Productivity: Spend Your Time Right

In this installment of our Productivity blog series, we’re looking at taking some of the key lessons from the previous articles and looking at how you can link your goals, your priorities, and your key areas to how you actually spend your time. This means that we are getting a lot more practical and can offer some tips, which mean you can really start to boost your productivity.

Last time around we looked at how to deal with your larger goals – by breaking them down into bite size pieces – in our article on the Elephant Technique. This week we will look at how you can incorporate the Elephant Technique and a few other tricks into your toolbox in order to boost your productivity. It all comes down to scheduling – something which, it seems, the world is becoming worse at… unless it is copious amounts of meetings. In other words, we will how at how to spend your time right.

How do you spend your time?

Most people these days seem to be busy doing the following things:

  • Sit in meetings
  • Undertake urgent (but not important) tasks foisted upon them by others
  • Check their phones or computers for the latest emails (or, if you have lost all motivation, probably playing online games or communicating with friends on Facebook)
  • Write long reports, which will never be read – and are even less likely to ever get acted upon (you will learn why later on in this post)

These are all massive productivity killers! Chances are that nothing will get decided in a meeting (except the need for another meeting); the incoming emails are either spam or not relevant to you achieving your and your department’s goals; and you have been unable to ask whether the so called urgent tasks should take precedence over the important tasks you are trying to get done.

Depressing isn’t it? The good news is that you can change this cycle and take back control of how you spend your time – and make sure you spend your time right.

There are things that all people can do – whether they’re managers or subordinates to not just manage your own time, but also make sure that a) people get the most from you, and b) make sure they don’t waste your time – or theirs. It all comes down to two simple things:

  1. Taking control of your daily schedule – how you spend your time right
  2. Learning how to communicate with all of your stakeholders

Now, I know that a lot of people will be saying “don’t be ridiculous. I can’t control my own schedule as I always have to do something for others or I get roped into meetings at short notice.” WRONG! By taking control of your schedule, sticking to your priorities and communicating better you will quickly be able to avoid dead end meetings and urgent, unimportant tasks. And this means you can spend your time right: by doing the things, which create the most value for the company; your team; and, ultimately, yourself!

So how does this work in practice I hear you say. Well, let’s get to it!

Taking control of your time and your schedule

I think it’s fair to say that we all have a lot of the same tasks, which we need to undertake irrespective of which department we work in and in what industry. These might be scheduled reports to write or read, emails to read and respond to, and so on. Most of us also have to deal with phone calls from colleagues (and sometimes from clients and/or suppliers as well). The key question is: how do you actually deal with them? Are you a slave to a ping on your laptop alerting you to a new email? If so, chances are that you have found the first area where you can save some time.

How so? By introducing fixed times for reading and dealing with emails and phone calls. As long as you let your key stakeholders know that if it’s urgent they will need to call you – and that otherwise you will only be reading and responding to emails at set times each day – you can get so much more done. You will find that you can focus your efforts on reaching your goals and working on your Elephant/box 2 tasks. As we saw in both of those two previous articles, those are the tasks you should be focusing on if you want to spend your time right.

TIP: If your working day generally starts to get busy at 9 use the time from 8 until 9 to read and respond to emails, including the delegation of any tasks for the day, or make any important phone calls. Schedule any meetings you may have as early as possible to get them out of the way so you can focus, focus, focus on your really important tasks afterwards. Say that you then have two meetings (I’ll write more about meeting management in a future post in the series) from 9 until 10:30. You can then work flat out for 2 – 2:30 hours on your major project before lunch. Get back to your major projects after lunch and work on them until 3 or 3:30 and then check your emails, make your phone calls.

So what is it that you are actually doing in order to spend your time right? You are removing all unwelcome distractions.

Whether it’s the colleague who always seems to lie in wait for a chat when you just want to nip to the loo or brew yourself a quick cuppa, or it’s the distraction of yet another email offering you a subscription to a teen pop magazine they are distractions which zap our productivity.

Letting yourself be distracted is not helping you spend your time right. If you can remove all of these distractions to focus on the most important tasks for a large uninterrupted period of time you will be amazed by how much you can get done. You will still, in all likelihood, have to deal with emails and phone calls, but by limiting them to certain times it puts the onus on you to again prioritise and make sure you only deal with what’s important.

