Let’s be honest. We could all stand to get a few more things done at the office…if only we weren’t getting 50 new emails a day, 10 of them marked urgent. If only our coworkers stopped interrupting us, or if we had fewer meetings.
If only we had more time.
Time is definite. So, how do some accomplish so much, while the rest of us fall prey to the “if only’s”?
We talked to local business and time management experts to discover the secret to getting things done at work. They shared with us time-wasting traps to avoid and strategies to employ that will make your workday not only more efficient but more effective as well.
Let’s not forget the ugly p-word—procrastination—and what may be at the root of your employee’s procrastination problem.
Whether you need to brush up on your time management skills or desperately need to overhaul your day from sunup to sundown, here’s how to get ’r done.
“The choices that we make don’t always lead us to focusing on the most important things,” says Harley V. Blake, manager of professional development programs at Central Michigan University. “So, productivity in large measure is the whole process of choosing the right things to focus on as opposed to getting things done.”
In his role at CMU, Blake teaches time management and also facilitates Franklin Covey courses related to 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and 5 Choices to Extraordinary Productivity.
“Choosing what’s important becomes very critical and getting that focus,” says Blake. “Therein lies the battle…how do we make that decision?”
Blake recommends using a tool such as the Eisenhower decision matrix. Credited to Dwight D. Eisenhower and made popular by Stephen Covey, the matrix involves categorizing responsibilities and tasks into four quadrants (important/urgent, important/not urgent, urgent/not important, and not urgent/not important).
The goal is to spend the majority of time and effort on the first two quadrants: important/urgent and important/not urgent. For a task that is urgent but not important, Blake suggests considering the consequences of not doing it. You may find you have to do it, or you might discover you can delegate it or drop it altogether.
The Pareto Principle applies here. “Basically, 80 percent of our impact comes from the top 20 percent of the most important things that we do,” says Blake.
Failure to plan is planning to fail.
~ Modern day proverb
With your top priorities firmly grasped in hand, it’s time to start planning. This is where many folks trip up. After all, who has time to plan?
Brian Tracy, author of Goals! and Eat That Frog, claims for every minute you spend planning, you’ll save 10 -12 minutes in execution. In fact, people who have clear, written goals accomplish 5 -10 times more than people who don’t.
Blake recommends finding a half-hour block of time on a Sunday evening or Monday morning to sit down and plan your week. Start with your commitments (e.g., meetings and appointments) and then block time for your top priorities before anything else.
“If you don’t have those big things in first, it’s not going to get done. You’ll just keep doing stuff that’s in front of you,” says Blake. “What is the top 20 percent? The things that will make an impact.”
But, he warns, don’t plan your calendar so tight you don’t have room for things that come up during the week.
Then, at the end of every day, leave 15 minutes to review your plan. “Stop what you’re doing, go back to your calendar, and readjust. That’s where you start shifting things around,” says Blake. “Clean up your desk, file things away. The next day it’s clean, organized, and you know where you’re going to start.”
Time management battles are won or lost in the execution phase.
“Keeping those appointments with yourself is just as important as if you had an appointment with the president of your company or anyone else,” says Blake. “Do we have the integrity to keep [those], or do we just keep pushing those things away?”
Understanding your priorities and planning are great initial steps, “but you can still not execute the plan,” warns Blake. He advises keeping yourself fresh and your energy up. Don’t overlook the importance of diet, exercise, and relaxation in the never-ending quest to get more done.
Prioritize, plan, execute. It’s not rocket science, but there are common productivity snags that can be avoided.
According to Dr. Danilo Sirias, professor of management at Saginaw Valley State University, “Multitasking is the No. 1[snag].” The common habit of stopping in the middle of a task and moving on to another creates set-up time and a set-down time with every task.
“All of this set-down and set-up time adds up very quickly. What I’ve found is you lose 30 percent of your personal productivity by doing that,” says Sirias.
“Obviously, you can’t [always] work on something to the end because you have competing priorities,” adds Sirias.
To minimize multitasking he suggests creating a to-do list and grouping similar things related to a project (or milestone) together, working them one at a time. “Try to complete five or six tasks around intermediate milestones before moving on to the next task,” says Sirias.
Then there are the interruptions. Everything from emails and phone calls to texts and people stopping by your office saying, “Got a minute?”
It’s estimated most knowledge workers lose about 28 percent of their day or 2.1 hours a day to constant interruptions.
“The thing is the expectation. People expect a response very quickly. The challenge is becoming more not what to do, but more what not to do,” says Sirias.
Blake suggests setting expectations, respectfully and with integrity, about response times. “Quite often in a workspace, there’s an expectation I’m supposed to answer emails when they come in,” he says. “Maybe it’s a departmental meeting where you discuss if that’s really the best way to operate. Talk about it as a staff, [and deciding that, for example,] we’re going to check it three or four times a day. If it’s an immediate thing, come knock on my door.”
And by all means, turn off the dings, ghosts, and notifications at your workstation. They only draw your attention away from what you’re doing. With priorities clearly defined, proper plans in place, and integrity to keep appointments with ourselves, we all can kick unproductive workdays good-bye.
Before you create an improvement plan for Procrastinating Paulie at the office, first consider your management style.
“One of the underlying causes of procrastination is that mangers allow it to exist because they aren’t managing,” says Dr. Kevin Love, professor of management at Central Michigan University.
Love, as an industrial psychologist with 35 years in management consulting experience, notes today’s managers don’t often see themselves as coaches. Instead, they tend to get bogged down in emails and spreadsheets and miss opportunities to truly connect with their employees.
“Management has to be careful…is the problem really due to procrastination on the part of the employee, or is it due to more of a structural problem? A problem that is built into the system and how it is operating,” says Love.
Procrastination is costly. It interferes with the efficient delivery of services that can make a big impact on companies with small profit margins. Likewise, in an increasingly global economy, harmful customer experiences resulting from procrastination can quickly erode a customer base.
Love recommends three ways managers can help their employees avoid procrastination. Here they are listed, easiest to hardest.
Put together a mutual to-do list. While several project management software programs exist, Love notes putting together a shared to-do list doesn’t have to be more high-tech than a piece of paper or communal wipe board. “The simple act of sitting down together for goal-setting that includes specific timelines and dates helps you share in the joy of accomplishment and creates a framework for overcoming roadblocks as they arise,” says Love.
Praise the small accomplishments. With so much reliance on email and texting, managers may overlook the importance of positive, face-to-face encounters with employees. In our personal and our professional lives, Love warns, “Oftentimes, we ignore huge amounts of behavior that we like, and we focus on the few things that we want to punish.” Instead, celebrate the small accomplishments on the team’s to-do list with verbal acknowledgements.
Create REAL teams. According to Love, the keys to truly effective teams are ones in which everyone is held mutually accountable for the team’s success. Groups empowered to make decisions and accomplish something without direct, constant oversight by management develop strong feelings of accountability to each other. “When you have a true team environment, everybody is checking up on each other…what’s important is they as a team succeed,” says Love.
Here are a few books Harley Blake, time management instructor and Franklin Covey facilitator, recommends to help boost your productivity.