Time Management

Back When I Used to Be Focused

I used to be super focused. Maybe you can relate. Was there a time when you were younger and had more drive, energy, and concentration than you do now?

For me, I look back at my time in grad school as high-water mark for conquering my goals. I was in a program where I only had a mild familiarity with many of the subjects and the professors covered the topics at a review speed.

I quickly realized that I was behind before I started and had to sprint to even catch up. I decided early on that if I didn’t pass it wasn’t going to be because I didn’t put in the work. I went completely head down, nose to the grindstone, relentless about getting work done, and it paid off in my grades and opportunities that came to me through the program.

These days, I often feel like I’m working more and accomplishing less. I feel scattered. I sometimes find it hard to concentrate on any one task before my attention is drawn to another task. Days, weeks, months zoom by and, though I was busy, I can’t remember what I was working on. It is ego crushing to think about how I’ve lost my edge.

Except…

And this is an important except. You may have had a different path, but I suspect your journey feels similar.

When I was returned to school in my late 20s, I focused on my classes and had almost no distractions. I was married, but we didn’t have kids yet and my wife worked insane hours so we didn’t see each other all that much. We lived in a tiny apartment and didn’t have to take care of the yard or do maintenance on a house, we didn’t have pets, or hobbies. We didn’t have any spare money so we didn’t really go anywhere. There were no smart phones (I didn’t even have a cell phone at that point), the internet was slow and less entertaining, and we had about four channels on the TV. All I did was go to school.

As I type this, I’m stunned with the realization of how ridiculous the comparison is of my life now to my life then. Back then, I literally had one focus. Today, I have higher expectations and demands in every area of my life. I have a complex and mentally taxing job, kids to keep up with, a wife that likes seeing me from time to time, pets, hobbies, trying to improve my health, weight lifting and running, finding time to read, carving off part of my day for personal development, keeping up with a yard and house and maintenance on several cars, staying current on social media, watching movies and TV, wanting to write and podcast, and, and, and…

And I feel unfocused and scattered? Weird. Every single part of my life has become more complex, more demanding, with less certainty, and requiring more time and attention, yet I still have the same amount of time in the day.

I’m feeling a little silly now for ever looking back to then with any kind of nostalgia or seeing that as my peak. Thinking about who I was then, I would have never been able to juggle today’s life demands and certainly not at my level current of expectation. It wouldn’t even be close.

That doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t improve today. The increased demands mean I need to be even more intentional about my priorities and discerning with my time. It means I need to be present with people, seek and destroy the distractions that aren’t improving my life, and do more planning, preparation, and reflection. I need to be hyper-clear on what I want to accomplish and judicious and ruthless with my time, energy, and focus.

 

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simplify, simplify, simplify

I’m an information junkie, but can’t keep up.  I have a hard time deciding which are the best sources –I’m interested in such a wide range of topics and I want it all. This means I’m overwhelmed just by email. And then factor in magazines for business, HR/training, world news, cars, mountain bikes, etc that keep showing up. And then add in all the social media, blogs, forums, etc. (personal and work) that I’m forever behind in. And then add in the to-be-read book stack that is forever growing. And then getting caught up on favorite TV shows and movies. And then, and then, and then. Woof. Exhausting to even think about.

Email is brutal.Weirdly, I have four personal email addresses (wha???) in addition to several emails to keep up with at work. I realized that for most of the email I receive: 1) are notifications I signed up for (blogs, forums, industry news, etc.); and 2) never, ever, ever get read. Ever.  I used to think it was quicker to just delete those I didn’t want to read and move on, but I became aware of how much time I was losing from even the distraction of incoming email, let alone time and energy figuring out if it was worth bothering to read. So I’ve started unsubscribing from the blogs and newsletter I don’t read and shutting off the notifications from the ones I do. That took longer than you’d think. At work, I’m still unsubscribing from several email lists a day. 

I started keeping track of websites where I have a login with a password. I never remember the passwords of several important sites that I visit only once a month or so and wanted to actually write them down somewhere. But I also wanted to see how many sites I have passwords for and start getting rid of the ones I don’t use. For work, the list is about a page long. For personal that list extends three plus pages and I’m still coming across more sites. I’m especially striving to scrutinize which sites have my credit cards and remove info from the ones I use and shut down the ones I don’t.

Yet, there’s still more. And more and more. I thought this would be a quick Saturday morning project and it’s now sprawled its way across several weeks.

Simplifying, it seems, ain’t so simple.

if you want something done, give it to a busy person

Years ago as a consultant I noticed a trend so prevalent it borders on a Truth of the human psyche: everyone thinks they are hard workers; everyone thinks they are busy. Even the people who aren’t hard workers – who obviously and clearly aren’t busy – think they are.

Observation also shows that the most productive people are also the most eager (or at least willing) to take on new projects. On the flip side, those who spend all their time telling you how busy they are and complain about the burden of new assignments never seem to get much done.

I’d write more about this important subject, if only I weren’t so busy…

how do i know what to do? priorities for success

It is possible to show up early, stay late, be busy, and work hard on all the wrong things. It’s possible to give it your booty kickin’ all on some pretty stupid things. Spend enough time and effort on the in the wrong places and you can turn the bottom line into a sieve.

