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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?
I 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.
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?”
- 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.
- 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.