So You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time – Part 2

Last week we looked at how to use the Eisenhower Matrix to help determine what is urgent and important and how to handle tasks that fall in the other parts of the matrix.   This week we look at eliminating distractions, saying “no” and breaking big assignments into smaller tasks.

Set Time Constraints

You become more productive when you allocate a specific amount of time to complete a specific task.  Parkinson’s law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion.”  If you reduce the time that you must complete a task, your brain is forced to focus on and complete it.  As an example, take a task that normally takes you 20 minutes.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and work as hard as possible to beat it.  You might not beat the timer, but by setting that goal you will force yourself to eliminate any time wasting or low value tasks that get in the way of getting it done more quickly and efficiently.

Eliminate Distractions

A study from UC – Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after being distracted.  Trying to multi-task will waste more time than if you focus on one task at a time.  Switching tasks imposes a time cost, even if it is not the 23 minutes found in the study it is still time that could have been spent on getting things done.  It takes time to regain your focus and getting back up to peak performance, so eliminating that time will automatically gain you more time in your day.

A few suggestions on eliminating distractions:

  • Turn off notifications on your devices
  • Get out of the habit of checking emails as soon as they arrive – consider finding ways to identify the important senders (such as the CEO or your top customers) and use those as ways to help you prioritize. Set up rules to send things like supplier fliers or that industry newsletter that sometimes has something to get automatically routed to specific folders that you review as part of your low priority or energy task times.
  • Leave your phone someplace that is not in your direct line of sight to reduce the number of times you look at it.
  • Use headphones to block out environmental noise. They also make you look like you are plugged in and on task, reducing the likelihood of a co-worker interrupting you with non-urgent questions or gossip.
  • Minimize your use of social media as much as possible. If you must use it, schedule specific time blocks for it and set a timer so that you don’t get caught up in it.
  • Use “Do Not Disturb” functions on workplace chat systems.
  • If you have an office, shut the door when you are working on high importance and value items.
  • Make quick decisions on things that have a small or medium impact. Spend your time on the items that will have an impact on a long time frame or impact many people.

Say No More Often Than Yes

The idea is to not say yes to do things that do not contribute to your work and goals.  Warren Buffet once said that “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” He also developed a two-step rule to help set boundaries and become better at decision making:

  1. Write down your top 25 goals. When you are done, circle the five that are most important to you.
  2. Completely eliminate the other 20 goals. Learn to say “no” to anything that does not contribute to the five remaining goals.

Make sure that those 5 goals align with what your current job function is.  This will help you avoid being everything to everyone and remove the distractions that prevent you from achieving your goals.

Single Task and Break Down Big Tasks

A myth has developed that we are able to multitask.  Our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time.  Start to single task by putting your phone away, close any apps on your computer that you don’t need for the task at hand, and only move to the next task when this one is completed.  This will avoid any switching costs.  Use the Pomodoro Technique.  This has 5 steps and works in 25-minute blocks:

  1. Choose one task and one task only.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on that task until the timer goes and put a check mark on a tracker.
  4. Take a 5-minute break.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 three more times and then take a 15-minute break.

This will force you to get into cycles of distraction-free concentration that will improve both the quantity and quality of your work.  By breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks you can create more realistic milestones.  Try to make all milestones so that they can be achieved in less than one hour.  Make your list, put them in order and then start running them through the Pomodoro Technique.  You will stop procrastinating and start tackling and completing large tasks in a much shorter time frame.  Large projects will not look as daunting and you find that the tasks can be focused on one at a time, causing you to gain and sustain momentum.

Let Go of Perfectionism

Aiming for perfection is a way to ensure that you will delay your work and miss deadlines.  While perfection is a goal, knowing when the return on effort has gone negative is a must.  Delivering something that is high quality is more important than being perfect. In fact, trying to be perfect will tend to make you put things off.  Know what is “good enough” and achieve that.  You may have to fix some things later but trying for perfect will result in you focusing on things that are unimportant to the user.    Mark Twain said it best – “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

Batch Similar Tasks

Finally, we all have tasks that require similar mindsets.  Find what those tasks are and complete them all at one time.  This allows you to stay in a flow and minimize task-switching costs.  If you have several related spreadsheets that need updating on a regular basis, group those tasks together and get them done while your mind is in that groove.  Batching will help you to create synergies that will help you find ways to do them even more efficiently.

