The experiment mentioned in my last article resulted in our use of a Must-Do 3×5 card daily list will help you realize you can be far more productive. The results of our observations helped us understand several important things.
First, we realized stopping interruptions and focusing on the most important tasks required a strategy for our work. Tactics work best when serving a deliberate strategy—otherwise, chaos reigns.
Without a clear focus, we found that, rather than working a deliberate strategy, we were at the mercy of not controlling distractions, not keeping a schedule, and not saying no to new projects that would throw us off track from the important work to be done.
We realized that saying “no” was particularly important. Because we each had a limited amount of time and resources available, we sometimes needed to make it clear—including to the “boss,” when needed—that in order to take on another task, we would need to adjust the schedule to allow for it.
Saying “yes” to a new task meant something else would not be done or would take longer to complete. It’s often the boss’s responsibility to make a call on which thing should take priority in such a case.
Next, we needed to better control interruptions. Some of the things we did included closing our email programs and checking mail only at preplanned times that served our individual schedules (for me 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. most days). You can do this in your own life. Most things that arrive by email can wait one to three hours for your attention.
After getting the approval of supervisors, some of us started closing office doors and putting a sticky note on the door saying we would be available at a certain time. This helped control drop-ins and the distraction of people just walking by the door.
Some of us even put our phones on do-not-disturb during the time we wanted to focus. It’s easy to establish a system so that the most vital calls—like emergency calls from family members—can still get through.
Our primary effort was to carve out a block or two of uninterrupted time each day during which we could put forth a concentrated effort focusing on our most important task on the list.
If you want to be truly productive, and move toward your goals, you must make available true, uninterrupted time in which you can focus. Here are a few additional strategies we found useful:
Block out time on your calendar to focus on tasks. Many of us share our calendars, so anyone with access to yours will see the blocked-out time.
Let people know ahead of time that you need a portion of your day to put your undivided attention into whatever it is.
Make an agreement in the office that, for the sake of personal productivity, it is acceptable to close and place a do-not-disturb (DND) sign on the office door for periods in which you need uninterrupted time. Be sure to take a break every hour or so to stay fresh, yet continue to watch out for distractions.
Put a temporary away or unavailable message on your phone and email.
Go to a different location. For most of my writing projects, I often take my laptop to the library, a park, or a coffee shop.
Don’t know where your time is getting away from you? Start a log of interruptions, to gain an understanding of who, what, when, where, and how they happen.
Improve your ability to say no by practicing it whenever it makes sense. When someone drops by asking you to join them on a break, if it’s not time for your break yet, just say no, thank you. If someone tries to engage you in anything off-topic, let them know you’re busy.
Set limits. When someone stops in and just wants to talk, tell them you have two minutes or so, or ask them to come back at a designated break time.
What other ideas can you add that would work for you? How you manage distractions and interruptions will depend on the kind of work you do and the kind of company you work for. You can find more ideas online about stopping or limiting interruptions in different kinds of workplaces.
We’ve been talking about managing your time so you have time to take action. You’ll need to take action on these ideas, too!
Seeing interruptions for what they are and thinking about them differently might allow you to take actions you would not have considered. Giving yourself the gift of precious time will go a long way in making it possible to reap a new result.
Take action on some of the ideas to limit interruptions and better structure your time now. You won’t regret it.
To inspire you, here’s one of my old daily Must-Do 3×5 card lists from when I worked in a large, multi-national company:
Memo to sales managers for major projects list
Review financials for Western region
Complete executive summary for monthly report
Select location for quarterly strategy meeting
Review and comment on new collateral materials
This was a typical, if somewhat long list. In reality, there were days when I would not complete a single task on such a list because … well, you know, things happen. This particular list took me two long days to complete. Yet, knowing what I know now, if I had put in a concerted, uninterrupted effort, I could have easily scratched off every item on this list in a few hours.
If you have a complicated job or a complex life, you might need to keep a master task list of long-range projects and choose two to five to add to your daily Must-Do index card. Not every task comes with a deadline, so you might need to create a deadline for yourself to keep it from getting bypassed day after day.
It takes a serious and conscious effort to make the best use of your time. It’s a skill that gets better with practice, and it’s worth the effort. Just imagine how much more you can accomplish if you focus your energy for chunks of time.
All of this boils down to one simple realization: If we do not plan our work and work our plan, we are at the mercy of countless things that will derail us. Life is full of random opportunities for distraction.
Your strategy does not have to be elaborate by any means. It just needs to provide an outcome and some guardrails to keep you on track. I wrote out my strategy as a sort of mission statement for time management:
“To remain conscious of and control my time by controlling distractions to become as productive as possible while reducing stress. At the end of each month I will review my progress and make the necessary adjustments to further enhance my efficiency (doing things right) and effectiveness (doing the right things).”
This simple strategy pointed me in the direction of being productive, while also helping me find ways to reduce enormous amounts of stress that my lack of a plan had created.
By the way, you’ll notice I use Peter Drucker’s definition: “Efficiency is doing things right, effectiveness is doing the right things.” If you want to be both efficient and effective, you’ll need to keep this definition in mind!
Those you work for will notice your efforts at time management—and if they don’t, an added benefit of using 3×5 cards each day is that they provide a complete list of the most important work you have accomplished. Imagine bringing that list to your next personnel review. How many people can do that?
The crux of this article is simply this: Be thoughtful and deliberate about where you place your effort and spend your time. Learn from others, explore, and choose the ideas and methods that resonate with you most.
Adapted from the book Uncommon Sense by Bill Abbate www.billabbate.com