Getting In the Groove

January 14, 2007 by
Filed under: Process 

These days, we are hammered with more information than ever, and expected to get more done in less time. For most of us, this drives up the pressure to juggle a number of tasks simultaneously, in a frail attempt to meet expectations. We are busier than ever, and there is no end in sight.

Generally, it is safe to say that this approach to working is not working well. While we are always busy, the fact that a lot of our time is taken up with context switching as we divert focus from one thing we are working on over to something else that pops up prevents us from being very productive. We can be great at juggling 5 or 10 things at a time, but we often find at the end of the day that we have only achieved closure on one or two of them, if any.

On top of the context switching that robs a great deal of time is the problem that much of what we are doing isn’t important. As Steven Covey suggests, most of us are caught up in the tyranny of the urgent, things that seem to be important (at least to someone), but really aren’t that important in the overall context of what we are trying to achieve.

We finish the day exhausted, barely taking the time to scarf down something for lunch, and have nothing to show for it. What to do?

We need to learn to get in the groove.

We need to organize, prioritize and focus our time so that we are working on the right things. These are the things that have strategic value for us. The tasks that, when completed, can provide tremendous external value, or can serve to simplify our lives so that we are less pressured in the future. We need to work on them, and we need to get them completed.

Here are a couple of steps to consider to be more effective with our time:

  • We need to make a distinction between the important and the merely urgent. Take all the things you are working on or have to do, and identify for each one how important they are, and how quickly they need to be done. Be careful with the urgency column – we are looking for when they actually must be completed, not when it would be nice for them to be done. Also for these, if completion of one task allows you to start another, the lead time required to allow the entire chain to be completed needs to be considered. If you look at where you are spending your time, you are likely to find that much of your time goes to apparently urgent tasks that are not really important: checking e-mail, responding to phone calls, surfing the web. Oops.
  • We need to clarify our priorities. With the list of tasks we need to accomplish and an understanding of their relative importance, we need to parcel out blocks of time that will allow us to achieve our important activities. Rather than blocking off a single huge chunk of time for the big tasks, break out chunks of an hour or so, not much more. The key thing here is to place them on your calendar, and to absolutely respect those times. One good practice is to book off times of 48 minutes, giving you an additional 12 minutes to relax before you forge ahead, or to get to your next appointment.
  • When we hit one of those strategic times, we need to set up the environment so that we can achieve our goals. Eliminate all distractions: set the phone to take messages, shut down your Mail client and IM, close the door, turn off the music. We want to ensure there are as few interruptions as possible. Set expectations with others that you are taking this time for yourself to be productive, and you will be able to get back to them after this period. If it is an emergency, they will reach you, but life will probably go on fine without you for an hour or so, despite what you might think. If your ego needs a boost, take 10 minutes to walk down the street afterwards, talking loudly into your Bluetooth headset…
  • Be sure that the problem at hand has been sufficiently broken down so that you can achieve something in the time available. For larger tasks, be sure that you have some mechanism for tracking where you are so that you can pick up and continue more readily when you start again. This may take the form of an overall checklist of elements to complete, a high level structure of the overall project, or something more detailed. Quite often, your first foray into finishing large tasks will be to build this structure so that you can track overall progress.
  • Take breaks. Focusing on a single task over an extended period is physically and mentally exhausting. Be sure to get up and stretch periodically, but don’t allow the breaks to become procrastination from getting the job done.
  • Celebrate success. For me, there are few things more satisfying than to have a complete list of things that need to be done, and to make strong inroads into that list over the course of the day. With mission accomplished, I can take a mid-day break for a squash game with a clear conscience, or call it a day at 5:00 and better focus on the family that evening.

Full-time access to information is one of the biggest time-wasters we face. How many of us have the Pavlovian instinct to check who sent us an e-mail each time we hear the little tone?

Responding tactically to e-mails as they come in is the epitome of busy-work. We need to take charge of that interface, consciously choose when we will access the world (and when we will give access to us from the world). The same points can be made for the phone as well. If you are immersed in a task, focused and productive, one of the worst things you can do is to break your concentration by responding to what is likely a far less important issue. Studies have shown it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into the flow. This is a huge waste of productivity.

If we focus carefully on getting the important tasks completed in the workplace and in our personal lives, we can achieve greater things and have the freedom to enjoy life more fully. For most of us, there is plenty we can do to more effectively get in the groove. – JB

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