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5 More Ways to Protect That Time!

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This post is a follow-up to Protect Your Time: 8 Ways to Stay Focused on Important Stuff.  Can you tell I care about this topic?

Refocuser palm clockI work with lots of people who are booked all day long, 8am-6pm, every single day of the week.  Most of these people complain that they have no time to do any “real” work since they’re “sooooooo busy” all the time.  Yet sitting in a meeting with a laptop open only half paying attention isn’t real work, and most people know that 🙂

Still, they let their time get abused left and right and don’t realize that they’re ultimately in control of the situation.  Heck, they may not even identify it as a problem to begin with.  They’re busy right?  Who has time to think about producing, creating, or <ugh> leading anyway?!

When you break it down, time is the purest and most ultimate resource we have for action.  We don’t own many things completely and totally, but time is one of the things that we get to choose how to spend.  And as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, your life is the sum of what you choose to focus on – so spend it wisely, because you aren’t going to get it back.  How you spend your time is going to impact your life in ways greater than your money, relationships, or job alone ever could.

It’s easy to look at a situation like being booked all week and think it’s unavoidable.  If you’re in a role with a decent amount of responsibility, it’s also easy to assume that responsibility has to equate to meeting attendance and being “busy” all the time.  But of course, it doesn’t… and never will.

Having responsibility for something important means that you’re a decision-maker of some sort.  The best decisions are made based on experience, instinct, and data.  And there are ways to gain practical experience, hone your native instinct, and collect and synthesize data outside of meetings.  In fact, you could make an argument that the more time you spend in useless meetings, the less opportunity you have to gain that experience or practice your craft.

Follow me?

Responsibility means, almost by definition, that your skills are best spent on “top of the stack” problems.  Which means that the more responsibility you have, the more time you should be spending on higher-level (aka more important) problems.  And in order to do so, focus is an absolute must-have in every way.  Because you can’t make a significant difference if you can’t focus on something, right?

To deconstruct it further, you may find that you can only make progress on solving those higher-level problems if you have uninterrupted blocks of time.  Studies have shown that it can take as much as 20 or 30 minutes to “recover” from interruptions.  This means that if you have to spin-down for even just a few minutes, you’re going to have an inordinately hard time spinning back up into flow.

And the harder the problem, the more it requires dedicated time to focus on.

You don’t get uninterrupted time if you let yourself get booked all day, every day.  And if you’re like me and have kids and a life outside of the office, you’re going to quickly find yourself sacrificing the things that make your life worth living in order to get back on track at the office.  It doesn’t have to be this way, I promise.

Here are five simple tips that should help you prioritize your time:

1. Block off time every Friday to kill meetings for the next week.

As part of any good weekly review (see The 3S Approach for more on the weekly review process) you look ahead to the upcoming week.  Use this time to start hitting the Cancel or Decline buttons for things you just don’t have time to do if you want to get non-meeting work done.

Always do this with the goal of having large blocks of uninterrupted time – it’s no use if you’re just grabbing a half-hour here and there to catch-up on email.  Remember: you want to get something done, not just mess around with your email.

2. Frontload your commitments.

This is something I’ve begun doing recently and it’s been great.  See, I’d rather have a couple days each week where I don’t have time to think so long as I know I’m going to have huge blocks of uninterrupted time coming up to do nothing but think. 

Lots of people look at a 40-hour work week and see 40 available slots for meetings, but I find this to be counter-productive to real focus.  It means you’re bouncing around all week and never have time to find flow.

So try this: squeeze all the recurring and one-off meetings you have into Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (if needed).  Leave Thursday and Friday wide open.  In fact, book a bunch of writing/coding/designing or whatever time on those days just for yourself.  Then protect that time like a mama bear protects an injured cub.

You may find that not only do you get an abundance of time to do “real” work, you also have a buffer for those important meetings that you couldn’t have possibly anticipated at the start of the week.  This way you may have some meetings on Thursday and Friday, but you guarantee they’re the most important ones and that they happen around your commitment to produce.

3. Get outta Dodge.

Plan to be out of the office for at least four continuous hours every couple weeks.  Work from a coffee shop, a satellite office, or your favorite lookout spot.  It doesn’t really matter much, so much as you make a habit out of not being around for others when they are looking for you. 

