If you don't plan your day, someone will do it for you
The very idea that you probably had to schedule time to read this article is pretty absurd isn’t it? But if you hadn’t, you never would have read it, missing at the very least some ideas on how you can save time, improve your productivity and of course, achieve more. We aren’t promising to turn you into a productivity machine, but we do have some useful tools which you can use to manage your life and your load in a more intentional manner.
That said of course, it’s really important to note upfront, that not every tool we mention is for everyone. Some people are visual and need a visual method to assist in time management, while others relate better to conceptual ideas. Some need the nth degree of detail, while for others that kind of thing can literally send them over the edge. It’s all about personalising what works for you, and developing a system that is effective and manageable for you and your load.
When we go into a training session on managing time, we like to start with a simple contextual exercise. It’s all very well to launch yourself at the unknown, but if you don’t know where you are right now, how can you plot a route and set goals. When you begin this exercise it will give you a snapshot of what your current time looks like, what takes up the most time, and the least. What do you have to do vs. what you like to do and what should you be doing?
The way you do this is up to you, but for illustrative purposes we have decided to use post it notes.
You begin a master list of everything you do for a time period. A week, a month or even annually. We would start small to begin with, it can be a little daunting if not downright terrifying to do this on a larger time scale. Write each item down on a post it.
Next group them into 3 categories. What takes up the most time? What takes up the least time? And what falls into the middle of the road?
Then take a look at what takes the most time, and ask yourself; Is this what I should be doing? As a business owner, is that what will be the best use of my time for the organisation? Or can someone do this task as well as me, at a lower cost than I can? You can begin, very quickly, to get a sense of what’s taking your time, which then allows you to ask the all-important question. Are the right things in each group, and if not, how can I move them out of that group?
Even as an employee it’s important for your goals and career growth that you are fulfilling your role. What is your critical purpose in the organisation and once you have looked at how you are splitting your time, can you honestly say that you are fulfilling your obligations?
You need to begin looking at your time in the context of what you have been hired to do. Are you spending it effectively? Are you being ambushed by people needing you to ‘just do this quickly’ (a famous line uttered by many as the theme tune to your day being quietly obliterated). And what are you doing because it simply must be done, in spite of the fact that it isn’t on your critical purpose list?
Once you have grouped everything, you can begin to see what causes the challenges and design a strategy around avoiding those things that mess up your time.
A word, if you will, on ad-hoc or unexpected issues (one of my clients calls them drive-bys, as someone unexpectedly just takes out your day!). You can plan and plan but if the big kahuna suddenly calls you into her office and instructs you to spend, what you know will be your entire day working on her presentation there isn’t a lot you can do. So you need a strategy in place that will allow you to handle these kinds of situation without sabotaging your day.
So once you have worked out how you spend your time it becomes fairly elementary. Categorise all similar items or post-its together. For example, you can create a category called admin, which includes all filing, paying of bills, human resource issues and the like. Another category might be projects where you group all status reports, meetings etc. Once you have your categories resolved you can begin to plan your time period. In the instance of a weekly planning you can then begin to allocate each category a certain amount of time on a certain day. For example, I know that I earn my money when I deliver training seminars. Hence training needs to be the one category I spend most of my time on, and I can schedule it for certain days. My admin on the other hand, is also important, but not as important as training, and I can schedule that across two periods of time in a week.
In this case, Microsoft Outlook is your friend. You can allocate time in your diary, colour coding each category accordingly. Then, when that time period pops up you know what you should be doing and for how long. This is especially good if you are a visual person, as you can get a feel for your week with just one glance over your diary.
No really. Just plan. We like to use the planning funnel which starts with your long term, big picture items (like annual, or quarterly planning) and take it down each level to a daily detail, or the level you are most comfortable with. How do you do this you ask? Well first you schedule 2-3 hours of your time somewhere relaxing where you can focus. You look at the long term, for example quarterly. It’s January. You sit at a relaxing coffee shop with your calendar open in front of you and you start with the big stuff. Public holidays, school holidays, birthdays, budget periods for the business, sales conferences and the like. This will allow you to plan your annual leave now making good use of public holidays and the like. You can book all this into your diary, or your outlook calendar, again whatever suits you.
