We never seem to be able to finish our to-do lists. Maybe it’s just me, but I suspect not. One of the reasons we keep a to-do list is to remember what we wanted to do when we’re in a place to do it. But what about when we have just five unexpected minutes?
I like to think of them as “gift minutes”, and they add up during the course of a day, month, year…
We can’t and don’t manage time. The first time I read that from David Allen I had to put the book down and have a think:
you don’t manage five minutes and wind up with six;
you don’t manage information overload – otherwise…the first time you connected to the Web…you’d blow up; and
you don’t manage priorities, you have them.
What we manage is our focus (HOW we spend our time) and energy
So with this in mind, I present to you the three books on “time management” that make the most sense to me. These are not books on how to use Microsoft Outlook to be more efficient. Frankly I feel like those kinds of courses that often end up teaching people to do useless work faster are more of the “blaming the victim” mentality.
These are books on getting the right things done and still having a life.
I do them all a disservice by skimming only one or two ideas from each, but that’s enough for now. If you want more, go read them yourself. I suggest you read them in order presented here (going from simplest to sophisticated), but that’s up to you.
“Eat That Frog!” – Brian Tracy
Big Idea: Do the most important, hardest, least pleasant, or most procrastinated task first. Getting that done gives you energy and motivation for the rest of the day
This is based on the Mark Twain quote “Eat a live toad first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day”. It doesn’t sound very appetizing. But by doing so you release stress, gain momentum, and are free to do what you want for the rest of the day. And actually do the stuff you need to get done. If you have more than one frog, eat the biggest ugliest one first. If you can’t decide which that is, pick the one you’ve been putting off the longest.
“Getting Things Done” – David Allen
Big Idea: Keep all your commitments in one place, review them regularly. If a task would take less than two minutes to do, just do it right now.
As you scan everything that’s coming at you, decide if you’re going to file it (for reference), give it to somebody else (delegate it), forget (trash) it, or do it. If it’s going to take less than two minutes then just do it now. The effort of tracking it is going to take more than two minutes of your time anyway. Otherwise put it on your calendar (because it has a deadline) or on your to-do list (because it doesn’t matter when you do it).
Here’s the secret sauce: keep your system up-to-date. Having a system is useless if you don’t use it on a regular basis. This is the stress many of us feel when we’re overwhelmed – your brain trying to remind you of all the things you’re supposed to keep track of. And it’s not very good at it. So it makes your life miserable.
If everything’s in one place, in a trusted system (you review it regularly) your brain can shut up about what it thinks it’s forgotten. Now you can focus on actually getting things done.
“The Effective Executive” – Peter Drucker
Big Idea: Put your ladder against the right wall.
You can be the fastest ladder-climber in the world, but if your ladder is leaned against the wrong wall, then your ability to climb ladders is wasted. Likewise all that frog eating and getting things done. Think about your strategy and consequently what you’re going to spend your time on, and you’ll be an effective executive.
There’s so much more in this book, of course. It’s one of the most practical books by the most influential management theorist and practitioner of the last century. I learn something new on every page every time I read it. Some other topics he covers:
effective executives know where their time goes
they focus on contributions and results
they build on strengths instead of trying to fix weaknesses
they do first things first (and second things second if at all)
they make effective decisions (and he describes in great detail what that looks like)
So, here are your undergrad, graduate, and post-graduate courses in time management and effectiveness. Have fun.
Sixth in a series about communication and change management
We can’t manage time.
We can’t manage five minutes and turn it into six. We can’t manage information overload – if we tried our heads would explode every time we walked into a library. We don’t manage priorities, we have them.
We can decide what to focus on and how we spend our time.
Those things we choose to spend our time and attention on are more likely to be successful than those we don’t. Yet some of us seem determined to try to do everything that comes along, whether or not it aligns with our work and our lives. There may be many reasons for this behaviour. The result is often stress, failure, and shame.
You can’t create more time. You have to budget the time you we do have. Decide what you must, should, and want to do with your time. More importantly decide what you’re NOT going to do.
If your objective is to make a program or initiative fail, then you don’t need to make the sometimes difficult decisions about what other things you’re not going to spend your time and attention on. Just let it happen by default. Because you’re too busy.
Here’s the paradox. As managers we get things done through other people. Managing people take a lot of time and effort. Maybe even more than managing ourselves. Which can be a pain. If people did what they were supposed to, being a leader would be a lot easier.
One of things that can’t get ignored by default are the human relationship aspects of your job. I think it should be near the top, in fact. You can’t ignore the people part, building trust, and then get mad when the projects executed by those people fail.
There’s no point in being so busy that you don’t check in on a project, program, or initiative only to find out in the last two weeks of a three month effort that you’re two months away from finishing it. Now you’re going to be spending the next two weeks pulling that particular set of chestnuts out of the fire. While you ignore your other work. Tell me again why we’re so busy?
Fix #6 Have a Rhythm
Clear responsibilities, hysterical transparency, and regular reviews drive accountability. Getting things done doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. Getting things done means planning and delegating the work, keeping track of progress on a regular basis, and reporting on that progress.
