Dec. 29 2006 11:20 AM

Managers today are being asked to take on additional responsibilities, handle more projects and do more with less. Schedules are tighter than ever. Customers demand quicker response times. More reports must be completed. And more meetings are added to your calendar. Despite working 10-hour days plus weekends, you still feel overwhelmed with no end in sight.


If this description hits close to home, then take this advice: Schedule some downtime.


Before you dismiss the idea, here's what I mean by "downtime." It's not a vacation. A vacation requires planning, travel and spending money. Some vacations are so much work you need time to recover afterward.


What I mean by downtime is a workweek that's only five days long with eight-hour days. A workweek with less than half of your time spent in meetings. A workweek that includes spending time away from your desk to eat lunch in a cafeteria or a restaurant. A workweek where you leave work at the office at the end of the day and spend time resting and enjoying life.


Impossible? A pipe dream? Not really. Remember, the advice was to schedule some downtime. Use your calendar instead of it using you. Plan ahead two or three weeks, and begin to fill out time blocks on your calendar. Add entries so others can see that you're busy. This is important if you have an online system that's visible to your coworkers and your manager.


What activities do you put on your schedule? During your downtime week, you'll want to work on important projects, catch up on your reading, reflect on your future as well as just relax. Since these activities may not be appropriate for your calendar, you'll need to be creative with your entries.


For time dedicated to a project, schedule a small conference room for a meeting with that project as the subject. Do the project work in the conference room so you're not distracted by the phone or e-mails. Use the whiteboard to brainstorm and capture new ideas. If possible, bring along a laptop to complete any documentation.


When looking for reading time, schedule a "meeting" with the author. For example, to finish the rest of Mailing Systems Technology, make an appointment with Mr. Dan O'Rourke (my faithful editor). If you need a subject, enter "Operations Improvement." Remember, if you don't fill the time, someone else will.


You may think these ideas won't work. You're faced with too many important meetings, too many projects and too many deadlines. If you slow down now, you'll only get further behind and have even more pressure to get caught up. To overcome your objections, I need to dispel a few myths and misconceptions.


Myth #1 I'm the only one who can do this right. Sorry, nobody's indispensable. Not even you. Maybe you can do the work better than anyone else. But someone else can do it. Someone else may take longer, do it differently or make a few errors. But he or she can do the work.


Myth #2 My subordinates don't have approval authority. Many purchasing systems require certain approval levels. In most cases, you can ask for exceptions to have your supervisors or leads obtain approval authority. Getting supervisors' and leads' approval authority requires some work and isn't always easy, but it's almost always possible.


Myth #3 If I don't finish this work by the deadline, I'll lose my job. In over 20 years, including my time in the military, I've never seen anyone lose his job or ruin his career by missing a deadline. Of course, I have seen people punished for not letting their bosses know ahead of time that they were going to miss a deadline. Meet with your boss (no e-mail or voice mail), and let her know when you will be finished · with the project or report. State what needs to be accomplished and how long it will take.


Myth #4 You can only get ahead in this company by putting in long hours. Are you sure? When you leave your desk at night, how many empty desks do you pass on the way out? How many cars are left in the parking lot? There are people who are successful without putting in those long hours. Work harder than others. But more importantly, work smarter.


Myth #5 I do my best work under pressure. No, you don't plan well. And so you end up doing most of your work under pressure. You like being the hero (or worse, the martyr) and all the attention you receive when you resolve a crisis. Planning ahead, starting early, taking your time and reviewing your work will always bring better results. There's no stress and no glory. But the final product will be outstanding.


If you spend just one week a month with scheduled downtime, you'll get many benefits. First, you'll physically and mentally feel better. Your body and brain need time to relax and renew. With a clear mind and more energy, you'll perform at a higher level.


Also, you'll shatter those myths that have hampered your success. Your ego may take a hit. But you'll learn to trust others. Delegating isn't easy, but it's critical to success. By letting others do the work, you'll expand their abilities and improve the effectiveness of your unit.


Most importantly, you'll start to establish better work habits. While there are times that you'll need to put in long hours to handle a problem or crisis, you don't have to do that every day. Meetings are important, but there are some that you don't need to attend. By scheduling downtime for yourself once a month, you'll learn to put problems you may face in perspective.


These better habits will not only improve your work life, they'll also improve your personal life. With your new time and energy, you'll be able to concentrate on the important things your spouse or partner, your family and friends and your home. So start tomorrow with a very important task. Schedule some downtime.


Mark M. Fallon is president and CEO of the Berkshire Company, a consulting firm specializing in mail and document-processing strategies. For more information, visit