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Who is in control of your time?

The phone rings and even though I’m in the middle of a project I answer it just in case it’s something important. “Hey Justin, I just need to ask you a quick question.” the caller says. We know how this goes, don’t we? Forty-five minutes later I try to shift my brain back into my project. ‘Ding’ is the notification sound of my email, so I Alt-Tab over to see what email is coming in. It’s someone requesting some data, so I log into the necessary system, look it up and then send it over.

This pattern continues for most of the day, constant interruptions between phone calls and immediate responses to emails. This isn’t a typical day for me, but it’s how I chose to behave one day to see just how unproductive I could be. By the end of the day I had helped many other people, yet not a single thing that I needed to accomplish was complete or moved forward.

I used to hate 'Time Management' classes. I was convinced their sole purpose was to peddle bulky day planners and all of their inserts, only to sit up on my shelf and never be used. As someone who isn’t detail oriented, all of that planning was just way too much for me. However, over time as the scope of my role grew, I found myself adopting effective time management skills out of necessity without even realizing it. As a functional leader for a fast growing software company, my days filled up rather quickly and my calendar was some weeks harder to get into than the latest hot restaurant.

1. Know your priorities

You’d be surprised (or at least I am) at how many managers I have coached who can’t identify what their top priorities are. Not only for themselves but also for their organization. This is the first place where things will go awry. If you don’t know what your priorities are, how do you know what to work on? This is where the “squeaky wheel gets the grease” comes in. Does the person who yells loudest really deserve the most attention? In my experience the answer is no, but unfortunately we ignore the things that are most important to us to meet the needs of others.

Do you know what your top priorities are? Whenever I’m coaching managers or my team members, I have them identify three buckets of priorities. These should be the top three most important things that need to be worked on over a period of time. These aren’t just simple tasks, but might resemble longer term goals. Once you have identified your top priorities, post them somewhere visible as a reminder of what you need to work on. Then it’s time to work on them. The reason I use the metaphor of a bucket for priorities is that you should put something in each bucket every day. For me, I won’t go home until I have put something in each bucket, even if it’s a small task that only takes ten minutes. At least I have moved that priority further for that day. The other benefit of knowing your priorities, and those of your organization, is in identifying when you should say “no”. So what are your priorities?

2. Eliminate distractions

You know that feeling when you hear the ding of a new text message? Or maybe it’s the notification sound on your computer to let you know you have a new email. Better yet, do you know the feeling when someone else is utilizing the same notification sound as you, and the subsequent disappointment when you realize that the message wasn’t for you? In his recent book Leaders Eat Last, author Simon Sinek talks about the dopamine rush that we get every time one of those alerts goes off. As Sinek states “ooh, something for me”. There are pros and cons to dopamine, it rewards us when we accomplish the things we need to do, but it also drives our addictions. Utilize dopamine to your advantage and set yourself up to be rewarded for getting the things done that need to be done.

What are your distractions? Almost all of the time my phone is on complete silent, no sounds and no vibrations. Only when I’m expecting and need to know when someone is contacting me do I keep sounds or vibration on. I also don’t answer unscheduled phone calls, from both my mobile and my desk phone. There are far too many methods of communication today to let yourself be hijacked by someone else. If someone needs to talk with me live, they need to put time on my calendar (see point #3). Those sounds and pop-up notifications that Outlook can make when an incoming message comes in, those are all turned off too. Instant messenger, don’t expect an immediate response from me as I might be heads down for a bit. If you’re going to accomplish the priorities you have outlined, you need to be in control of your time. What are some distractions that you could begin to eliminate today?

3. Keep a schedule

That earlier point about my calendar being harder to get into than the latest hot restaurant: I like it that way! That’s when I’m most productive. Seems a bit counterintuitive, right? However, when you see what’s in my calendar you’d understand. Not only is it full of the necessary meetings I need to be on, but I’ve also scheduled in time to address my priorities. That way I know things will get done, and others will need to schedule around it. You have to remember that you’re the only one to protect your time, so you need to make the necessary efforts to do so.

What does your calendar look like? It blows my mind when I try to schedule time with someone after looking at their Outlook calendar and they decline the invite saying they have something going on. How do they remember if it’s not on their calendar? Perhaps they have a better memory than me. However, my point here isn’t just for your memory. By keeping your calendar up to date, you can easily indicate to others what your availability is (remember the no unscheduled phone calls thing?). I’ve found that many people underutilize the capabilities of their calendar program. What ways can you better keep a schedule?

I challenge you to ask yourself the questions above. I’ll bet you can better refine your priorities, eliminate at least one distraction, and schedule some time every day to ensure you’re working on your top priorities. Try it for one week and let me know how much more productive you’ve been. If you don’t control your time, someone else will.

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