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Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, April 26, 2006 12:13 AM
When There's Not Enough Time in Your Day
David Batstone on About Work

For the past few weeks I have been feeling overwhelmed with more tasks than I can fit into a harried schedule. Granted, I confess to living on the edge of taking on too many commitments. At the moment, however, lots of project deadlines combined to conjure up a perfect storm on my calendar.

I advise many senior managers who live in this state perpetually. They could clone themselves three times over and still not get to the bottom of their "to-do" list. So how do you make sure that you get the most important tasks done?

Obviously, you need a strategy, and the first step is to avoid the temptation to take care of the easy tasks first. I know, it's appealing to harvest the low-hanging fruit; it makes us feel like we are making headway. But when we follow that course, we carve out too much of our day on the inconsequential and postpone the vital.

That particular red flag ought to be waving all over your daily email. Email conducts a tyranny of the urgent. Remember that lots of questions get answered, and problems resolved, with the space of time. Better yet when they don't require your energies to reach that happy conclusion. T-Bone Burnett, the talented music producer, gave me a valuable piece of advice once. I guess it would be more accurate to say he passed along some wisdom. A friend challenged him to stop reading a newspaper for 6 months. "You will pick up the newspaper in half a year and discover that you are right in step with the news cycle."

T-Bone tried it, and learned a valuable lesson, so he gave me the same challenge. Over my "fast" from the news media, I realized how much I operate in a bubble of artificial urgencies.

Don't get me wrong, information has its own value. But we must learn to use information as a tool for our agenda, rather than allow information itself to set our agenda. I highly recommend, then, that you address your most important tasks early in the day, and if you have time later in the day, knock off the less critical items on your list. If you can pull it off, try not to set a meeting or phone conference before 11:00 am. Block off that part of your schedule to take on the activities that you actually deem "urgent."

In that vein, I walk senior managers that I mentor through a simple exercise. It is common for their schedule to be filled with a string of internal management meetings, so much so that they don't get to the important small things that often have big consequences. So I ask the managers to pull out their datebook and talk me through their previous month. I ask them to identify the purpose of each meeting or activity on their calendar, and on a scale of 1-10 rate how important the activity was to the mission of their organization. In other words, are they spending time on things that really matter.

In most cases, individuals are surprised how much of their calendar time is misaligned to the goals they want - or need - to accomplish. The next stage of this exercise is to vet future appointments and commitments with a more strategic screen. Aligning your calendars to your big goals assumes that you have set the right goals, of course.

But in my experience, professionals across the board are not very good at evaluating whether "expanding their reach," "growing their business," or "extending their practice" actually makes sense. Before you start running after your big dream, make sure that you aren't running in place. I just love the parable about the venture capitalist and the peasant fisherman. It's a bit worn, and has many versions, but I use it to close this week's column because it gets at my final point better than I have the words to express.

A venture capitalist was vacationing at the pier of a small coastal village. A couple hours before lunch time, he noticed a small boat with just one fisherman docked nearby. Inside the small boat were several large yellow fin tuna. The VC complimented the fisherman on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. "Only a little while," the fisherman replied. The VC then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish? The fisherman said he had enough to support his family's immediate needs. So the VC asked what he did with the rest of his day. The fisherman said, "I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a siesta with my wife. Some nights, I stroll into the village and play guitar with my amigos. We entertain the children with stories and songs."

The VC offered, "I have an MBA from Harvard and could help. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a larger boat. With the proceeds from a larger boat you could buy several more boats. Eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you could sell directly to the processor and open your own cannery. With my advice on marketing, you would ultimately control the supply of product, processing, and distribution." "How long will all this take?" the stunned fisherman asked. "Perhaps 10 to 15 years," the VC said. "What then?", the fisherman asked. "Then you could retire," the VC replied, "move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, and stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play guitar with your amigos."

1 comment

Monica Ricci - 5/7/2006 11:07:26 AM
You are so right David. I counsel my own clients to stop checking email first thing in the morning. Checking email first thing starts your day out in REACTIVE mode rather than PROACTIVE mode. I tell them to resist the lure of the email siren for a minimum of 30 minutes and try to push it to an hour. During that time, focus on your highest priority work. After just a week or two of doing it, clients report a much greater sense of control, accomplishment, and as a result SATISFACTION with their work at the end of each day. Great post David!


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