It’s all too common for productivity “experts” to treat “time management” as a silver bullet for improving performance at work. Here’s the dirty truth – time management is overrated.
Think about the top performers in your workplace. It’s common for top performers to have a 10X or greater impact on their organization than average performers. In fact, Mark Zuckerberg has gone on the record stating that exceptional performers are “100 times better” than their merely “great” peers. These are the type of people we aspire to be. Freeing up an extra few hours a day isn’t enough to get us there.
In order to be a 10X or 100X performer at your day job, you need to get 10X or 100X more value out of the limited time you do have. Doing so requires ensuring that you’re working on the highest impact things, in the most efficient way possible, and in a state that will lead to your best work. Here’s how:
Working on the Right Things
It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how effectively you manage your time if you’re working on the wrong things. There are more distractions than ever in the workplace, and it’s increasingly easy to spin your wheels on busywork that feels productive but fails to move the needle. Often, it’s not obvious what we should be working on. Here are a few ways I recommend recalibrating to ensure that you’re staying focused on what matters most.
Ask your boss
It surprises me how few people have regular check-ins with their manager to ensure that they are working on the right things. By virtue of their position, managers tend to bring a higher level view and strategic perspective to where your work fits in within the broader mission of the team or company. Their feedback is invaluable, and it’s always good to check in on a regular basis – even if you think you’re already on the right track.
Apply a framework
There are thousands of different ways that have been proposed to organize your to-do lists and tasks in order to filter out the most important things to work on. Entrepreneur Gary Keller has an interesting take in his book, The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, where he recommends asking:
“What is the ONE thing I can do now that makes all the other things on my to-do list unnecessary or irrelevant?”
Others recommend sorting tasks into an Eisenhower Box, pictured below:
Source: The Decision Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking
There are hundreds of frameworks you can use to filter the important from the trivial – what’s important is that you pick one and stick with it.
Perform “time audits” to keep yourself on track
You ever have one of those days where the day flies by, you get home, and you can’t actually remember anything you did? I’ve been as guilty as anybody, which is why I’m a big fan of performing time audits. Once you identify what’s most important for you to be working on in order to be successful, it’s helpful to track how much time you’re spending on it. You can use tools like RescueTime, which automatically track how you spend time on your computer and report back to you, or simply keep a log next to your desk. You’ll be surprised where the time actually goes – and motivated to take action and reallocate your time accordingly.
Work more efficiently
In addition to working on the right things, it’s important to do so in a way that makes the most of your limited time and energy. Here’s what works for me:
Quit the multitasking
Trust me – you’re crushing your productivity with multi-tasking. Multitasking feels more efficient, but study after study show that multitasking leads to more errors, makes tasks take longer, and causes more mental fatigue. Instead, knockout your to-do list in serial fashion, applying maniacal focus to one and only one thing at a time, and your productivity will skyrocket.
Systematize common tasks
Chances are, most of the things on your to-do list are variations of things you’ve already done before: clearing your inbox, responding to a client, drafting a proposal, etc. For these types of tasks, it can be extremely helpful to create a system centered around best practices, instead of reinventing the wheel and tackling it from scratch. For example, if I’m a sales rep, I likely find myself doing pre-call research and prep on a regular basis. Building out a simple checklist, one that includes things like reviewing the prospect’s LinkedIn profile, performing research on their industry, and preparing key sales messaging points – simplifies the preparation process, and makes it more likely that I prepare effectively. Trust me – investing in intelligently systematizing common tasks, with a checklist, or a standard set of operating procedures, or by building a template, is well worth the time.
Batch similar tasks together
Simply put, we’re a lot better with our time when focusing on the same types of tasks in a concentrated block, instead of focusing on different tasks in succession. There are a lot of reasons for why – but in a nutshell, batching reduces the amount of to needed to start tasks, and improves our focus for many of the same reasons eliminating multi-tasking does.
One of my favorite bloggers, Scott Young, has provided a plethora of suggestions for tasks you can start batching to improve your performance and free up time. For starters, batching your email responding (while using the triage method), batching your meetings and calls, and batching creative work can lead to significant improvements in focus.
Be your best self at work
I don’t think it takes a scientific study to convince you that your mental and emotional state has a huge impact on your performance at the job. You can have all the time in the world to work on what’s most important, but if you’re pissed, or tired, or burned out, guess what: you’re not going to get your best work done.
Fortunately, there are a near-infinite number of ways to deliberately improve your mental and emotional state at work. Here are the three things that have worked best for me:
Get more sleep
We live in a workaholic culture, and in some office environments, sleep is a four letter word. However, the performance impact that lack of sleep can have is profound. For example, a study done in 2000 found that moderate sleep deprivation produces cognitive impairments equivalent to people who are intoxicated. You wouldn’t show up to the office buzzed (at least I hope), so why are we okay with showing up sleep deprived?
I get it – for those who work 60+ hours a week, or have kids, 8+ hours might seem to be an unrealistic goal. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: start small, and try to get 30 extra minutes of sleep a night. Every little bit counts.
Alter your attitude
One of my favorite books on productivity and performance is Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage. In it, he discusses research showing how happiness and optimism have a significant effect on our performance in the workplace and provides tactical guidance on how to bring these emotional qualities to our day to day. One of the easiest tactics to implement, backed by research, is to incline our brain toward positivity by taking 5 minutes every day to write down three good things that happened. As Achor details:
When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives – things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future. In just five minutes a day, this trains the brain to become more skilled at noticing and focusing on possibilities for personal and professional growth, and seizing opportunities to act on them.”
Personally, I was skeptical that this could work, but trusting the research, I gave it a shot. After a few weeks of practice, I noticed a meaningful difference in my day-to-day mood, and years later, it’s something I still do on a regular basis.
Take strategically timed breaks
The science has backed up what many of us have intuitively found to be true – we get more done when we keep our minds fresh by taking breaks. As one researcher noted, “From a practical standpoint, our research suggests that, when faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
A lot of high-achievers feel guilty about taking breaks. I know I used to. It’s helpful to turn the guilt around, using it as a way to pressure yourself to take breaks, lest you cheat yourself and your company of your best work. Try starting with a good 15-minute break somewhere in the middle of your workday or as a reward for knocking off a particularly challenging action item from your to-do list, and observe the impact it has on your productivity throughout the rest of the day. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to when or how you should take breaks, so experiment with a few different approaches, and see what works best for you.
It’s not that time management isn’t important. Rather, without ensuring that you’re working on the right things, in the right way, and in the right state, it’s impossible for time management to have a significant impact on your performance.
I’m curious to learn – what have your experiences been with time management? Do you agree with my assessment? Or am I off base? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
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