The secret to time management is simple. Do your important work first and ignore everything else. Here’s an example from the military…
The Duke of Wellington during the Peninsular Campaign, wrote to the British Foreign Office in London as follows: “We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which his Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. Unfortunately, the sum of one shilling and nine pence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment …This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions. Is it (1) to train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accounting and copy boys in London, or, perchance (2) to see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain?”
To master your time, you need to systematically focus on importance, not urgency. As humans, we are pre-wired to focus on things that demand an immediate response (e.g. email alerts). But if the cost of this is to postpone things that are important, it’s a heavy price to pay for perceived efficiency. You need to reverse that and learn to systematically work on what’s important. Here’s how to do this…
Principle 1: Set Clear Objectives: Most people need to figure out 4-7 key objectives they have for the year. These have different ‘labels’ in different organizations – but the principle is exactly the same. What are the key things that I will produce this year? The ‘trick’ here is to understand the difference between inputs and outputs. An old joke helps to explain this. 2 sales representatives were talking in Cork and one says: “I made a lot of strategic contacts today”. His friend replied: “Yeh, I didn’t get any sales either”. Outputs are end results that pay the bills. Inputs are activities, which don’t necessarily produce anything positive. Some people get caught up with these busyness indicators that don’t actually move the needle forward. I recently worked with a senior executive in a Technology company. He received more than 500 emails a day. Now, unless you have an objective titled ‘Keeping my In-Box’ clear, this level of ‘noise’ is just a distraction. The central issue here = focus. Focusing on one task at a time is normally more efficient than multi-tasking and gives you the opportunity to excel (now guys, you don’t need to feel guilty about not being able to multi-task).
Principle 2: First Things First: What is the single most important (not urgent) thing you could possibly be doing? Customer Service? Staff Relations? Business Process Re-engineering? Revenue Growth? Do some of that today. Remember there are a limitless number of distractions– don’t fool yourself by thinking “if I just do this thing, then I will…”. People have a gravitational pull towards what they know, what they like and what they feel comfortable doing. Couple of years back, I met the Site Manager in a pharmaceutical plant to talk about strategic planning. When I arrived, his PA told me that he was ‘in the factory’. Turns out that he was physically repairing a tablet press, the machine that forms the shape of tablets. Why? He was an engineer. His first love was machines. Talking to me about strategic planning was well down his list of ‘want to do’ stuff. The problem: this was a key part of his job and he was essentially running away from it. Perhaps at home you can continually ‘postpone’ cutting the grass or painting the shed – but in work you have to tackle critical issues right away – so quit stalling!
Principle 3: Work Your Diary: Some people are morning grouches but can work till midnight. Others are ‘larks ‘ and get their best work done early in the day. You have to know your own body clock. Schedule time in your diary to do your most important work – and don’t be at everyone else’s beck and call. For me personally, I like tackling tough jobs in the morning and leaving the afternoon free for ‘easy stuff’ like chatting to people, returning phone calls, messing with emails and so on. You need to find your own modus operendi. There are 2 sub-points here worth making:
Kill Updates: Technology has evolved to exploit our urgency addiction: email, Facebook, Quora (and more) will fight to distract you constantly. Fortunately, this is easily fixed. Turn off all notifications or choose to check these things when you have time to be distracted – say, during a lunch break – and work through them together, saving time. Here’s the BIG news. You are in charge! (not your computer or phone). I decided to exit Twitter when I read the following tweet: “Had a great shower this morning. What a way to start the day”. There is some stuff you just don’t need to know. Overcome your FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out anxiety) and get on with your real job. Ryan Tubridy bailed out of Twitter because of the level of personal abuse he was getting. Those Internet Trolls might have, inadvertently, done him a favour – making him much more productive. Get rid of the noise in your life!
Schedule Priorities: If you have a friend to meet, you’ll arrange to see them at a set time. But if you have something that matters to you more than anything – say writing a book, or going to the gym – many people don’t schedule it. They feel that they will somehow just ‘get round to it’. Treat your highest priorities like flights you have to catch: give them a set time in advance and say no to anything that would stop you making your flight. Is it a bit robotic? Absolutely. And what’s wrong with that? (within reason). Welcome to the world of über efficiency. The old ‘to do’ list still has a role to play (electronic or paper version).
Principle 4: Learn to Say No: Most of us follow an implicit social contract: when someone asks us to do something, we almost always want to say yes. While it may feel noble, while you are in ‘response mode’ your own work may not be getting done. And just because you were asked nicely! You may need to sacrifice some social comfort to get your own stuff done (as a bonus, people tend to instinctively respect those who can say no). Part of ‘saying no’ (in a silent way) is to ignore some requests. It might seem rude, unprofessional. But often, it’s absolutely necessary. There are people you won’t find time to reply to. There are requests you will allow yourself to forget. You can be slow to do things like tidying up, paying bills or opening mail. The world won’t fall apart. The payoff is you get things done that matter. You don’t have to be a jerk – but you do have to learn how to say no. Let people ‘keep their own monkeys’ – it’s not your mission to ‘save the world’ (unless you are thinking of kicking off a new religion).
Principle 5: Handle Each Paper Once: Procrastinators are time wasters (sometimes they suffer from perfectionism). They choose something on the desk to look at. If it’s concerning or confusing or both, they say “oh shit” before putting it back into the pile. They constantly move stuff ‘around’ their desk or keep updating ‘To Do’ lists – providing the illusion of progress. When you take up a task – (assuming it’s a priority task) they key is to move it forward. Decide to do something about it. Sometimes the ‘Swiss cheese principle’ needs to be deployed (when you ‘put holes’ in a big job until it eventually collapses) – but most of the time small tasks need to be completed there and then. Pick it up. Make the call. Complete the step. Move on. Sometimes, 90% now beats 100% never!
By following the 5 principles outlined above, you can learn to become productive and give yourself an extra couple of hours each week. That’s a full round of golf, or 3 Shazam classes in the gym. Look, if worse comes to worse, you could even spend extra time with the family. Now, there’s a thought…
PS Lighter Moment (courtesy of Coleman Collins – the best ‘headhunter’ in the West). If your homing pigeon doesn’t return you haven’t lost a homing pigeon – only a pigeon!
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