To achieve any worthy goal, you must decide what is vital to the project, then structure your days so you can devote large chunks of time to those vital activities.
A Tale Of Two Workers
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities
Andrew and Angela worked for the same company. They were hired at about the same time to join the company’s sales team. And there the similarities end.
Angela developed a habit of coming in to work at 7:00 AM, about an hour before most of the sales team arrived. She always had a list of tasks which she had prepared the night before. She came in, sat down, and went to work on the first task on her list.
Angela had long ago shut off the alerts on her phone and laptop, so she wasn’t constantly interrupted by temptations to check e-mail or breaking news or the latest social media posts. She used a simple checklist to keep track of her daily “wins” — the things she knew she needed to do each day to make progress in her job. Angela worked when she was at work, but she also took short breaks to recover several times throughout the day.
Then there was Andrew. Andrew usually got to work sometime between 8:15 and 8:30. He came in carrying his fast food breakfast, which he ate at his desk while reading the latest news stories. After he finished breakfast, he made the rounds, checking in with his friends to catch up on the latest gossip. Back at his desk, he opened his e-mail for the first of many times throughout the day. After clearing out his e-mail inbox, he hopped on Facebook for “just a few minutes” to see what all his “friends” were up to. Finally, at about 10:00 AM, he sat down to decide what he needed to work on today.
Fast forward five years . . . Angela is VP of Sales at her company and continues to be one of its most productive employees. Andrew was just let go from his 3rd job and wonders why he keeps working for such “lousy companies”.
Who Do You Resemble?
Now, these are two obviously extreme examples for illustrative purposes. But they highlight some of the principles of productivity, keys to getting important work done on the way to achieving our BIG goals.
I have known a few Angelas in my work life and even more Andrews. I suspect you have too. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. However, if you lean more toward the Andrew side of the spectrum or if your productivity could use a bit of tuning, here are some ideas to keep in mind.
What is important for you?
The first step toward being more productive is to decide what is important for you. As Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
You can be very busy throughout the day – answering e-mails, making phone calls, organizing your work space, alphabetizing your files, cleaning up the break room. But busy is not the same as productive. If the tasks you are busy with don’t contribute to your BIG goal or to your most important objective for the day, you are wasting time.
Decide in advance your top priority task for the day. This is the pursuit that has the most positive consequences for doing it or negative consequences if it is not done. Get started on this activity first thing.
Time management: Track – Eliminate – Consolidate
If you are to focus on your important activities, you must learn to use your time effectively. Here, in a nutshell, is an effective time management strategy adapted from Peter Drucker, perhaps the most influential business and management thinker of the 20th century.
This method involves 3 steps. [*]
Track your time.
It has been said (possibly by Peter Drucker) that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. The first step in budgeting is to track your expenditures. Similarly, the first step in managing your time is to track where you are spending it now. You have many choices for how to record how you use time – from smart phone apps to spreadsheets to good old paper and pencil. Pick one and use it for at least one week to get an idea of how you spend your time.
Diagnose your time.
Once you have the big picture of where your time is going, you can begin to make better decisions about how you will use it. Go through your time log and analyze your time use. Put your activities into broad categories to understand how much time you are giving to each.
Now look at the individual tasks. Ask yourself this questions. “What would happen if this were not done at all?” What would be the consequences? If there are none, this is an activity that you could stop doing.
For the tasks you don’t eliminate, ask: “Could someone else do this better?” There are some things that only you can do or that you are better at performing. For other activities, determine if you could delegate or outsource them to someone who is better able to handle them.
Delegation is a skill that is sometimes difficult to master. We think it’s faster to do the task than it is to teach someone else to do it. But consider this. Suppose a task takes you 5 minutes every work day. Over the course of 1 year, you spend over 21 hours on this task. If you took an hour (or even 2) to train someone else how to do the task, you would take back up to 20 hours. The same holds for tasks that could be automated.
Consolidate your time.
OK, you know where your time goes and you’ve eliminated, delegated and automated what you can. Now look for ways to consolidate some of your time into large chunks that you can dedicate to your most important activities. Giving four 15-minute blocks of time to a task is not the same as having one solid hour of dedicated time to focus on an important task.
