Getting to the Heart of Time Management



















January 2014

Time management isn't necessarily about working X hours and taking a break for Z minutes. It's about determining what "productivity" means. Many time management and lifehacking sites recycle the same tips about getting up early, shutting off your email, or completing your most dreaded task first. These are all excellent tips for task completion, but they don't address the questions that ultimately influence productivity: how is the quality of your work? And are you efficiently orienting your energy to the most important tasks?

Most of us know by now that multitasking lowers the overall quality of work, but do we realize that monotasking for too long can cause us to miss important items? One experiment followed pilots in training in a flight simulator. Forced to land a plane in conditions under which everything went wrong, pilots managed to negotiate everything inside the cockpit perfectly but missed - and crashed into - the airline carrier parked across the runway. Why? They were so focused on their navigation instruments that they didn't see the carrier. Had they had a minor disruption - say, if someone made a joke while the pilot was landing - the pilot likely would have noticed the carrier on the runway.

So while kicking your multitasking habit is a great goal, don't take it so far the other way that you're hyper-focused and miss something obvious but unexpected. Work on taking blocks of time to focus on one project, but don't lose sight of your big picture, because productivity isn't about checking off all the landing functions in your cockpit without looking out the window. So here are some tips for landing your planes safely.


The first thing to keep in mind when prioritizing is that even the Harvard Business Review thinks almost everything is unimportant. Use your time wisely by completing only your most important tasks (and no, that doesn’t include responding to - or even reading - every email in your inbox).

It does include honing your focus, which probably means putting the kibosh on online distractions. There are plenty of ways to do this: disconnecting your Internet connection, using programs that track - and subsequently block or shut down - access to distracting sites, or scheduling online activities only for certain times . While the Internet and smartphones might not actually shorten our attention spans, they do create momentum for distraction.

If you still find yourself getting distracted, you’ll have to take extreme measures, such as physically removing yourself from the phone and computer and - gasp - writing your work out longhand. Though the thought of filling a piece of paper with handwritten words might cause you to cringe, you may find that by channeling a few Luddite tendencies, fresh ideas flow a bit freer.

Manage Expectations

Manage the expectations of those who work with and for you in order to set up long-term productivity. An inbox filled with emails deemed by someone else as “high importance” or that demand an immediate response will slow you down and hinder your ability to complete actual priorities. The first step to managing expectations of immediate response is to not respond immediately. If it’s something that doesn’t really need a reply, don’t reply. By responding only to those emails that truly need a response, you train those sending you non-priority emails to find another way to get an answer or solution to their issue.

You should also manage the expectations of those receiving your emails through judicious use of the “high importance” marker. Using that insistent exclamation mark on even a semi-regular basis likely broaches the territory of overuse, and the danger of overusing the high priority marker is that recipients will tune it out. It’s not possible that nearly every email must be dealt with immediately.

If you find that you require faster responses, consider sending fewer emails. This may seem counterintuitive, but it works on a few levels: first, recipients are more likely to be responders if they don’t feel deluged. Second, for truly important items, you can call or stop by their desk in person to get a truly immediate response. Finally, you spend less time at your email, and hopefully, more time actually getting stuff done.

Block out most distractions

Sure, a joke from a crew member might have helped those pilots notice the airline carrier and land the simulated plane safely. But do you think they still would have landed safely had they picked up their phone and checked Twitter? There’s a difference between tunnel vision and being totally engaged with all levels and aspects of your task. Total engagement means that you not only see the big picture, but also that you’re focused on the details. Why is this better? Because the quality of your work will be higher, which means no going back to re-do what you’ve already done.

Try to find ways to shift your focus and stay engaged without derailing your progress. This is easier said than done - you can’t tell a phone not to ring or stop a knock on the door. But to the best of your ability, create an environment that minimizes distractions: close your email, turn your phone on silent, shut your door if you have one, or put on headphones if you don’t. But don’t begrudge a quick passing Hello - it might be just the focus shift that engages you totally so you land your planes in perfect safety.


Don’t take your attempt to block out distractions too far; studies show that collaboration can help double productivity . Creating a “war room” environment is great for spurring collaboration, but if you’re in a traditional cubicle office setting, try to go out of your way to get some outside advice or opinions. Stuck on a problem? Walk over to a coworker and use him or her as a sounding board. If everyone’s working on separate parts of a project, schedule quick review and brainstorming sessions (not long meetings) to make sure everyone is not only on the same page, but providing extra ideas and helping teammates solve problems.

Schedule breaks for your brain

If you walked all morning, you’d stop and rest, wouldn’t you? Your brain needs the same sort of rest after working all morning, so don’t forget to schedule a bit of time to take a walk, stretch, get a cup of coffee, or just step outside and take a quiet moment. It’s often in those quiet, “non-thinking” times that we come up with our best ideas or connect the dots.

It can also help to incorporate brain resting into your non-work hours. An excellent way to gain some distance and quiet time is meditation. But even if meditation isn’t quite right for you, schedule time to do something relaxing you enjoy, whether it’s walking, reading, or playing a video game.

Take a holistic approach

Remember that improving your focus and the quality of your work can’t be distilled down to one “just do this” item. Your productivity doesn’t come down to just the time you wake up or making up a to-do list. It’s the combination of your outlook, your environment, your health, your discipline, and other nuances of who you are that come together to either give you the energy to focus, or drain it away.

As with many other things in life, it comes down to balance, and every person has their own balance point. Don’t think that because one very successful person follows a certain schedule every day means that that schedule will work for you as well; instead, examine when you get things done and how you work best, and strive to maximize your optimal working times. When you're productive and energized has a lot to do with your circadian rhythms . Of course, your natural rhythms likely don’t mesh perfectly with the working world’s clock, and this is especially true if you work with international clients or have a boss who is only available at a certain time of the day.

Establishing a consistent sleeping and working schedule is key to adjusting our natural tendencies to the requirements of the working world. Say you have an international client who is only reachable during your early morning hours. Start setting a sleep pattern in which you go to bed early and rise early. The most important thing is to stick to it. It’s the same thing with training yourself to focus and avoid Internet distractions: it takes practice and discipline, but you can train yourself to be productive and energized.

Stop deploying excuses

We’re full of excuses for why we can’t get things done, and a lot of the time, we believe those excuses. “I couldn’t get it done because I was mentoring, and I have to be a mentor,” or “I couldn’t finish my priority today because I had to get through those emails first.” Notice a pattern? Thinking there are things you have to do in addition to the things that actually need to get done.

You don’t have to do most things, because few things actually matter. But we have to realize that a lot of the things that prevent productivity are just excuses. Why do we make excuses? Sometimes we just want to ignore what it is we actually need to do, or we think it will be easier to just avoid doing it altogether (which rarely works, since it has to be done sometime) and instead do things we tell ourselves have to be done, that in actuality, don’t matter.

When you stop making excuses, you make the conscious decision to step into action. Of course you have to realize when you’re making excuses, like “I can’t write out that blog post now because I don’t have my computer and I can write much better on a computer than I can on paper.” Time to move on from “I can’t because...” to just doing it. Like most things, just doing it gets easier with time, once you have the practice and momentum to move from project to project.

When you’re examining your time management and productivity, remember to look first at the quality of your work and determine where you’d ultimately like it to be. Then orient your goals to closing that quality gap. And just like it pays to be engaged on every level with your tasks, you’ll reap more benefits if you’re fully engaged with yourself. Be aware of how you work, of the cumulative impact of your decisions, and remain dedicated to upholding your standard of quality.

About BurrellesLuce

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