Then you move to a lower level, and a smaller, closer timeframe, for example January. What do you need to allocate time to, and when will you do it? Set those appointments with yourself, they are just as important as the ones you have with other people.
Naturally it progresses that you can then move to a working week. If, for example, you are a rep and you know your week is 70% sales calls, you can begin to plan your week on a Sunday afternoon. Monday may be for admin and internal meetings Tuesday may be sales calls in the morning, and email from 3pm, and so it goes on during the week. Once you get disciplined you should be able to plan your next week on the Friday so that you can hit the ground running every Monday.
Some even go to daily detail, outlining their daily tasks, again it depends entirely on the level of detail you feel you need.
There are ways to minimise your distraction when you need to focus. Grant recommends trying these tips.
One of the most distracting features of your day is your email. Who wants us? Who has something urgent they need to tell us? Even if we are disciplined and hit the minimise button, as mails come in their obnoxious little window opens on the right of our computer screen and hey! Look there! Someone needs something! There is a time and place for email and while you are working isn’t it! Schedule regular times to view email and keep to those times. Commit to only checking email every 2 hours, and put an out of office on that clearly illustrates when people can expect you to revert. Then close email. Don’t minimise it, close it entirely. Only open it in your scheduled time.
It goes without saying that in the quest to distract ourselves, the internet really is the brass ring. Endless cat videos, news, social media, it beckons us like a siren call in binary. Don’t do it! Disable your network connection on your laptop if you have to!
This is a great concept! Essentially what you do is have periods of intense concentration where you block out all distractions. Typically these periods run for about 45 minutes. One of the software development teams we work with uses ear phones as their external signaller (to those around them) not to interrupt them during this time.
Have a plan. Know what you need to achieve within in estimated time frame and stick to those goals. Commit to them.
Steven Covey made the Urgent/ Important Matrix famous, but it’s reputed to have been invented by President Eisenhower. This is one way you can go about classifying what you should prioritise in terms of workload and items you need to get done.
It’s essential that you remember a few things however, when prioritising tasks. Firstly you need to clarify your definition of Important, as well as Urgent. Important depends largely on your critical purpose to an organisation, what you have been hired to do. It’s important if it’s critical to your role, or it’s a critical strategy for the business at this time. Urgent however, relates to how soon a task needs to be done, Urgent means you pretty much need to drop everything and do the task now. When you need to prioritise a task you can use the matrix by asking yourself two questions, how Important is the task and how Urgent is it. For business owners, a pending strike action would be an Urgent and Important task to deal with. Often those fires that need putting out on Monday mornings are both Urgent and Important which means clear your diary and do these tasks. But doing an HR survey around employee well-being could be Classified as Important but Not-Urgent. An Urgent but Not-Important task that comes your way, you may decide to delegate. What you are working towards are doing Important tasks that are Not-Urgent.
Once you know if something is Important or Urgent, you also need to decide if you should be doing it, or if you should be delegating it. Is it urgent that the servers have gone down? Yes. Should you be getting directly involved with bringing them up again? Probably not, unless you are the IT guy – that’s what you were hired to do.
Capture and Place
The very last thing I would like to discuss is the concept of Capture and Place. Your brain is just not able to remember every single little thing that comes at you during the day. So as you cram more in, stuff sort of, falls out. In years gone by we had an in-tray, a receptacle to catch physical stuff we needed to remember to do. It’s a great example of a receptacle to Capture things that come at us, often unexpectedly, which we need to remember. We would then take items out of the in-tray, resolve them and file them away, or put them where they needed to be - Place. In the event of it being paperwork we would need again (like tax returns), it then becomes much easier to find them, as they are in a Place where they belong. Your Outlook In-box is an electronic ‘in-tray’, a tool to Capture your emails so that you don’t forget or lose them. Once you have actioned a mail you probably distribute it to a file – again a Place. The most basic form of this can often be seen in your kitchen. On your fridge. Kids have school stuff on the horizon, a letter comes home and it goes onto the fridge (capture) while you need to be aware of it. Once the information has been used, disseminated, etc., it goes into the bin (placed).
There’s no great mystery surrounding people who get mammoth to-do lists accomplished. They are just organised, and they plan, plan, plan. Nothing you couldn’t do, if you just plan the planning time.