Every day, it’s the same old story – everyone has too much to do and not enough time to do it. So how are you supposed to achieve your goals when you can only just stay on top of the urgent tasks?
With just a few small changes to how you approach your work, you can drastically increase your personal effectiveness, which will help you to be calmer at work and make your days a lot less stressful.
1. Work out how you spend your time Think honestly about how you spend your time. Do you mainly focus on your most important goals, or are you spending too much time on little distractions?
Make two lists: The first is of everything you do in a typical week at work, putting an estimated amount of time on each activity. The second list is of the most important things that you want to achieve in the next twelve months. Compare them and see whether you are spending your time in the right ways. Are the most time-consuming activities really worth that much time out of your day?
For everything you do, think about whether it really matters, what value it gives you and whether it moves you towards or away from your goals.
2. Prioritise and Plan Having written down your goals and important activities, you should now decide which order to do things in. A clear and efficient method of creating your to do list is using this grid:
Quadrant 1 is full of looming deadlines, crises and urgent meetings. Q2 is for future planning, anticipating problems and working towards longer term visions and values (you want to spend most of your time here). Q3 is home to many interruptions, phone calls, emails and meetings. Q4 is mostly trivialities, time wasting and procrastination, which you want to minimise.
Next, look at each task and decide if it is immediately actionable. You should be able to assign one of these four actions to everything that come across your desk:
Do it – If you can do it quickly, then just do it. Delete it – Drop it and move on. Delegate it – Is there someone else you can pass it on to? Defer it – Schedule a time to do it later.
This will help you to spend more time focusing on your long term goals and proactively planning and delegating roles, rather than leaving things to the last minute when it all feels like a crisis.
3. Manage your emails One of the most constant and pervasive distractions to productivity and personal effectiveness is emails. How often have you been side tracked from what you were doing by an email popping up on screen? And in our age of smartphones and connectivity, there really is no avoiding them.
Rather than jumping at every notification, try to check your inbox periodically during the day, setting aside dedicated time to read and respond to emails. This should help keep them from becoming too overwhelming.
Additionally, aim to process your inbox down to zero every time you look at it. Just like with your to do list, by deciding to Do, Delete, Delegate, Defer or Store every email, it quickly becomes a much more reasonable job.
4. Be aware of your energy and willpower Willpower is our strength of will to carry out decisions or plans, the ability to manage and control emotions, and is one of the biggest contributors to our personal effectiveness. Unfortunately, it is also a finite resource which fluctuates throughout our day.
First thing in the morning we have the most energy, and therefore the most mental resilience. By mid-afternoon, much of your energy for decision making and impulse control has been used up. By the time you have left the office and are back at home, your body has recovered a bit for the evening ahead. This natural cycle of highs and lows is known as The Circadian Rhythm.
If you become aware of how your energy changes through the day, and which activities drain you the most, you can start planning your tasks around this timeline. Divide your day into blocks and schedule tasks that are most appropriate to that time of day, based on your energy and alertness levels.
After you have decided how you want to block out your day, it is important that you stick to it. You have put those activities in those times for a reason, so make sure you have some uninterruptable time to actually do them.
5. Eliminate the Time Bandits Time bandits are trivial activities and pointless tasks that steal your time away from you. They have no real value, but somehow you spend far too long on them anyway. They are usually found in quadrants 3 and 4 of our grid from above. Things like interruptions and inefficient processes are all classic time bandits. Some are unavoidable, but things like personal timekeeping or having too many unimportant conversations are easy to fix.
Rather than losing so much time to constant interruptions, try proactively stopping them before they begin by managing your relationships and setting boundaries and expectations. If someone regularly interrupts you, let them know a better time to try talking to you, or let people know that if they see you working on a particular project that you do not want to be disturbed.
Also, be cautious of attending unnecessary meetings. They can be a great opportunity to speak to and hear from colleagues, bosses and clients, but spending too long in them may mean you are not able to do the important work you discussed in them. You should only be in meetings that you really have to attend and can see some actual value in. If you know the agenda beforehand, see if you can just come to the parts relevant to you.
6. Learn to manage yourself You have prioritised your tasks, cleaned up your inbox and limited your interruptions, now the only thing holding you back is yourself. Many of the biggest distractions come from our own brains and it is important to know how to keep ourselves focused.
Start by limiting the number of potential distractions you have around you. For example, if you keep rereading yesterday’s report, put it out of sight in a drawer. If you keep checking Twitter, close the browser, and everyone in the world would do better taking their phones off their desks.
But these are still external distractions. You also need to be able to recognise your brain’s “pop-ups”. These are the little thoughts and daydreams that take your mind off the task at hand. By recognising when you are getting side-tracked, asking yourself “Is this the best use of my time right now?” and then maybe making a note of it for later, you can keep yourself focused, and be an expert at boosting your personal effectiveness.