I feel for you – I really do.
No matter how hard you try, those to-do lists just don’t seem to get any shorter do they?
Even as my own boss, I seem to be busy all day, every day.
This was NOT the plan!
The trouble is, work expands to fill the time available. If we HAVE 4 hours to research something, we’ll TAKE 4 hours.
Like lots of L&D professionals I’ve spent a fair amount of time teaching other people about personal productivity – so perhaps we need to take a dose of our own medicine.
One of my favourite exercises when I was training corporates was to use counters to represent a day (each counter was 30 minutes) and ask delegates to assign them to tasks on a typical day. So, there would be 4 counters (2 hours) in team meetings, 2 counters (1 hour) responding to emails etc.
Once they had mapped out their day, I threw in a number of curved balls: IT has gone down, lose 30 minutes. You are asked to look into a problem than needs resolving today – find an hour. And so on.
The purpose of the exercise was to highlight that when the unexpected urgent jobs, or the ‘can you just’ jobs hit us, we just accept them without thinking about where we will take that time from. Because we do only have a finite amount of time, when we don’t make a conscious choice, we feel that we are losing control. So when you get hit with urgent/can-you-just jobs, BEFORE you say yes, take a few minutes to identify what WON’T get done if you do. Is that acceptable? Do you need permission? Is it actually your choice to make? Should you pass the choice onto someone else?
Which brings us to the oldie but goodie: The Urgency/Importance Matrix. I’m sure you’re ALL familiar with it, so I won’t go into detail here, but I WILL ask “How many of you use it?”
I admit that its not something I use on a day-to-day basis, but when I start to feel overwhelmed, I do. I have a grid on the back of my office door and I grab my post-it notes, and I prioritise my to-do list.
We all know that we should focus our efforts on what’s IMPORTANT because that’s what adds the most value to our business/organisation. So are you really clear about what’s important? Do you truly understand how long it will take to do those important things? What steps do you take to protect the time that you have set aside?
Clearly, we all have things that are important AND urgent – we just have to crack on with these. The trick is making sure that we don’t let EVERYTHING become urgent, or we lose control of our time.
Urgent but NOT important are those tasks that (arguably) we shouldn’t be doing. Things like finding resources/courses for managers who feel they have a training need (why can’t they do their own research?). Things like responding to requests that should have been made a week ago, but someone forgot to send the email. Things like correcting mistakes and over-sights.
And of course, you’d be surprised how much time is spent doing non-urgent/non-important things. I lose hours a week looking at responding to social media posts that I don’t need to. This is a luxury, and I should only do it when time allows.
So what to do?
You already know the answers:
- Plan your diary in advance – put in your ‘big rocks’ and set aside REALISTIC time to get them done. Protect this time.
- Delegate what you can, or automate it if possible. Generally ask for help with things BEFORE they become urgent. Some of our VIP members are brilliant at this… “I’ve been asked to put together a session to run 3 months from now on X. What do you think I should include? What resources do you recommend?” No panic, no desperate need, and the useful info drips in over a few days which they can file away, knowing it’s there when they need it.
- Outsource and buy stuff in – don’t be a martyr. If someone else can do something to a better standard or much more quickly than you, hand it over to them. Use your time where you add most value. And of course, don’t be afraid to buy-in training materials or resources too. Power Hour (for example) costs just £65… weigh this against a full day of your time and all the things you AREN’T getting done whilst you’re designing materials. It’s a no-brainer.
- Push back and re-negotiate – do it from a positive perspective not a “Don’t-you-know-how-busy-I-am?” perspective and ask permission to delay some other things. Educate your key stakeholders and get them on your side. It's not their fault that they don't appreciate everything that you have to do.
- Get into routines. When I’m busy, I spend time on Social Media up until 9.30 and after 4.00 (it IS actually an important part of my job). This allows me to post and respond without risking me getting sucked into non-essential discussions. If you’re responsible for course admin, decide that Monday afternoon (for example) is when you do that – focusing on a task, rather than constantly switching attention means that we use our time more efficiently too. Attention switching makes things take longer.
- Say no. Often people ask you to do something because you’re the first person that come to mind, not the only person capable of helping (or even the BEST person). You say ‘no’ and they feel disappointment for a short time – they had thought this would be off their plate in 2 minutes. Maybe it will now take half an hour for them to find the right person to help, but that’s OK. Their problem isn’t yours to solve. They don’t care WHO helps them, as long as SOMEONE does.
- Leave wriggle room in your diary. If my diary is 80% full, it’s FULL because little things WILL appear out of nowhere demanding my attention and some things WILL take longer than I expect. Over-estimate how much time you need rather than under-estimating and watch your stress levels plummet.
Above all, don’t struggle on your own. People will think that you’re fine and you can cope unless you tell them otherwise. Use the team around you, and if you don’t have one, please come and join ours: That’s what the VIP community is for – your virtual L&D team.
Ultimately, you can’t manage time. You can only manage your effort and your focus, so make sure you direct both of these things where they will add the most value.