So, how do you know if you’re focused on the right things? Only you know your business, goals, and priorities, but I can share some guidelines to help you sort things out.

ONLY spend time, thought, and effort on actions that are:

* Legal, moral, and ethical. This is a baseline given. If you can’t get this one right, the others don’t matter. I realize that only taking actions that are legal, moral, and ethical would shut down major chunks of entire industries, but we find over and over again that the short-term gains of taking legal or moral shortcuts are crushed out by the potential long-term consequences. Cut corners long enough and someone is going to find out and make your life absolutely miserable.

1. Beneficial to the customer experience. Take care of your customers and they’ll take care of your business. Hurt the customer and they’ll hurt your business. Be indifferent to the customer and they’ll hurt your business. My tip to all businesses: Spend your time and effort worrying about the fifth sale to me, not the first. I might buy from you once but if you make it painful or forgettable I probably won’t buy from you again and I certainly won’t recommend you. Make the process so remarkable that there is no question that I’ll be making my second, third, fourth, and fifth purchases from you.

2. Beneficial to the employee experience. Ultimately, your business lives or dies based on your employees. Treat your employees as though you need your them more than they need you. Operate from that philosophy and you’ll be fine. Treat your employees as though they are easily replaced cogs and you’ll soon have your company staffed with the people who have so few options left in their lives that they are easily replaced cogs.

3. Beneficial to the long-term success of the business. Yes, certain reports and paperwork must be done. No, you can’t buy every employee a Porsche as a signing bonus. No, you can’t operate without a balanced budget. Yes, decisions and tradeoffs and compromises must be made according to the mission and vision of the business. Just don’t confuse “convenient and short-sighted” with “long-term success.”

Anything else is box-checking bureaucracy. If you can’t justify an action under one or more of these conditions, why are you working on it? If you can’t show a direct connection between an action and a legal and ethical benefit to the customer, employee, or business, that action is doing far more harm than good. Stop it.

[Note: this is an expanded version of a response I made on Laurie Barkman’s “Passionate Performance” blog post People Say (and Do) The Darndest Things. She had a great example of a manager whose actions probably followed policy but were a stupid waste of time and hurt the employee experience (which hurts the customer experience, which hurts long-term success).]

that thing

It’s out there.

On the corner of your desk, under a stack of papers, stuffed in a drawer. Or maybe it’s just written on one of many “to do” lists.

It’s “that thing”. That thing you’ve been meaning to get to. That thing you need to get done. That thing that keeps getting placed just below the daily priorities. That thing that’s been hanging out there a while.

Sure you’ve got your reasons (excuses!) for not getting it done, but who cares? That thing is still not finished. Maybe you don’t know where to start. Maybe you’re not sure how to finish it. Or maybe you know exactly what to do and simply don’t enjoy it. Whatever. Doesn’t matter. It’s still not done.

But that’s yesterday’s unfinished results. Today is fresh. Today is open possibility. Today is time for a decision: to do or not to do. Take it off the list forever undone or make it happen? Only you know for sure.

Decide. Act. Move forward.

Today.

yesterday, today, tomorrow

It’s a mistake to think that today’s actions created today’s results. There is a natural lag between action and outcome.

Where we are today is a result of yesterday’s decisions and actions. Yesterday’s actions are today’s results.

Where we will be tomorrow will be a result of today’s decisions and actions.  Today’s actions are tomorrow’s results.

What tomorrow are you creating? Where will today’s choices take you in five years? Where do you want to be?

project management failure

I was mountain biking the other day with someone who seemed to always be in the wrong gear. When the trail turned uphill, he wouldn’t start downshifting until he was already climbing. By then, it was too late and then he would stall out and have to hop off and push the bike. I would do what others in the group did and downshift before getting to the hill, enabling me to ride past the walking cyclist. Skillwise, this person is a better rider than me so I found it odd that I’d catch him on the hills. I took me a long time before I realized that the only real difference was that he didn’t look past his front wheel and I tend to look much farther down the trail. Idon’t have faster reaction times and I certainly wasn’t a better rider, but by looking farther ahead, I created more time to react.

So, what does this have to do with project management? I recently had near catastrophic failure on a project I was leading. Deadlines were pushed to the absolute limit and disaster was imminent. It all turned out well, but it was despite me rather than because of me. I saw the edge of the cliff and knew how close I had let my team had come to failure. The insight from the mountain bike ride the other day made me realize that I simply wasn’t looking far enough ahead. I was like the cyclist walking up the hill. I had gotten so caught up in other tasks that I didn’t take the time to look ahead. It was project management at its poorest. I was looking so close to my metaphorical front wheel that I could only react after problems or the unexpected popped up. Looking further ahead would have allowed me the space to anticipate and react much more quickly instead of scrambling and swerving at the last second.

Once again I learn a lesson that I already knew. Those are the most painful. And the most valuable.

time spent does not equal results accomplished

How much time did you spend today focused on actions that directly led (or will lead) to the accomplishment of your most important business outcomes (goals)? How much time was burned on the kind of important outcomes – the ones that would be nice to accomplish, but aren’t crucial?

How much time today did you choose to spend on unimportant tasks?

No judgment. Just a reminder that our results are a reflection of how we choose to spend our time.