Gavin Carnegie- Learning and Development Manager

There is an amazing productivity book called ‘Getting Things Done’, written by David Allen, and is easily one of the most useful time and self-management books of the past decade as it references the use of technology. In the book, he uses one of his clients Drew Carey, as his case study to apply his time management techniques. Drew was apparently being buried by the amount of work he had, unable to get on top of his emails, or see a way forward. After a long and protracted process, he eventually made his way to the bottom of the pile, having nothing in his inbox, all phone messages up to date, and a clear system for to remain in control. He describes the feeling of gaining control beautifully; “The day I got to zero, which is Get Things Done talk for having nothing in your inbox, I got to that point, I felt like the world got lifted off my shoulders. I felt like I had just come out of meditating in the desert, not a care in the world. I just felt euphoric.”

I think everyone can relate to that feeling of euphoria at finally reaching zero tasks in your inbox. However, for me it is usually mixed with a feeling of exhaustion, having completed some massive days to tie up loose ends, so that I can go on holidays and be able to relax! It was effort to get to zero, and I can honestly say there was no system for ongoing control, that is tomorrows problem. No change in the way I work, means I can expect a similar result. Like the saying goes, ‘if you do what you always do, you will get what you have always got’. If I am being buried under a mountain of emails and work, I have to first realise I have a choice. I can continue the same work patterns and get the same result, or I can look for alternatives to improve my productivity. There are three tips from the book that I would like to share, and that have helped me gain control, and be more productive. They are: having a clear system; having clear goals for each day; and making big tasks manageable.

Having a clear system is probably the most challenging. Mostly because the habits we are using have been practised over time, are heavily ingrained, and it’s almost impossible to see another way forward. Email is one of the main offenders, as the number of emails we receive has steadily increased, but our method for using email may not have changed much. The number of pieces of information we receive via email every day, mean we must be diligent in the way we use this communication tool. I will say that again so it is clear, email is a communication tool, it is not an ongoing to do list. People that leave emails in their inbox become slaves to this to do list, which is updated by other people, not you, nor do they have your best interests at heart. So people struggle to get important projects completed and manage their time. It also creates a busy brain as you are always revisiting the same pieces of information, even though you don’t have to action them at that moment. The best way to control this information is to file things away for when you are going to commit to actioning the next step, and work off one list that is decided by you. This gives you the ‘Zero Euphoria’ feeling more often, as your inbox is empty more often than not, and gives your brain the space it needs to concentrate. However, you do need to ensure you set up times to visit these files which requires strategy and goals. Every day we need to have strategy in which to achieve important goals, not just to get through work, but to develop and grow the business.

Setting clear goals could of course be to get all my emails done, or return all my phone messages, but these goals are symptom of a dysfunctional work habit. If all you did was reply to email and return calls, you would feel exhausted and empty, and your boss will wonder what you did all day. Goals mean you need to set up something that you are going to achieve whether it is part of a project or standalone goal that are important to the running of your department. It does not have to be earth shattering every day, but small goals around important activities mean that you are doing meaningful work every day.

Which brings us to the final point of making big tasks manageable. We often leave large projects to later, once we have finished our inbox or when we have time to think, but that means the important tasks are second to ordinary or ‘busy’ work. The reason is because the larger project seems too big, or too consuming to be achieved in any one day. The truth is most things that are worth working on generally take more time, and so breaking big tasks into 15 minute blocks creates the space to move bigger projects forward without the expense of a huge amount of time. Everyone can work a 15-minute time slot into a day. If you could prioritise two 15 minute blocks into a day, over the course of the week you have allocated two and half hours of work on a specific project. I apply the same technique to exercise. When getting to the gym for an hour is too much, a 15-minute walk becomes something I can manage when I have decided health is important. It can be done, but I must decide there is a better way of working and then be disciplined to carry out the task until it becomes a new habit. Being disciplined to make the change to a better system of working, setting clear goals and making time in 15 minute intervals, that is the next step. Discipline is the lynch pin that will determine the success of any project, but I will talk about that another day, as it deserves our full attention.