Regardless of what techniques you use, the important thing is to find a way to measure what is important, how much time that should take and how well you are doing against that standard.  If you are meeting or exceeding the standard, then you need to move the goal so that you are continually improving.  We all need to determine where the balance point is between being perfect and being good enough.  Time is finite, and it has an opportunity cost – there is always something else that you could be doing.  By using a framework to determine priorities that takes importance and urgency into account, you will have a way to keep your eye on what tasks need to get done and when.  It’s not easy, but if you attack it like a project, one step at a time, you will be on your way towards greater productivity while gaining back the time that you need to take care of the things that really matter.

So, You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time?

We all do things that waste time.  Some of us will do low-value tasks that we really should be delegating (or just not do at all), but we feel that no one will be able to do it as well as we do.  Others will look at a huge project and procrastinate because it appears to be too big and complex, likely doing unimportant tasks to put off that large task that scares us.  Still others are perfectionists who continue with a task long after the return on the additional effort is negative. Alternatively, a perfectionist may put off tasks because they are uncertain that they can perform at the unrealistic level that they set for themselves. Finally, there are some of us who get a feeling of importance by never saying no to requests.  It feels good to be the go-to person that everyone thinks can do the impossible.  However, by never saying no we make everything a priority, and, in the end, nothing gets done.  Let’s face it, time and task management are not something that any of us will ever get perfect.  What we all need to do is determine what is “good enough” and then use that as a starting point towards continually improving.

There are several ways that one can use to improve our time and task management skills.  None of them are one-size fits all.  You may find that some are better at one stage in your career, but they may need to be changed or modified as you change roles and responsibilities.  You may have other ways of managing that work better for you.  The important thing is to create a system that works for you and continue to improve it over time.  Holding on to things that don’t work is another time cost that we put on ourselves!

Organize Work Around Energy Levels

Find your most productive hours and schedule high value and high energy tasks during those times.  As an example, if you are a morning person then do your most critical work when you start your day.  After lunch, your energy level may drop a bit so use that time to do more administrative tasks.

You should also know your energy levels by day.  Most people find Tuesdays and Wednesdays as their most productive days, so scheduling their most difficult and important tasks on those days will lead to getting more done.

Start the Day with Critical Work

Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.  And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  He was talking about determining what is your most important or hardest task and dealing with it first.  Getting it done will bring you momentum for the rest of the day.  Think about it – if you have already achieved your most important goal for the day then tackling the rest of them will seem easy by comparison and that positive mindset will carry with you throughout the day.  Elon Musk suggests that you “don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.”  Sometimes we deal with the squeaky wheel or the easiest tasks first and never get to what was important.  Resist that urge and leave those simple tasks for that time in the day that you know you are at your lowest energy.

Prioritize Tasks

Knowing how to prioritize is a must – if everything is a priority then it moves towards nothing being a priority.  One way to determine priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.  The goal is to focus on accomplishing the important and urgent before moving on to the other tasks.

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Do

Do it now

Examples:

·         Emergencies

·         Pressing clients

·         Deadline driven projects

Schedule

Decide when to do it

Examples:

·         Long-term planning

·         Calling back a client

·         Replying to a specific email

Not Important Delegate

Who can do it now?