Consider maintaining a”relationship” with the projects you’re accountable for, as well as the people you work with. Regular, habitual check-ins, meetings, or status updates are the best means of keeping a project on track.
Establish a rhythm lets you stay up-to-speed on what’s happening with all the work and your team. Ideally once a week. Once a day if that’s appropriate for a critical, complex, or large project.
If your check-ins are once a week, and the work is more than two weeks in duration, then break the work into two week chunks. With tangible, deliverable results at the end of each. This could be a report, a presentation, a manufactured good, a software release, a construction milestone, a signed contract, etc. Something real.
Two weeks is a nice way to break up the time. In the first week something should be started, and in the second they should have finished. Now you can verify progress. There is a report, a presentation, or other work product the shows progress. Not started? Okay – what’s the hold up? Finished now? Good – where’s the deliverable?
This is one example of how to design a project to provide the clear responsibilities and transparency.
You can deliberately build in the rhythm that allows you to manage, direct, and oversee the work. Or you can spend more time later cleaning up the mess. Your choice.
“Communication is what the listener does” – Mark Horstman
Last week I encouraged you to be more than an active listener. I encouraged you to be a generous, respectful, and calm listener instead. While the “active” listening techniques of eye contact and body language are useful, they don’t go deep enough.
What does generous listening look like in practice? Here are three actionable, specific techniques for being a generous listener:
Listen With Your Mind
Personally I have a hard time even hearing what’s being said, or staying focused. My mind will drift off, especially if somebody’s rabbiting on about a topic that doesn’t interest me. Or I’ve already decided in irrelevant to where I want the conversation to go. Or I’m thinking furiously about what my response is going to be to an earlier statement, and I miss their real point.
Repeat the words they are saying to yourself in your head.
This will get you back on track. It will bring your mind back to what they’re saying. Don’t worry about having an immediate response ready the moment they take a breath. Having an immediate response ready the moment they stop talking is just another form of interrupting. Take a breath before you reply.
If you’re interrupting you’re not listening. If you’re not listening, they’ll know it and are less likely to be listening to you. Then how are you going to influence them? Just don’t.
This includes waiting for them to pause so you can elbow your way into the conversation with your witty retort. Bite your tongue. Take notes. Clench your teeth and grunt “Uh-Huh” or “Mmm-hmm” until your throat hurts if you have to.
Then count to five in your head after you think they’re done.
The “Uh-Huh” sound is a great way to move the conversation along, signal that you’re listening, and still not agreeing or making a commitment you don’t want to make.
I admit that most feedback is poorly delivered, feels like a personal attack, and isn’t actionable. Doesn’t matter.
Say “thank-you” and take it. Questions for clarification only.
No retorts, no rationalizations, no justification. At the very least you’ll be helping them practice, and they might even give better feedback the next time. Or send them to my website, which has many articles on giving feedback.
You have control of your calendar. You’re being realistic and deliberately not filling in completely. You have some slack in your schedule to deal with the expected unexpected, and for the little chores of everyday work life. You’re spending time on the things you need to.
But wait! Somebody wants to schedule a meeting at a conflicting time!
Here’s a practical rule I’m going to share with you. One that made a huge difference in my life and allowed me to take control of how I spend my time. This is big. Are you ready?
You don’t have to accept every meeting request.
Let me say this again so it’s clear: just because you get invited, doesn’t mean you have to go. You don’t have to say yes to everything. You don’t have to do everything. Part of being a professional is deciding what you’re not going to do.
You have the right of first refusal. Even with your boss on occasion. That is, you get to decide what goes into your calendar, and where it goes. If somebody else wants to schedule something on top of an existing commitment you have the right to propose an alternate time. Or to say no.
Being clear on your work priorities, which relationships you’re trying to build, and, and what’s important to your higher-ups will help you decide if any specific meeting is worth your time. Understanding what the intention of the meeting and your role in it will also help you decide. This is where agendas come in handy.
Now the exception that proves the rule: except when it’s your boss. It’s certainly appropriate to propose an alternate time to a meeting request from your direct supervisor or manager most of the time. It’s not appropriate to say no to them. That’s what makes them the boss. Besides, do you really want to say no to the person that controls your addiction to food, clothing, and shelter?
You have three choices when accepting a meeting request. You can accept the meeting and re-schedule any of your conflicting ones if it’s appropriate. You can propose an alternate time with the appropriate sense of urgency. Or you can decline the invitation in a professional way.
By appropriate sense of urgency I mean that if you can’t make that really important meeting at 2:00 o’clock today then don’t propose an alternate time two weeks from now. If the proposed meeting is tentatively scheduled for two weeks from now, proposing a time tomorrow or two months from now isn’t being very helpful. Try to stay in the same scope of time if you can.
And no, accepting the meeting and then not showing up is not professional. Accepting three meetings at the same time and deciding at the last minute which one to go to isn’t professional either. If you’re going to be professional, then you’re going to have to learn to say “no” to the things you’re not going to do. “I’m sorry, I don’t see how I can fit that into my schedule.” is good enough. The more you say it, the better you’ll get at it.