Of course, if you alert people that you’re planning on doing this, they’ll know to find you before or after your disappearance – and you’ll find that it won’t make one bit of a difference for them.  But it will do wonders for your ability to get stuff done.

4. Start every phone call with “Is this still a good time to talk?”

I picked up this habit from Merlin Mann, web celeb extraordinaire and creator of Inbox Zero.  Starting every call with “Is this still a good time?” does two important things:

  1. It gives the person you’re meeting with an opportunity to duck out if they need to.  Important because it also conveys that you feel this is important enough that you expect them to be present and active on the call.  If it’s not a good time to do this, say so now – otherwise we’re diving in.
  2. It makes it clear that you’re going to be engaged – that you are going to be an active participant on the call.

Plus, it’s just courteous and respectful of someone else’s time.  Other people face the same overbooked pain as you do, so it’s just the right thing to do.

5. Don’t solve other people’s problems for them.

It doesn’t matter how smart you think you are, shut up.  When someone comes to you with a problem they need to solve or a decision they need to make, you need to quickly assess what your role is going to be in their process.  Sometimes it’s easy to see yourself as the “hero” – the person who’ll solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop.

But that has two unintended consequences.  First, it involves you directly in the lifetime of that thing.  If there are follow-ups, you’re going to be involved.  You may even end up being in the driver’s seat.  So what may have taken 20 minutes of your time can easily turn into 20 unexpected and unplanned-for hours.  And second, it’s setting a bad precedent and taking a learning opportunity away from someone else. 

You want people to be able to solve their own problems, especially if you’re a manager, and doing the work for someone else just makes it easier for them to ask next time.  And of course, the primary role of any good manager (or co-worker for that matter) is to help those around them learn and grow.  How is that person growing by listening to you rattle on?

Hope this helps!  If you haven’t, checked out what is really part one of this post; Protect Your Time: 8 Ways to Stay Focused on Important Stuff.  8+5 = 13 tips for making the most out of your most limited and valuable resource.

Written by Mike Torres

May 9th, 2010 at 3:07 pm

  • cjp0605

    Number 5 is a big challenge for me. I have a strong inclination to help people solve their problem, and you are right, once you do that, you “own” the solution. And that means if something goes wrong in the future, it is now your problem.

    Problem solving is more of an attitude than a skill, and helping people get from looking outward for a solution (at other people or resources to tell them what to do) to looking inward (just making a conscious decision to solve the problem can often get someone halfway to a solution) is going to do more for their success than helping them over and over with specific problems. I know this, but I haven't figured out how to put it into practice consistently since I like helping, and people often do not appreciate being coached to find their own solution. When they have a problem, they just want someone to fix it.

    • Thanks for the comment Chris. Me too. I think the keys for me are to a) prioritize working with driven, motivated, passionate people above all else (which self-selects the people who need help to begin with – i.e. they won't just give up when it gets hard) and to b) try not to come across as “the guy with the answer” in my approach. In other words, even if I have a strong inclination about where to take something, I work hard to make sure it doesn't come across as if I do.

      To my direct reports and co-workers: feel free to counter publicly with examples to keep me honest 🙂

  • Dave

    These (and your prior post) are great tips and I have been learning these on my own already. Number 5 was without a doubt the single hardest one for me to learn. I am in the military, and have recently (last couple of years) made the transition from a purely technical “solve the next problem” approach to a more management/leadership viewpoint (getting promoted forced the shift). I enjoy helping people, and it seemed somehow wrong to not help out on every request. When I started making the shift I ticked a lot of people off, because I was “the comm guy” and it was very difficult for them to accept the change and go through the proper “new” channels to request help. Instead they would come to me directly as “the expert” and I was expected to solve it. Thankfully that has changed. It helped that I am actually able to provide BETTER service by not being interrupted every 10 minutes. Unfortunately co-workers never understand that…

    Now I have a new guy working for me and he is the same way I was. He wants to help everyone, and he is a total wirehead, wanting to manage servers and lay cable. Somebody asks for help and he wants to jump, especially to get out of the “paperwork rut” and I totally understand. But he also wants to get promoted. I've been trying to explain to him that if he wants to move up he has to start thinking at a higher level and expecting others to pull their own weight, which means he's going to piss some people off — especially his peer group who turn to him for help. I don't really stop him from helping people, just advise him against it and then remind him about it when he later complains about not having time and spinning his wheels… 🙂