Examples:

·         Booking a trip

·         Scheduling interviews

 

Delete

Purge Task

Examples:

·         Social media

·         Working on a dead report

 

 

  1. Start by writing down all your tasks – at this point don’t worry about the order, just get down everything that you need to do.
  2. Identify what’s urgent and what’s important and note which of them applies to each task. Tasks can have one, both or none of these identifications.  If the task has none of them then find a way to purge it.
  3. Assess value. Look at the important tasks and identify the high value items.  Determine which tasks have priority over others and how many people are impacted by your work.
  4. Now estimate the amount of time is required for each task and order them from the most effort to the least.
  5. Insert the tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix to gain a full overview of your work tasks

Some tasks will be urgent, but not important.  These are tasks that are good candidates to get delegated to others.  You don’t need to do everything yourself and moving these tasks to others can free up time to get the important and urgent tasks done. Remember that holding on to these tasks can have a large opportunity cost – they are time that could be spent doing something that is yields a greater return on your time investment.  When delegating, keep these things in mind:

  • Find the right person – they should have all the necessary skills and be capable of doing the job.
  • Provide clear instructions – write down the steps and be as specific as possible.
  • Define success – be specific about the expected outcome and the timelines.
  • Clarity – have that person explain the tasks back to you. Clarify what they are unclear about, rewriting the instructions if necessary.
  • Expect that the person will not do it exactly the way you did it – in fact they may find a better way. Don’t let your pride get in the way of delegating things that you should not be doing yourself.

Automate Repetitive Tasks

Find the things that you do multiple times a day or week and see if you can use technology to help you work smarter.  Examples include setting reminders so that you don’t forget anything; creating canned responses for emails that you keep writing repeatedly; or creating spreadsheet templates for reports that you do on a weekly or monthly basis.  Find those common elements and figure out ways to stop reinventing the wheel each time you do them.  Saving a few seconds here and a few seconds there will eventually free up 30 to 60 minutes a day that can be spent on your important and urgent tasks.

Next week we will look at eliminating distractions, how to say “no” more often and gaining more time through batching similar tasks.

Getting from Idea to Action Quicker: The GTD Method

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method created by David Allen.  This method is based on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them down into actionable items.  This allows one to focus their attention on acting on tasks instead of recalling them.  For a great explanation, David was interviewed on this edition of The Dealer Playbook podcast.  For a short version of what GTD is, David does a 90 second explanation here.  For a quick infographic on what GTD is, click here.

Most of us are too busy to work on our values, mission and ultimate purpose. Why? Even though our minds are great at creating things, it is terrible at tracking it.  (For a great example see this video from Successful by Design) There is a very good chance that you are tracking tons of things in your head right now. That stuff drains your energy and clogs your creativity because you are relying on yourself to remember it.  This stuff makes it hard to stay afloat on a day to day basis, forget about being able to think bigger.  David talks about getting in control and creating space in his TEDxAmsterdam2014 talk available here.

So, what’s the solution? You have likely been told it’s start at the top and work down.  That’s what’s got you struggling.  Start by mastering the bottom (by mastering getting things done efficiently) and then when you are no longer drowning you can think about your mission, purpose and values.

Getting Things Done is a collection of processes and habits that aim for:

  1. A clean and updated calendar of time-critical actions;
  2. A clear, current and comprehensive list of next actions you can take anywhere, anytime, without the need for further thought or clarification;
  3. A full list of outcomes (big and small) that you’re committed to achieving in the next 12 months; and
  4. A complete system to organize and keep track of all the “stuff” in your life.

By implementing GTD you will:

  • Never let anything important slip by again;
  • Always have pre-prepared options of actionable and productive things to get on with;
  • Have total oversight of everything you’ve committed to in the near future; and
  • Have a totally clear head with no need to mentally track of remember anything.

In short, it’s a way to get your life under control.  Through getting things out of your head and into a trusted system you will trust yourself more. You will know when to say “no” and still feel confident about handling anything that is thrown at you. By making space in your head that the “stuff” used to inhabit, you will have the time and energy to start working on the bigger things.  David talks about “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” in this video here.

So how does it work? There are 5 Steps plus Planning (David gives a short overview here):

1 – Capture – Collect what has your attention.   Use an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention.  Little, big, personal and professional – all your to-do’s, projects, things to handle or finish.

2 – Clarify – Process what it means.  Take everything that you capture and ask: Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, incubate it or file it as a reference. If yes, then decide the very next action required. If it will take you less than 2 minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.

