How is it that I can get to the end of the day, exhausted from hours of “crazy-busy”, and still feel like I’ve gotten nothing done? Days filled with meetings, phone calls, responding to data calls, and generally living in reactive mode can leave you with little time to get your own tasks done. And then, when you find a few minutes to work, you pluck some “low hanging fruit” to complete, just to get something – anything – off your list.
A quick internet search will reveal more calendar applications, to do list managers, time management systems, and a myriad of tools and techniques for “getting things done.” Like most professionals, I use some of these tools to try to manage my work. I have extensive, well organized to do lists, detailed project plans, and still I struggle. So much of my consulting work is to support other leaders in meeting their goals and successfully completing their projects that it often means that my time is not necessarily always mine to manage. And when I do get work done, it is often done in small chunks between meetings – which means while I am clicking things off the to-do list, the completed tasks tend not to be the most critical tasks. I end up working late, after everyone else has left, to get the bigger tasks done. So instead of putting the rocks, then the pebbles, then the sand into the jar, I fill the jar with sand, then try to buy new jars for the rocks. And to strain the metaphor even further, there is no room left for any more jars!
I finally came up with a simple strategy that has helped me immensely. The key here is simple. This method does NOT scale. It won’t manage a full to do list, and it is not a new system. It doesn’t even have a catchy name. Think of it as professional “me time.”
What is the most important single thing I want to get done today? Tomorrow? Next week? Choose one task – Ideally one that can be finished in about 45 minutes focused time. If the most important task would take longer, then define a sub-task that can be completed in the timeframe, and that becomes your day’s goal. Remember, choose a rock, or a part of a rock – not a pebble or bit of sand. Identify one for tomorrow, then start thinking ahead for a few similar tasks.
Schedule an appointment for yourself. Block one hour on your calendar. Create a meeting entry, showing busy, or even “out of the office”. Make it a private meeting. I find that the first hour of the day or the first hour after lunch to be the best times for me, but try to schedule it at your most productive times of the day.
Prepare the details. Attach all the information you need to complete the task into the calendar entry. Don’t just be generic when you schedule the time – be specific about the precise outcome you need. Spend a couple of minutes preparing the workspace. Attach or link to any needed source material. Avoid any potential distractions by being prepared for the task as you would prepare for an external meeting. Be ready to jump right in.
Schedule these tasks out one, two, or even three weeks out if you can – this blocks your calendar before it fills up with meetings. As you identify each day’s “focus task”, list out a handful – just a handful – of critical tasks that you must get done in the next week or two. Scheduling ahead helps with limiting challenges to your reserved time, but also studies show that people are more likely to schedule unpleasant or difficult tasks in the future, but pick easier or more pleasant tasks for the near term. For cyclical tasks, I schedule recurring appointments to plan for them. I also set calendar reminders as well.
Be realistic about what you can do. The key to making this work is to keep the appointments with yourself. This means to use the technique sparingly – no more than one task per day, a couple days a week at most. If you try to do too much, you will start missing appointments, which defeats the purpose. Too many blocked off hours, and people will start catching on, and try to schedule you anyway. Lastly, make sure that you have defined the work to be able to easily complete it in an hour – 45 minutes focused work with transition in and out. After all, this is about getting things done. Add this approach to your time management arsenal to scale the big rocks in your day.