Focus on what matters

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Victoria – an information design director with an Internet consulting firm – came to North Of Neutral as, despite significant successes in her current role, she was exhibiting serious burnout symptoms.

She complained that there were ‘never enough hours in the day’ to get everything done on her ‘To Do’ list, and that her private life was virtually non-existent. She needed help with her time management to create a healthier balance between her professional responsibilities, and her need to have time out to relax and keep herself sane.

Adjusting the balance in your life can be difficult, and can seem more so during slow economic times: it may seem daunting to demand more personal time in the face of an unstable employment market. If done right, however, the process can in fact help you to enjoy your life more and become more productive…

There are many different models geared towards achieving this goal, and they are all effective in their own ways. In my experience, however, the model that has proven most effective delineates the process into five distinct steps:

Step 1: Define your goals

The first step involves determining exactly where you are going. Ask yourself: what is it that I want to accomplish?

Next, develop SMART goals for yourself:

Specific your goals. They must be unambiguous and explicit. Be sure to include the answers to the 5 “W’s”: Who, What, Where, When, and Why.

An unspecific goal, such as: ’I want to increase sales’ is too vague. You need a specific goal; such as ’our sales force needs to generate ten new B2B leads in the U.S. market by the end of this quarter’.

Measurable. If you are unable to measure your goal, you won’t be able to recognize success when it occurs. With reference to the previous example, this could be that ’our sales force needs to make at least a total of 250 phone calls a day for 30 consecutive days’. Quantify your goals by asking questions such as ’How many?’ or ’How much?’ Make your goals assessable by establishing ‘How will I know when I have achieved my goal?’ Visible progress is in itself a powerful motivation.

Attainable. An effective goal statement must genuinely be a challenge and stretch you, but at the same time needs to provide you with a sense that it can be accomplished. Be realistic: are 250 phone calls a day feasible, given the size of your sales force and the timeline you set? Will your current sales conversion rates get you your 10 new clients or do you need a more effective pitch?

Relevant. Is a particular goal compatible and congruent with the overall direction you wish to take your professional and personal life? Is it consistent with your general value system and your internal compass? Address any dissonance and, if necessary, take a step back and re-assess the validity of your goal.

Time-oriented. There needs to be a deadline. Not only a point in time when you will be able to evaluate whether your goal has been achieved, but also check points along the way so you can reflect on your progress and take action or adjust your goal if necessary.

Finally, I recommend writing your goal down on a bright post-it note and making it visible: on your desk, your computer or your window. Move it around your desk from time to time – don’t let it just blend in with the rest of your work environment…

Step 2: Prioritize

Establish what it is that needs to be done to allow you to attain your goals. Once you have created a list of individual action steps, tackle them in order of importance.

In his book “First Things First”, time management guru Stephen R. Covey illustrates the competing elements of our lives that need prioritizing according to the table below. He asserts that we should strive to spend most of our time and effort on Quadrant 2 tasks. ‘Important’ is what directly affects our goals, where we want to be and assessing how this aligns with our values. This is where we need to spend most of our time on as it directly affects our ‘performance dashboard’ and this is where you have the ability to ‘move the needle’.

Most of my clients do not struggle with actions that fall under Quadrant 1 (these are genuine emergencies that need to be addressed immediately: such as a product recall). One challenge for people is in resisting the temptation of spending too much time on action items that fall into Quadrants 3 and 4…

A further challenge that senior executives may face is that their job and environment are structured in such a way that, even after sorting out Quadrant 3 and 4 tasks, the volume of the remaining tasks (that do fall into Quadrant 2) is overwhelming. Despite their best efforts, they do not get the benefits of managing their time more effectively and are left feeling depleted and de-motivated. This may be the moment to ask more profound questions: “Am I doing what I should be doing professionally? Is my career aligned with my values and who ‘I’ am? Or is it time to reassess the choice and direction of my career?”

Step 3: Overcome Procrastination

The key to coping with and ultimately conquering this destructive frame of mind is to be aware of when you begin to procrastinate, to understand why this happens, and to take steps to better manage your time and your outcomes. Clients get ‘stuck’ for a variety of reasons, such as: they are striving for perfection; they feel overwhelmed; they have a fear of failure, or they clearly dislike the task at hand. Thankfully, there are tactics you can use to get ‘unstuck’ and help get yourself back on track.

Determine the resources at hand. Is there a mentor or a peer who you can turn to for help? Is there anyone you could brainstorm solutions with? Could a third-party specialist or a professional support your efforts?  Have you reached for ‘low-hanging fruit’, such as Wikipedia?

Break projects into small steps. Sometimes an item on your ‘To Do’ list is simply too big – dividing it into smaller units will make the task more manageable. Take it one actionable step at a time.

Delegate. You may not like the idea of letting other people share the load, but delegating a task that doesn‘t play to your strengths to someone who enjoys that type of activity is a win-win situation.  It results in a productive collaboration that could also be useful in the future.

“Worst Things First”. Rather than letting the ‘dreaded’ items linger on your list, if they are important and you can’t delegate them: get them out of the way.  They probably won’t be as bad as you envisage, and knowing they’re done will leave you feeling relieved and energized and you’ll get more done in your workday.

Visualize the positive sensation of completing a task. Sometimes it helps to sit down and imagine the sense of accomplishment you’ll get from finishing a task or reaching your goal… It will get you motivated to take that next step.

Create your own rewards. Consider adding your own rewards; such as dinner out with friends, a weekend getaway, or simply an hour of reading the daily once you’ve have accomplished your task.

Step 4: Manage External Disruptions

So… You have your goal statement in place, your priority list is organized and you feel well equipped to manage any internal hurdles… The next thing you know: the phone rings, or a colleague stops by to chat about a particular issue, or you’re suddenly swamped by 50 emails… What do you do? (In fact, many assessment centers use this particular challenge)

Here are some common sense methods that you can use to improve your chances of success:

Firstly, as with your priority list, not all interruptions that are urgent are important. Learn to distinguish between the two. Next, set aside buffers of time that are reserved 100% for tackling your ‘To Do’ list. Put your phone and blackberry on silent, tell your assistant only to disturb you for real emergencies (let them know what exactly constitutes an emergency!) and process your email on a schedule rather than checking it continuously.

Set aside one hour twice a week to reflect and plan…

Step 5: Take charge of your schedule

Effectively scheduling your time is critical. Develop a balanced agenda, one that offers room for family, social pursuits, daily responsibilities and personal downtime. Analyze your schedule: all work and no play is a recipe for burnout (although sometimes work itself should be play). Treat your calendar like a road and regularly check what is coming up next…

Some final thoughts

Returning to where we began: Victoria – the design director – has begun to see the positive effect of analyzing and changing her time management practices. She feels energized for work and has received positive feedback from her manager both in terms of her contributions and her motivation. She even has found some time for her hobby: horse riding at the local stable.

However, she has also learned to accept that there will be days when she won’t be able to get everything done on her list. She needs to decide when she will end her workday and stick to it. Effectively: she has to learn to say “no”, and to attend that cocktail party, go to her son’s soccer game or get that massage that she booked a week ago.