Management Matters
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Management Matters

This Is How To Inject Focus Into Your Work Day, Part II

Take Back Your Time

Photo by LUM3N on Unsplash

“I choose to sacrifice sleep.”

Twelve years ago, I was proud of this statement. I wasn’t going to sacrifice time with my family. I wasn’t going to sacrifice the time I served as President of my alma mater’s alumni board. And I certainly wasn’t going to sacrifice my work.

I had lots of people relying on me to be me, to burn the candle at both ends, to give and give and give of myself.

You see, I was important.

In hindsight, I’m the opposite of proud of this statement. I’m embarrassed.

We were in our first “leadership circle” meeting. The company I work for had organized these small group sessions, led by two senior leaders and populated by high potential up-and-comers. I was one of the up-and-comers. We were introducing ourselves to the group, and it was my turn to wax narcissistic.

Days were spent in back-to-back meetings, I told them, because clearly I needed to attend everything. I’d delegate some of those meetings, if only I had someone capable of delegating to.

Then home to family obligations, where my presence was clearly required, even if I was only half present (on a good day) because my mind was elsewhere.

Then once the kids were in bed, and my wife was settled in with a book or the latest episode of “Grey’s Anatomy,” I’d pull out my laptop. Nine-to-midnight was the only time I really had to get any of my own work done, I told them, “So I choose to sacrifice sleep.”

Then I’d be up at 6am the next day to start it all again.

I don’t have a dramatic “awakening” story to tell. I didn’t have a health scare. My kids never made an innocent remark that made me re-think my life’s purpose (“I wish I was a laptop so Daddy’d pay attention to me.”). I wasn’t threatened with divorce.

Fortunately, I didn’t need any of that to happen. Somehow, I just realized over time that this was a pretty stupid way to spend time, and I vowed to take it back.

It took a couple of years to get to the point I’m at now. I read the books (David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” have been the most helpful) and listened to the podcasts (Manager Tools are the best out there). And I implemented their advice in trial and error fashion. I kept what worked for me, and discarded what didn’t.

The system I have today works. Sixty-hour work weeks are now the very rare exception (a handful per year) instead of the norm. I’m home in time to coach my kids’ basketball teams a couple of nights per week. I attend two or three meetings every day, and the rest of my work day is dedicated to focused efforts on my most important projects — the things I’m being paid to do.

I’m less busy and more productive.

When I’m home, I’m able to truly be home. Once a near-nightly occurrence, my work laptop hasn’t seen my kitchen table more than 3 times so far in 2018.

I’ve condensed my system and how to get there below. It’s a fairly simple and straightforward combination of calendar management and focus. There is absolutely no rocket science to it. If you follow these steps, you should be able to get to this point in much less time than the couple of years it took me.

Step 1 — Start Blocking Your Time

If you’re like many knowledge workers, you can’t start this process tomorrow. Your calendar is already near-booked, your hours are already committed to other people’s priorities, and you don’t have much control over how you’re going to spend tomorrow’s time.

So you’re going to start by looking 2–3 weeks into the future. Look at your calendar 2–3 weeks from now, and start blocking time in chunks of at least 2 hours in duration. Label them “Focus Time.” My experience has been that 2 hours is the magic number — with only an hour, I’m just starting to hit my peak levels of focus when it’s time to pull myself back out of it.

You don’t need to know exactly what you’ll be focusing on during this time — that comes later. For now, just schedule it. Make sure that this time shows up blocked on your calendar, so that others in your workplace who have access will also see you booked and unavailable during these times.

Try to schedule 16–20 hours worth of these blocks over the course of the week, the equivalent of two full working days. Repeat this for another week or two beyond the week that you just scheduled.

Step 2 — Identify Your “Deep Work” Priorities For The Week

Fast forward to the beginning of the week that has the calendar blocks. On Sunday night or Monday morning (or whenever you consider the very beginning of your work week), spend 30 minutes identifying your top 3–5 priorities for the week ahead.

These should be tasks that will require significant amounts of Focus Time on your part in order to finish. Not conversations or meetings you need to have, not emails you need to respond to, not appointments you need to keep. Project work — the big stuff that you get paid to do.

My first week of the year, brought to you by Intelligent Change’s Productivity Planner.

Estimate how much time you will need to complete each of those priorities, and then double it. This is likely how much time you will actually need. After several weeks, you’ll get better at this estimating, and you may only need to multiply it by 1.25 or 1.5.

Write down these priorities and how much time they will take. You can do this in a spreadsheet, an app, or with good old fashioned pencil and paper. I prefer Intelligent Change’s Productivity Planner — the picture is the weekly planning page from the first week of this year. I list the task and then how long I think it should take. Then in the ‘complete’ box, instead of a check mark I write down how long it actually took. This feedback loop helps me get better at estimating time, although I’m still not great at it.

Step 3 — Fit Your Priorities Into Your Focus Time

It’s still Sunday night / Monday morning of your first week with ~2 days worth of Focus Time scheduled. You’ve identified your priorities for the week, and you know roughly how much time they should take you. Now you’re going to fit those priorities into the Focus Time that you’ve scheduled.

Starting with your top priority, identify the block or blocks of time that you are going to use. Change the title of that calendar entry — remember, you just called them “Focus Time” when you scheduled them — to reflect this. For example, my calendar entry for my top priority above would now read “Focus Time — Goal Tree Slide for Kendra.”

Repeat this until you have all of your priorities fitted into Focus Time blocks, and have renamed those calendar entries accordingly.

Step 4 — Be Fully Present

Now that you have time set aside on your calendar to be fully present with your own priorities, you can also be fully present with other people’s priorities. You can fully engage in their meetings, or the discussions they need to have with you to “pick your brain.”

You don’t need to be distracted by all of the things you have to do, because you have adequate time set aside to focus on those things. You can concentrate on giving others what they need from you during these other meetings and conversations, instead of quietly resenting them for stealing your time.

During your Focus Time blocks, do anything and everything you need to do to eliminate distractions. If you can work from an isolated location away from coworkers, do it. If you’re stuck in a cubicle farm, put on headphones. Even if you don’t listen to anything on them, it will be a visual cue that you’d prefer to not be bothered.

Follow Tim Ferriss’s lead and put your phone on airplane mode.

Finally, use the Pomodoro technique. When I first read about it, I thought it was too simple to work. Then I tried it, and have never looked back. Try it, and you won’t either.

My performance and productivity at work has never been higher. And neither have my job satisfaction and sense of well-being, both inside and outside of work.

You don’t have to be everything to everybody. Your calendar can serve you instead of you serving it. And you can probably even get a full night’s sleep.

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