(A shorter version of this article was originally published in CityAM. A talk on time management and personal leadership is here.)
At work, often the last thing you can do is work. Emails flood in, colleagues make urgent requests, and fires need to be fought. But, a few pointers can help us get the most out of each day.
Focus on the Important, not the Urgent
Traditional time management involves writing a “To Do” list and doing the Urgent tasks first. It’s extremely addictive to tick Urgent things off your list – but you may end the day having done 9 Urgent tasks, but not the 10th, most important one. Stephen Covey, in his excellent book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”, instead advocates tackling the Important tasks first. Urgent tasks are those that you have to do, externally imposed by others, and often low-hanging fruit – so it’s tempting to start with them. Important tasks are those that you want to do, internally generated by you, such as developing a new idea. No-one’s nagging you to do them, and they take significant time. So if we don’t prioritize them, they’ll get swept aside by the Urgent.
Covey also emphasised that people act differently when keeping score: you’ll run faster if wearing a stopwatch. The same is true for work. Have a stopwatch on your desk, and start it when working on an Important task. Stop it when you’re distracted to surf the internet, or respond to an Urgent email. Set yourself a target of how much real work you aim to get done that day. It will change your behaviour.
Control Your Email
Urgent email burns a hole in your inbox and demands to be attended to. How can you focus on the Important, but still meet your deadlines? Create a sub-folder called “Today”, and another called “This Week”. When urgent emails come in, file them in the appropriate subfolder. When they’re out of sight, they’re out of mind, freeing you to do the Important tasks. Then, in the late afternoon, after the Important duties have been accomplished and when your mind is less sharp, you can turn your attention to these folders.
What if the Important tasks involve writing email? Select “Work Offline” so that you’re not distracted by incoming email when doing so. Change your settings so that you don’t have the “new email” little envelope in the bottom right, which demands to be clicked on. Remove the “new email” chime for the same reason.
Emails to mailing list (e.g. advertising special offers) are neither Urgent nor Important. Such emails will have “Unsubscribe” at the bottom. Create a new sub-folder called “Mailing Lists”, and use a filter rule (in Outlook, go to File – Manage Rules and Alerts) to automatically move messages with the word “Unsubscribe” into this sub-folder. You can read them at the end of the day.
Outsource and Automate
Many emails you send will contain stock phrases, e.g. directions to your office. In an Outlook email, go to Insert – Quick Parts, and save these phrases, so that you can paste them into an email at a flash.
For incoming email that you can give a standard response to, but don’t trust an auto-responder, create a sub-folder that your secretary has access to. File these emails into the sub-folder, and inform your secretary of the stock responses to such emails.
For non-work-related admin, use a virtual assistant (e.g. AskSunday or GetFriday). For example, a virtual assistant could download all talks from a website, or delete duplicate photos from your computer.
Use Natural Stimuli
On the hour, every hour, do a short physical activity – a set of press-ups if you have your own office, a brief walk if not. This accomplishes two goals. First, the actual activity is energizing. Second, you’ll try to complete the task in hand before the next enforced break. I dislike doing press-ups, so if it’s 10:50am, I think “I only have 10 minutes before an unpleasant activity” and make the best use of them.
As an alternative to coffee, Jamie Oliver recommends a fresh chilli. One or two seeds will give you a pick-me up. Sounds maverick? Maybe so, but a lot of punch can come from something very little. That’s the art of time management.