Self-management is a confusing concept that often includes so many moving parts it becomes hard to keep track of anything. Often, all of these changes are happening while you are still expected to continue doing your job like normal, which can be overwhelming. Thankfully, if done right, it can be hugely beneficial for everyone and make your job and life easier.
What is "self-management"?
First, you need to understand what this whole thing even is. In real simple terms, self-management can be described as:
"Understanding what's expected of you and having the freedom to meet those expectations however you feel is best."
Thus, in order to be self-managed, you have to have clarity on exactly what your job is. What do you need to do, how do you need to do it, and when does it need done? Once you have that understanding, you then need to have some level of freedom and autonomy in your work so you can get the work done in the way that is most efficient for you personally.
The first part of self-management is to know what's expected of you. At many workplaces, the expectations are vague or entirely absent. In this cases, it's often a matter of employees doing what their managers tell them to at any turn, because the daily expectations aren't explicit.
Ideally, self-management should work exactly like paying your electric bill. If the power company said, "Pay a good amount in a timely manner", it would be a nightmare. You wouldn't know what to pay or when. Your expectation would surely be different than theirs and that lack of communication would result in your power getting shut off all the time. Similarly, it's not uncommon for someone to get in trouble at work for not doing a task in a specific way they didn't understand was a requirement.
Hopefully, your power company says, "Pay $100 by the 30th of every month or we shut your power off." This is a completely explicit expectation that isn't vague or up to interpretation. Anyone could look at that expectation and come to the same understanding of what needs done and what the consequence is if it's not done. That is a clear expectation.
Freedom and autonomy
Once a clear expectation is defined is when the second half of self-management comes in. You have the expectation, but you also need the freedom to do that however works best for you, and everyone will surely do it differently. Let's look back to the electric bill example.
Some people pay in full by the first of the month so they don't need to worry about it. Others have direct deposit and have no idea when the payment is made, they just hope they have money in the bank and it automatically is taken care of. Some people will pay the bill in a panic on the 29th, others will write a check for $25 every week so there's less a dent in their available money. Everyone does it differently, but everyone meets the expectation, so the power company doesn't care how it was done.
This is how the work should look as well. If your expectation is to be in the office at 9 AM, it shouldn't matter whether you get there exactly at 9 or 10 minutes early. It shouldn't matter if you are at your desk, the lounge, or at a coworkers desk at 9, because you're in the office. If you need to be at your desk by 9, then the expectation should be updated accordingly.
How to ask for clear expectations?
This process varies based on how your organization operates and the person or process that defines your expectations. Let's assume you have someone who assigns your expectations (such as a manager or lead link). The best thing to do is have a one-on-one conversation with them where you ask as many of the following questions as necessary for you to feel comfortable.
- "What do you need me to accomplish?"
By getting a clear goal, you can focus in on what really matters. For this, you want to ignore how that work is going to get done and instead think only about what ultimately needs completed after all is said and done. For example, a good response might be, "I need you to answer every phone call." Great. We haven't yet figured out the staffing needs or work schedules to make that happen, but we know what needs done. In this case, if you only answer 5 calls a day, but there were only 5 calls, you have done your job. On the other hand, if there are 1,000 calls a day, you need to answer 1,000 calls.
In most cases, you will need to get more detailed than this. Does it matter how quickly you answer the phone? Is there a particular greeting you are required to use? Are you required to answer literally every call the office ever receives, or just those that come in during your work shift? These are all the types of things you want clarity on so you can be completely confident at all times that you are doing your job perfectly and won't have to worry about someone saying you're doing it wrong.
- "Why is this important?"
Knowing why something matters not only helps pull out the necessary factors in the expectation being built, but it also helps you to understand why the work you do matters and allows you to mentally prioritize your work accordingly. If your job was to "Answer every phone call", but the explanation your manager provided was, "Because I said so.", are you going to take the job seriously? Are you going to put any importance on that? Are you going to go out of your way to make sure things are done right? Probably not. On that same note, if the only response is "Because I said so.", that hints at the likelihood of this not being an important task that probably shouldn't be a job expectation.
However, if you ask why it's important and the response is, "Because our customers depend on us. If they are calling, it's because they have a question or problem that only we can help with. Good and prompt service means they can rely on us and will remain a loyal customer. Bad service means they will never buy from us again, give us bad reviews, and tell others to not buy from us either. That will cost all of us our jobs." Now, answering phone calls seems important. Picking up the phone will make you feel like you are providing a valuable service for your many customers and are guaranteeing job security for your peers. With only a change of explanation, "Answering every phone call" now seems important, valuable, and meaningful.
- "To be clear - you don't care how I do X, as long as it gets done, right?"
It sounds sassier than it is. The point of this question is to bring it back to the two above questions, rinsing and repeating as often as is necessary until you and your manager (or whoever is assigning your expectations) come to an agreement on what work needs done. By confirming, "You don't care how I answer every phone call, as long as it gets done, right?" It gives you full autonomy in how you do that. If the infrastructure exists, you can work from home and answer calls from the comfort of your couch. You could set up a desk in the office cafe and answer calls from there. You could forward calls to your cell phone and answer calls while out hiking. In any case, as long as you are answering every phone call, you are doing a great job (assuming that, in this example, answering every phone call is literally their only job expectation).
Doug Kirkpatrick, author and self-management consultant who worked at Morning Star, talks about his definition of self-management. In short, it requires equal parts freedom and responsibility.