3 – Organize – Put it where it belongs. Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories – calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.

4 – Reflect – Review frequently. Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists and clear your mind.

5 – Engage – Simply do. Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.

6 – Plan complex projects to get from multistep outcomes to actions.

Here’s a short video where David walks Dutch TV host Linda Geerdlink though getting started with GTD.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Capture

This includes all your outstanding stuff. Gather every out of place and unfinished thing in your head, your e-mail, your briefcase and wherever else it is stored and put it into a few external inboxes.  An inbox can be a basket, a notebook, a spreadsheet or any other way of getting it all into a small number of places.  You want to get it external to yourself because otherwise it will stay on your mind, eating energy and killing creativity.

Stuff is anything (an action, commitment, project or object) that:

  • You want, should, could, ought or need to act on, now or later; or
  • Anything that is even slightly unfinished or out of place.

Allen refers to this stuff as open loops.  By not having been closed yet, they cause stress because they are things that we could forget.  They are constantly telling your brain to “think about me”.  That stress is what is killing your energy and your creativity.

By collecting you empty these external inboxes so that you can move to the clarifying and organizing stages.  It’s sort of like doing spring cleaning.  Once it has been collected you will have an overview of everything that is unfinished or out of place in your life and it allows you to do the next steps quickly and effectively.  Once you have the system set up, collecting on a weekly basis will become shorter and easier.  While collecting, do not process as you go – you will be much more efficient if you batch all collecting first before trying to process it (the only exception is for items that can be completed in two minutes or less).  If the item is impractical to move (say you need to sell your old car, boat, etc.), use a physical or digital note as a placeholder so that it gets into the system.  Tooodledo.com offers a great infographic on how to do a brain dump here.

Clarify

Clarifying is the process of determining what stuff is, what’s the desired outcome and what is the next action.  You need to answer all these things.  If you don’t know what something is, how can you tell if it is important? The desired outcome lets you know when the thing has been completed.  The next action follows determining the outcome as this is the next step required to move towards that outcome. By not answering these three questions the item will sit in the system and you will not act on it until you are forced to.  Allen says that “you often have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.”

When determining the next action, be complete enough that someone else could do it without needing further clarification or thought.  If the next action is “call garage to schedule an oil change”, include the phone number.  If you don’t know it, then the real next action is “find phone number for Joe’s Garage”.

A few rules for working through your inbox:

  1. Always start with the top item on the pile.
  2. Handle only one item at a time.
  3. Never put anything back into an inbox.

Not sure how to get your inbox to zero? David offers some advice from his blog in response to a help request from a user here.

Organize

This is the process of:

  • Doing, delegating or deferring next actions;
  • Tidying up useful but non-actionable stuff into its proper place; and
  • Trashing what is left.

There are a few tools that you will need for organizing:

  • A calendar for time-critical meetings, events and actions;
  • A way to take notes for lists of actions, outcomes, plans and ideas;
  • A filing system to store information you may need to reference but can’t act on; and
  • A trash can or paper shredder depending on how sensitive the document is.

Allen prefers physical systems but the choice between physical and digital is yours.  Just make sure that the setup is relatively easy and works for you. Want to know what apps David uses to keep his lists?  He discusses them in this short clip here.  David offers some other ideas on what tool to use here.

In the note taking tool create four new notes with the following headings:

  • Waiting For – a list of all things that you are waiting for from others;
  • Next Actions – a list of every doable next action to progress to an outcome;
  • Outcomes – a list of every multi-step outcome that you’re committed to realizing in the next 12 months; and
  • Someday – outcomes or actions you may like to undertake one day under different circumstances.

In your filing system create two new sections or folders inside of it:

  • Plans – visualizations, milestones and next steps for complex outcomes; and
  • Ticklers – stuff you will “mail to self” for later re-processing.
    • Within the ticklers, set up 43 folders:
    • 1-12 are labeled with the name of each month; and
    • The remaining are labeled 1 through 31.