This also means that you will, once again, need to put into action the skills you learned from the Eisenhower matrix – by cutting out the emails that are not important.

TIP: There are many things you can do to improve your email communication effectiveness, but some of the simplest things are:

  • Get a good spam filter – or badger your IT department to install one (and keep on teaching it what it needs to do)
  • Set up rules for where emails end up (e.g. set up a sub-folder in your email client for all of your email newsletters – and then set up sub-folders for each subscription)
  • Only read these newsletters when you really have nothing more important to do
  • Once every six months go through all of your newsletter subscriptions and cancel the ones you never get around to reading
  • Make sure that your personal stakeholders know how you will be using emai going forward, which leads us on to the next key point below


Improve your communication skills

How to make this work in practice… This goes back to the second point above – improving your communication. If you make it quite clear to your colleagues, subordinates and clients/suppliers that the best time to reach you is between 8 and 9 and after 3 or 3:30 (as in the example above) then chances are that they will quickly get into the rhythm and get used to it.

The second aspect of this is managing expectations:

  • If you are leading a meeting – lead by example and keep it short, focused and effective
  • If your boss asks you to do something (and you know this is urgent, but not important) ask whether that means they want you to stop working on a project, which will help you, your team and your company achieve their stated goals. If so, you are, naturally, happy to do so. Force other people to also prioritise!
  • When you delegate a task, communicate very clearly what you expect to get back. This can be in terms of the format (how long it is, what it contains), the deadline, the priority (explain how important it is both in relation to what you are trying to achieve AND, most importantly, how you want your subordinate to prioritise this in relation to the other tasks you have delegated to them.

TIP: If you have several people reporting to you, make it very clear to them:

  • How you want to communicate effectively with them:
    • You deal with email at set times
    • You are reachable by phone at set times
    • You expect a meeting to last X minutes and you want the Y things to happen in the meeting
  • What format you expect to receive work in and what that means for your work (see below)
  • What your work priorities are for yourself and your team – and for the company as a whole. In other words, how you all spend your time right and achieve your goals individually, as a team and as a company.
  • Explain how their work fits into the overall work of the team and the company
  • Set rules for communication within the team to ensure everybody is working effectively together (e.g. have certain times where nobody talks and just focus on their key tasks)


The agreed format – and how it helps you and your team perform more productively

One of the biggest challenges in business life is that people have different ways of thinking and communicating and that means the sender and receiver of a message don’t share the same picture. If you can start by being a role model of good communication and make it clear how your subordinates can get the most from you, they will likely respond very positively. Let’s take the example of when you need to get insight into a challenge you are facing and you want one of your colleagues to do an analysis. How do you work best? What do you need in order to make a decision? Communicate these things clearly and you will 1) be able to get the information you need to be able to make the decision, and b) communicate your decision clearly, confidently and effectively – and this will improve your relationships with your team immensely.

There are very few things more frustrating than when you deliver a great piece of work to your boss and you just feel it’s being ignored and not acted upon. Most people, though, don’t realise that this is down to the format that you have communicated in, which doesn’t help foster a shared view. Therefore the importance of identifying and formulating the accepted form of communication (e.g. “a two page decision-making foundation document, which outlines a) the challenge, b) the two or three possible solutions, and b) your considered recommendation”) is so important.

As the manager you can make it clear that if you receive content in the requested format your team will also get the most from you as you will be able to work optimally and make the quick decisions that they want from you and everybody will be happy. As a manager, I can also happily say that by agreeing the format I have also found employees to be happier – and that most of the time (more than 9 times out of 10) I have followed the recommendations I have been given because I received the content in the format I required to perform at my best.

What if I am not the boss?

Every employee has a responsibility to do their job to the best of their abilities and this includes communicating how you feel that you can be most useful to both your team and the company. I have met very few bosses, who wouldn’t actually appreciate if an employee is emotionally intelligent enough to realise how you as their employer can get the most from them. Ask whether a task should be prioritised over the current task you are working on and realise that sometimes it is OK to say “no” if you have a more important task with a deadline – or negotiate a deadline, which is satisfactory to both yourself and your boss.

This way you are taking responsibility and becoming the boss of the most important person: yourself. Once you do this you can start taking control of your tasks and your schedule. This way you will spend your time right and you will see your productivity soar!


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