And if that’s a phrase you’ve been hearing from your higher-ups, you might want to consider how what you’re trying to do lines up with their priorities. They’re sending you a subtle message that it isn’t really all that subtle.
Congratulations. You block out your time in your journal, calendar, or diary. Then you work on those priorities during that time to get things done. You’re now much more effective at accomplishing the most important things during your week.
But . . . and this is a big but . . . that’s not how life really works. Stuff happens, issue arise, your boss assigns unexpected work, employees interrupt with their emergencies, children break their collar bones on the playground during recess, opportunities come along that need your attention. How do you plan for interruptions without throwing all your careful coordination out of wack?
You don’t want to spend all your time re-arranging your calendar. That’s not the most effective use of your time. Or worse, making the effort to organize yourself and then abandoning those efforts the first time something unplanned for comes along.
What Aren’t You Going To Do?
So don’t fill your calendar.
This may sound counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t your calendar be full of all the things you’re going to do? Are you so far behind that the only way you’ll ever catch up is to never die?
Trying to fit more hours in the day, or believing that you’ll be more effective by just working harder is a false hope. You’ll be more effective, less stressed, and more responsive if you understand and accept that you’re not going to get it all done.
Now you have the simple (and sometime difficult) but critical decisions to make. What are you not going to do? What are you going to say no to? What are the most important, valuable, and effective ways to spent you time?
The fact is you can’t manage time. You can’t manage 5 minutes and turn into 10 minutes. You can manage your attention and focus. What are the most important things really?
Spending some time thinking about this is an effective use of your time.
The 75% Rule
Now plan your time, but only three-quarters of it. Leave space in your day, week, and month with nothing in it. This is the time you’re going to use to deal with interruptions, rescheduled meetings, emergencies, and opportunities. This “slack” time will get filled up, and lets you be responsive. It makes you more effective.
Things that should be in your calendar:
your obligations to your boss (remember – she controls your addiction to food, clothing, and shelter)
developing your people (they’re the ones doing the work),
helping out others (and building relationships),
down time for you (you’re fooling yourself if you think lack of sleep or cancelling vacations make you more effective.)
Under the heading of “simple things outstanding managers do well” would be managing your own time. As a manager or executive, you’re managing other people’s efforts, their time and focus, and what they do or don’t get done.
Hard to do when you can’t get your own act together. So let’s take a look at your calendar together, shall we?
You calendar is empty, but you’re always busy –
This one is hard, because changing your behavior is hard. I’m guessing that your day consists of constant interruptions, fire-fighting, and wondering how the heck you got 500 e-mails in your in-box. You might be going home every night wondering what you got done, and how another day slipped by without getting that thing you really needed to do done.
You’re going to have to learn to say no. You’re going to have to develop the discipline to do that things that need doing, and not be interrupted. You’re going to have to focus.
You’re going to have to trust your people to solve their own problems, and you and they are going to have to learn that they can get along without you for the most part. You are going to have to decide what not to do. Will they still need you? Will you still be there to coach, mentor, and development them? Absolutely. But on your schedule, not theirs.
Let’s start simply What is the most important thing you need to get done this week? Find your big rock, and put it in your calendar. Block enough time for you to do the task. Now here’s the real secret:
When your calendar says it time to work on that thing – work on that thing!
Consider your calendar the future record of how you’re fulfilling your professional obligations. Lock the door, hide in another office, tell people to go away. Be rude if you have to. Don’t let anybody else fill your calendar with meetings either*. Do whatever you need to get that one thing done.
This is your promise to yourself to finish something. You’ve got as far as you have in your professional career because you do what you said you were going to do. What changed? Nobody can control how you spend your time except you (and your boss). It’s your choice.
Once you have the getting one thing a week down, and a second, then a third thing. But start with one. It’ll be good practice for thinking about how you spend your time.
Your calendar is 100% full, and what’s wrong with that.
Clients I work with come to Results.com because they want to grow their business, but something is holding them back. Like their sales isn’t keeping up with operations & service, or operations isn’t keeping up with the sales & marketing. They can do the work but don’t have it, or they have lots of work but can’t execute it.
They’re busier than a one-armed paper hanger trying to wallpaper two different rooms at once. They stagger out of the office at the end of the long day, not sure what they got done but certain that things aren’t going to be much different tomorrow. How do we make sure that we can spend some time, any time, making the changes that need to be made?
One of my clients has taken to blocking time in his own calendar. This will usually work, unless you live in a culture where co-workers ignore what’s already in your calendar, or the closed office door, because naturally whatever they’re working on is the most important thing right now.
My advice to him, and a technique I’ve used: hide. If you’re office is empty people assume you’re in a meeting anyway, and you are. A meeting of one.
If this sounds a little much, try de-fragmenting or batching your schedule. Just like we don’t wash every shirt as it hits the laundry basket, why would we stop what we’re doing every time an e-mail pops into our in-basket? This video from Fast Company explains:
In order to move your business, life, or job forward 1) be clear on what your priorities are, 2) have a clear action plan (who does what by when with which resources) for those priorities, and 3) take control of your calendar.