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.