Watching The (Body) Clock
As you are carving out blocks of time in which to do your most important work, keep this in mind. Your body is biologically wired to follow alternating periods of alertness and rest.
You may know of circadian (from Latin, circa = “about”, dies = “day”) rhythm which describes basic sleep patterns during a 24-hour period. But have you heard of ultradian (ultra = “beyond” or “more than” a day) rhythms?
Ultradian rhythms “involve alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (about 90 minutes) followed by lower-frequency brain activity (about 20 minutes).” [Thibodeaux]
To do your best, most productive work, attune to and follow your body’s rhythms. If you try to push through and concentrate hard all day long, sooner or later, you’ll burn out. Besides, you won’t be doing your best work.
Instead, work in 45 – 90 minute blocks (observe yourself to find what works best for you), with 10 – 20 minutes of recovery time in between. Take a break. Take a walk. Do routine work that doesn’t require a lot of thought or effort. Then go back to your major task, refreshed and prepared to focus. That is working with your body’s internal clock.
However, when you are in your “on” state of high-frequency brain activity, you must guard against all the low-value but pleasant tasks that can clamor for your attention.
Don’t Dilute Attention
Recall Dr. Stephen Covey’s Time Manage matrix. It consists of 2 columns and 2 rows. The upper row is labeled “Important” and the bottom row is “Not Important”. The left-hand column is labeled “Urgent” and the right-hand column is “Not Urgent”. (You can see an example here.
Schedule your time so that you are working from the Important quadrants. You are likely doing the Important and Urgent (quadrant 1) items – otherwise, you will suffer some major consequences. And as we’ve discussed before , working on the Important but Not Urgent (quadrant 2) items can take some conscious effort.
The chinks in our armor are the Not Important, Not Urgent (quadrant 4) items. These are the “fun” things — checking e-mail, posting to Facebook, hanging out on your smart phone — that are time drainers.
Brian Johnson compares this to “kryponite dust”. Superman as you may know is weakened by kryptonite — chunks of Krypton, his home planet which exploded. Superman avoids kryptonite and, if he comes into proximity to a chunk, must devise ways to remove or to escape it.
But, says Johnson, it you were to sprinkle kryptonite dust on the items Superman comes into contact with day after day, he wouldn’t notice at first that his powers are being drained. But slowly, inevitably, his powers will decline. By the time he notices, it is too late. He has lost his power.
Be careful that you are not being dusted with your own Kryptonite – constant interruptions and attention-diverting feel-good activities. Stay out of Quadrant 4! It is a time suck and will destroy your powers of productivity.
Make Productivity A Habit
Most of us have days like Andrew’s — no thought or planning is required. But if you want to be like Angela, you must proactivley take steps in that direction.
First, decide what is important and meaningful for you to accomplish. Then manage your time, energy and distractions to minimize the time you spend on trivial tasks and time wasters. Go for 45 – 90 minute chunks of productive time, followed by 10 – 20 minutes of recovery.
Start small. Be consistent. Make productivity a habit. That is embracing The Excelerated Life™
Excelerated productivity — improving efficiency and effectiveness — is one step in creating The Excelerated Life™ , a life of flourishing, of well-being, meaning, and purpose.
(*) I first became aware of Peter Drucker’s time management ideas from Brian Johnson in his Productivity 101 online class. I also got information about Drucker’s method from the blog article by Charles Chu. (See Resources.)
Chu, Charles. “Peter Drucker on How to (Actually) Manage Your Time.” Observer. Observer Media, 13 April 2017. Web. 23 May 2019.
Covey, Stephen R. The Seven Habits Of Highly Successful People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989
Petty, Louise. “Time Management Matrix.” PDF File. February 23, 2015
Thibodeaux, Wanda. “Why Working in 90-Minute Intervals Is Powerful for Your Body and Job, According to Science.” inc.com. Mansueto Ventures LLC, 27 Jan 2019. Web. 28 May 2019.