The fight for your time is pretty intense. In the 1940’s your Grandfather worked a strict 8 hour day. He stopped and had lunch, he stopped for tea twice a day and with almost no exception he clocked 8 hours, no more and no less. I’ll wager your day is markedly different. I know mine is. Right now I am sitting in Nigeria, writing this article at 9pm after putting in a solid 10 hours, with another 30 minutes of email on either side of my work day.
As times have moved on, the world has opened up, and become smaller and more connected. This, in turn, has driven competition, so the need to move exponentially faster, do more with less, be productive, be competitive just keeps rising with the internet, the information revolution, the connectedness of social media, and the opening up of the world markets. We are expected to handle more, deal with more and be more than our Grandparents ever were.
This ‘doing more with the same’ mentality begins as we leave school. At that time of our lives we are limited to having to worry about ourselves, and filling our time with things like spending time with friends. Then we go to varsity, where we have to worry about making time for gym, partying, our assignment deadlines and our exams. From there we fast forward to our first job. Now suddenly we have to find time for our boss, our work, looking after our first cars and apartments. Of course life has a way of moving on. We gain a significant other. So we now have to find time for everything we had to do before but with the addition of our significant other, two cars, a house, a bond. The biological clock kicks in, and we have kids which increases the demands on our time exponentially. Of course at this point in your life work has reached a point where you have been given more responsibility and so the demands increase there, while not alleviating anywhere else. And so we fill our time with more and more and more stuff. We hope it will get easier, or be easier as we get older, but I don’t believe that’s the case. Both my Mom and my Uncle are in their 70’s and they lead ridiculously busy lives. So much so that we haven’t had time to actually see each other for months.
These are big picture challenges. As we get older our lives fill with (for lack of a better word), stuff. Work stuff, home stuff, kid stuff, friend stuff, admin stuff, spouse stuff, medical stuff, gym stuff – just stuff in all shapes and forms. Time available is the same for you that it was for your Grandfather. What’s changed is the stuff that we are accruing, the stuff you have to manage. Of course as a business owner when you begin to factor in ‘stuff’ like your staffing issues, customer demands, competitors and how to stay in business the ‘stuff’ becomes an enormous mountain blocking your way to a clear path and professional growth.
So how do we deal with this? All this stuff?
As part of my portfolio at Avo I help people think about how to manage time, so I see a number of business owners coming through my door, hoping to be taught how to cram more into their day. Most believe that with a little more discipline, a trick or two and herculean willpower, they can be taught how to fit 26 hours of work into a 15 hour day. Many of my students are in fact, more disciplined and organised than I could ever hope to be! They have scheduling and time crunching down to a fine art. Their days are planned with the Germanic precision a drill master would find impressive. And yet, here they stand, hoping to be told how to do more.
The reality is this: discipline and will power are a little like a battery. They run down. They can’t be expected to work at full power forever without re-charging. If you can’t be productive with your time because you are so busy, you need to take a step back. One of the first steps to doing more, and managing your time productively is actually to unplug, switch off, and spend some time not working, not pushing and not trying to get every last drop out of every minute. Turning your brain off, whether to read a book, lie in the bath, go for a run or even to sit quietly staring a wall (what some call meditating, but honestly, it looks like just staring vacantly into space too often for it to be coincidence), allows it to recharge, and empty enough to fill up again.
If you want to be more productive we have to look at the prioritisation of the things you need to do. You need to have a clear understanding of they are, and then prioritise your list. A great place to start is by asking the question posed by Gary Keller, a leading authority on time management. “What’s the ONE Thing I could do, such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?” What a great way to look at a very complex problem. Naturally once you ask and can answer that question, it gives you a clear understanding of the priority on your extensive to do list. The impact, if you are able to identify and then complete your One Thing, is profound.
Once you have identified your priority items and begun to work you will need to focus. I don’t mean the obvious ‘just pay attention’, but focussing with intent. Which brings me to my last point.
More and more research is showing that multi-tasking is a dangerous myth, with the dilution of focus on one activity at a time leading to an increase of up to 40% in the time it takes to complete that task (at least among knowledge workers). So sure you can tell someone to focus and not multi-task but where do you start?
You have to figure out what’s distracting you and stop it! Sometimes you’re more effective if you can figure out what needs to be put down, rather than picked up. Email is a great example. You may be in the middle of reading a budget report, when the little mail icon in the bottom of your screen pops up. It’s distracting, you can’t help it. Is it that important mail you’ve been waiting for from Thando? Or maybe the urgent sales pricing from Karabo? Already you have broken concentration. It will take up to 15 minutes for a knowledge worker to get back into the flow of what they were doing before they were distracted. So you have to figure out what’s distracting you and then take steps to remove the distraction. I love the idea of flow time. A regular hour or so stretch where you close email, turn off phones and work on things that will go much faster, and be of a much higher quality, if you can give them your utmost attention. Then by all means, once flow time is over you can get back to the daily ‘stuff’ that fills your time, knowing that you’ve been more productive for that period that at any other time in your day!