Are you Doing Important Stuff, or Just Urgent Stuff?

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Urgent sounds important, but it’s really not. It may be important to someone else, but your involvement is often just a waste of time. Tasks that are urgent require you to act quickly and that means you don’t spend time thinking about whether you should do them. They’re also often the result of poor planning (or no planning) and bad time management.

Slide1 The words urgent and important are borrowed from Stephen Covey’s four-quadrant division of work. As you might guess, people often find themselves stuck doing mostly Quadrant 1 and 3 tasks, just because they have a deadline and someone else is waiting for them. You can’t completely avoid these, but at least make sure you minimize Quadrant 3 tasks, which are things like pointless meetings, requests for information, most email, many phone calls.

As for Quadrant 4, obvy, stay away from time wasters. A certain amount of brain shut-down time can help you be more productive; just don’t get carried away.

The most important area to spend time in is Quadrant 2. Why is this so hard? One reason is that sometimes these projects are only important to you. That means no one is waiting for it; there’s no outside accountability.

To make progress on important projects, you need to value them enough to carve out time in your schedule to work on them. You are not going to find spare time to devote to them. Look for time in your week that’s not quite as busy as the rest of the week and block it out for personal project work. That means actually write or type it into your datebook at a specific time on a specific day.

Ultimately, these are the projects that will bring you the most satisfaction and pride of accomplishment. Not all the fire drills and all-nighters that seemed important at the time. Start today on honoring the commitments you make to yourself.

What I Learned at Burning Man about Time

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Hammock I was at Burning Man for about three months. Okay, not really, but it felt that way. I'd talk with my camp mates about something that had happened a few days before and we'd joke that it was six weeks ago.

And it was a good thing! How did it happen? Because I was in the present. Pretty much the whole time.

I did get pretty overstimulated initially by the weather, the constant music, all the new people and not being able to sleep enough. At that point, I really wanted time to speed up, for it to be over.

But I adjusted, with the help of some fantastic camp mates. And then I got into the flow. Time went away. There was day and night still, but nothing had to happen at a particular time. Only a few things had to happen at all: eating, drinking water, putting on sunblock, sleeping (not optional for me ;)).

Everything else was extra, a wonderful bonus. Time never ran out. It didn't feel slow, it just was always plentiful. Conversations flowed. Great ideas for excursions bubbled up. Everywhere we went was just the right place, until we went somewhere else. It was a magical feeling.

Wouldn't it be great to feel that way now, at home (in the "default world")? Here are some ways you can:

  • Keep your to do list short and do-able. Yes, you have too much to do, but putting it all on today's list isn't going to get it done. It will just make you crazy.
  • Do things well enough. Forget about making hospital corners on your bed in the morning when just pulling up the duvet will suffice. Overdoing it is usually not about making it better anyway. It's about being afraid of doing it wrong. Well enough is not wrong.
  • Let things be. Most of the time, you don't have any control over how things play out. You've done your part well (see above). Now stop.

Welcome to the present. Pull up a chair and stay awhile.

Hammock swinging from Meagan's photostream.

How Do You Spend Your Time?

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Beach
For clients with time management troubles, I have recommended occasionally that they keep track of what they do all day. It may be startling to find out exactly how much time you spend cruising around the internet or caught up in cross currents of email, but the idea isn't to make you feel bad. The idea is to find out what you're actually doing with your time so that you can change it effectively.

Keeping track can be as simple as having a pad ready to jot down notes at timed intervals. David Seah has an elegant, easy to use version that shows time graphically since you fill in a bubble for each time increment. You can see it immediately; the more bubbles, the more time spent. His tool, the Emergent Task Timer, is available as a free PDF download on his site (which has tons of great productivity information, too).

Benefits of time tracking:

  • Find out what you're doing when you're wasting time
  • Find out how long you spend working on specific tasks; makes it easier to plan for them in the future
  • Get an idea of when your high and low productivity times are during the day
  • Discern patterns to tasks that you can use to your advantage. Email flurries at certain times of day can mean that others are most easily contacted then, for example
  • Find patterns of work time followed by down time. You may find that some aspects of your work need more downtown to recover from
  • Make sure you're taking productive, refreshing downtime; don't count more email checking as an actual break

A key to getting the most out of tracking your time is to do it now, or starting tomorrow morning. Don't wait for a less stressful week, or one with more interesting things going on. Print out enough sheets for the rest of the week and just get started. There won't be a better time.

"Time Disappears" from jtravism's photostream

Multitasking Revisited

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One man band
My previous, multitasking-bashing post may have given the impression that I'm against multitasking. I'm not. I'm for anything that helps you get your work done. Multitasking, or the illusion thereof, is appropriate when:

  1. You have a short attention span
  2. You crave novelty
  3. You're easily bored
  4. You're energized when there's a lot going on at once
  5. Deadlines motivate and thrill you

The caveats here are that:

  1. You need to be actually accomplishing things, not just spinning your wheels (however fast they go)
  2. You don't create crises for others and hinder their work
  3. You do not alienate people by giving them only half your attention
  4. You're aware that you're not getting things done faster or even more effectively, you're just using a work style that suits you

I'm a firm believer in finding ways to be organized and efficient that work with the way you are now, not the person you think you should be. Change your environment to suit you, not the other way around.

Personally, I hate multitasking. When I do it, I find that I can remember the primary task I did, but the secondary focus ones get forgotten. That means I have to go back and check to see if I did them, which is a waste of time and annoying to boot.

There's very little on the Internet in support of multitasking! This article is one of the few. Vos Savant makes some very good points, such as why talking on the phone while driving is completely different from talking to your passenger.

One Man Band from Jaroslaw Pocztarski's photostream.