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Balancing your workload
With all the hats contract engineers have to wear (and bear), it sometimes feels as if juggling is our primary occupation. This month we'll conclude our series on the business aspects of contract engineering by exploring some techniques that may help restore equilibrium to your demanding schedule.
Nothing is more essential to effective time and task management than having ready access to resources. After all, the art of organization is nothing more than arranging these things in such a way that you can find them quickly. For broadcast engineers, this particularly applies to information (contact information and reference sources), tools and parts.
In terms of day planning, contact information and record keeping, the advent of personal digital assistants (PDAs) and palm computers have made a huge difference in how much manageable information one person can carry around. When it comes to reference materials, such as catalogs, online or CD-ROMs are definitely the way to go.
Many current equipment manuals are now available on CD-ROM as well, making the laptop PC an indispensable tool for information management in the field. As a complement, a decent document scanner along with a CD-ROM burner at the office will allow you to catalog many older schematics and drawings, allowing you to print copies wherever and whenever you need them. Add a digital camera, and you will have the ability to record, carry and reproduce a variety of image files to aid in later recall of exactly how things looked, were connected, or were arranged.
Tool and material management have also undergone some major changes in the last 10 years. Toolboxes and parts carriers have gotten larger, lighter, stronger, and much more versatile. In this sense, at least, organizing has never been easier.
Good organization allows you to operate efficiently and productively, but it's really only half the battle. To budget your time most effectively, you need to take regular inventory of all the tasks facing you in order to develop and set a realistic set of priorities. Priorities are essential to the decision-making process because they largely dictate the order in which we process tasks.
Be sure, however, to be thorough when considering the task list. Some tasks must be accomplished before others take place or before others can be started. Thus, they must be assigned an even higher priority. The scientific treatment of this process is known as critical-path analysis, and it is widely used in industry to sort out just these kinds of issues. Flowcharting is one way to “map” priorities in a way that allows you to analyze detailed task lists while notating dates by or on which key steps must be taken.
While there are a number of software packages that allow you to do this, a pencil and pad can also effectively serve. Keep a copy of these charts and consult them regularly to keep them up to date.
Planning the logistics
Logistics, as any military planner will tell you, is a combination of science, hard work, and pure artistry. Logistics involves figuring out ways to shorten processes, eliminate duplication, and figure out how to kill two birds with the same proverbial stone.
For example, let's say you get an emergency call to service a transmitter at a location that is a one-hour drive away. Before you go flying out the door, take just one minute to stop and consider if there might be any other tasks that involve travel in the same area, such as picking up parts or performing an inspection. This is where superior organization kicks in to help you to quickly find ways to double-up on non-productive drive times. By carefully planning efficient ways to deliver manpower and resources to the job, you'll find plenty of opportunities to save time and money. Equipment rentals and parts orders are just a couple of areas that often benefit from the conscientious application of this technique.
Serving your most important clients.
The ability to organize, prioritize and plan strategically is essential to freeing up our most irreplaceable resource: time. But equally important is the need to budget time to our most important clients, our loved ones and ourselves. A station owner I once worked for (now a multi-millionaire) once advised me to “always cut your own best deal”, and I have tried to take his advice to heart. The point here is that human beings are high-maintenance items. You need to make time for your family, for exercise, for education and for play. These, after all, are the reasons we have careers to begin with, and to ignore them is akin to neglecting the foundation of a house while mending the roof.
We all have the need to work a sixty-hour week occasionally, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. If you find otherwise, you can rest assured that there is a problem somewhere. If this is the case, it's time to place finding and fixing it at the top of your priority list. That's what balance is all about.
Mark Krieger, BE Radio's consultant on contract engineering, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is based in Cleveland.
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