect work, the basis for the program is geared more to brain physiology and function rather than to human emotion, with repeated emphasis on alternately stimulating the two brain hemispheres. “What tires and frustrates one side of the brain,” says McGee-Cooper, “energizes and challenges the other side of the brain. Each side of the brain prefers an opposite situation or environment.”

Since the goal is more whole-brained thinking, there is constant emphasis on finding ways to stimulate both sides of the brain. A classic example is one of McGee-Cooper’s favorite tools: a structured “to-do” list (left brain) that includes color-coding symbols (right brain) and planned (left brain) fun (right brain).

The proof of any system like McGee-Cooper’s is obviously in how the person who designed it uses it-the “physician, heal thyself theory. In that regard, the former classroom teacher can give herself an “A+.” Since she first began to catalog her dreams and plan her own joy breaks, she’s completed a doctorate, begun her own business, authored two books, taken a year’s sabbatical, sailed the West Indies and put herself on a three-and-a-half-day work week. Clearly, she practices what she preaches.