I love stationery and planners. Particularly at the start of a new year, I spend more time than necessary in the office supply store searching for the perfect planner to help me get the year started off right. I often think that if I find the right planner, all of my organization and time management challenges will be solved.
I look at the size of the planner, searching for something that is large enough to capture everything while compact enough to easily bring along with me. I think about the cover, seeking something that is appropriate in a professional setting while also allowing my personality to shine through. I focus on the quality, ensuring that I find something durable enough to accompany me over the course of a year.
In the internal audit profession, time management, priority setting, and organization are important attributes for all levels of internal auditors. In balancing deadlines for each element of the audit process, commitments made to our audit customers, and commitments made to our audit teams, there often are a lot of balls in the air. Add in volunteering for professional and civic organizations, along with family commitments, and there is even more to balance. Maybe that is part of the reason that I focus so much time on identifying the perfect planner.
In reality, I know that while a planner may serve as a tool to assist with time management and priority setting, a planner alone is not sufficient. That said, there are basic practices that we can leverage in our internal audit work to more effectively and consistently demonstrate these attributes.
It may come as no surprise that I am a list maker. Writing things down and then identifying the most pressing items helps me visualize my priorities.
I also find that it is beneficial for me to do my most important activities early in the day. I am most focused and alert early in the morning, so tackling these activities early in the day typically yields my best work. Also, as the day goes on, I'm likely to be pulled into meetings and conversations that, while important, weren't necessarily on my radar at the start of the day.
Yesterday was a prime example. I arrived at the office early and knocked out reviews of a few important files. Yet by 10 a.m., I had gotten pulled into a completely different direction. If I hadn't knocked out my file reviews early, they may still not be completed.
I also turn the auto email alert off on both my laptop and my mobile phone. This allows me to better define how and where I spend my time versus letting emails define that for me. I've learned to use the small pockets of time — for example, that 10-15 minutes when I've wrapped up one task and I don't have time to plug into something more significant before the next meeting starts — to knock out those quick email responses.
When it comes to priority setting, one of the challenges we often have is that we may not have a good understanding of how our priorities may align with the priorities of those with whom we interact. A lack of proactive communication within our audit teams and with our audit customers can create unnecessary frustration because our priorities don't align.
I've seen situations in which team members don't place a sense of urgency on completing their to-dos for one audit because the report may not be due for a few more weeks. As such, they prioritize other activities — which may be less important — only to find that when they go back to complete their to-dos, the individual who they need to work with is out of the office for training. Proactive communication and joint priority setting could have prevented this particular situation.
For me, sometimes there is a tendency to delay tasks that I believe will be difficult or challenging. However, I've learned that delaying these tasks doesn't make it easier. In fact, it often creates more stress because now the uncompleted task is weighing over me. Taking steps to begin knocking out the difficult task as early as possible also is an important element of priority setting.
While the suggestions above certainly aren't a comprehensive list, hopefully there are some takeaways that you can leverage to improve how you manage your time and set priorities for your internal audit work. For any of you who may be wondering, with all of my searching, I still haven't found the perfect planner. If anyone has any recommendations, I would love to hear them.
In the meantime, I will continue to focus on the basic blocking and tackling of priority setting, time management, and organization regardless of the tool that I happen to be using at the time.