How does this work?  Say you received an email for and event that you want to attend that opens registrations in February.  There is no actionable item for right now, but there will be, so file that invitation in the February folder for later re-processing.  The remaining folders are for items in the current month.  The items will go into the folder representing the day that they are due.

Once an item has been clarified, you now have five choices:

  • Do – if the next action takes 2 minutes or less, do it now;
  • Delegate – if the next action can be done by someone else, delegate it;
  • Defer – commit to acting on a next action at a specific or general time in the future;
  • Tidy – find a proper place for everything and put everything in its proper place; and
  • Trash – dispose of anything that is no longer important or needed.

The best approach is to keep things simple.  Have one proper place for everything and put everything in their proper place. Try to only use one list and fewer folders wherever possible.  Sort things alphabetically – avoid the urge to categorize by sequence and priority.  Reducing complexity will just add thinking that will result in things not getting done and undermining the system.

The one place where many is better is in your next actions list.  Allen recommends splitting next actions across several lists by context, such as place (where you must be), person (who you must be with) or tools (what you must have on hand).  These contexts will help you to remember to be in the right place, with the right people and at the right time.  They will also allow you to batch similar actions together.

David explains what he means by being organized in GTD in this short video here.

Reflect

At a minimum, do a weekly review where you look for items from the previous week that have not yet reached their desired outcome, have been deferred for various reasons or just have not been actioned on yet.  Re-run steps 1 to 3.  Review, update and refresh every one of your folders and use your freed-up headspace to get creative, think big or maybe start a project from your someday list.  For each item answer the following questions to determine what to do with it:

  • Where am I on this?
  • Is it still relevant?
  • Is it still in the right place?
  • What’s the next action?

Engage

Once your system is up and running, this is where you will expend most of your time and energy.  At this point all that is left is the doing and because it has been organized, the doing is much simpler. Everything has been funnelled to your calendar and your master list of next actions.

So how do you decide what to do next?  First, rule out things that you can’t or shouldn’t do based on:

  • Context – what can’t you do based on where you are or what tools you have available?
  • Time available – What can’t you do based on the time until your next appointment?
  • Energy – What shouldn’t you do based on your mental or physical state?

Out of what is left, trust your gut and do what feels most important right now.  Even if you procrastinate, as long as you are working from your list you will be making progress on something.  However, as you get more proficient, there will be less and less reason to avoid doing anything.  David discusses procrastination here.

Something to keep in mind is to never respond instantly to work as it shows up, no matter how “urgent” it is.  Spend a couple of minutes running the request through steps 1, 2 and 3 of GTD. Review any next actions you have identified within the context of all your next actions.  Only engage with the new request if it still is the most important and urgent thing on your plate.  David offers more tips on how to deal with interruptions in this 4-minute video here.

Plan

Sometimes just a moment of thought and effort that’s needed to identify a project’s next action, but its usually better to have a plan.  A good place to start is:

  • Define the purpose and principles – why are you doing this and what are the constraints?
  • Visualize outcomes – what does success look like?
  • Brainstorm – what are all the ideas that you can think of and eliminate the bad ones.
  • Organize – what ideas will you use, which are the most important and what order to do them in.
  • Identify next actions – what is the very next physical action you can take to progress the project?

The goal of GTD is to get things done, so don’t make planning an end in itself.  It must draw out next actions!  Jacob Bronowski puts it as “the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.” If you are spending half of your time building and maintaining your system, you just aren’t doing it right.  Trust your instincts, simplify your system and get things done!

Further Resources

Want more information?  Start with David’s website – https://gettingthingsdone.com David does a monthly podcast where he talks with people who use GTD – https://gettingthingsdone.com/podcasts/ or subscribe to them on iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, Google Play Music, Spotify or Soundcloud.  The site also has a blog (https://gettingthingsdone.com/gtd-times/ ) that David updates every few days.  His book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – is available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore.  Buy the 2015 edition as it has been updated with the most current information and research. He has also started a YouTube channel with several short clips that help you understand GTD better that is available here.

Mashable offers a toolbox of 100+ resources for Getting things Done here.