by: Denise Caron-Quinn
President & Founder of In Order To Succeed
In a recent Wall Street Journal article we’re told of the development of a new type of drug designed to battle biology. This pharmaceutical agent is growing in popularity for it assists sleep-deprived individuals to remain awake, less groggy and supposedly more productive. The desire for extended periods of rest is being overtaken by a zeal in our society to banish fatigue and maximize our capacity to get more done each day.
Grade school students are introduced to the concept of time management at increasingly younger ages. These youngsters are challenged to plug more activities into their schedules while maintaining high academic performance standards. Whether studies, sports, work related or leisure – these fuller schedules of youths and adults heap on the stress for all of us who attempt to masterfully juggle a wider array of events into each day.
How do we stay on top of all the unfinished work, tasks and projects without being consumed by the anxiety and stress of having so much lingering on our daily to do lists? The answer lies not so much in the concept of how we manage our time but more appropriately how productively we manage our actions.
Getting projects completed on time and maintaining a sense of control over our business and personal affairs requires effective oversight of a variety of actions that are crucial to the success of each task or endeavor. These actions whether done or delegated need to be prioritized, categorized and followed-up to prevent mishaps or crisis from occurring. The idea of working smarter instead of harder is imperative if we wish to reach our goals and still find time to decompress.
It’s been observed that some relatively simple action management strategies can be successfully incorporated into our routines to maximize our achievement of stress-free productivity. Described below are five extremely useful methodologies that can help you regain control of your life and experience a clearer sense of order and achievement.
Using a Master Action List.
Whenever we have an obligation to fulfill or a goal to reach, we remain thoughtful of its presence as long as it remains undone. We’ve all experienced from time to time the sense of stress related to having too much to do and not enough time. This unrelenting bombardment upon our conscious and subconscious thought brings about that sense of discomfort, anxiety or dread as long as the task remains outstanding. This state of mind is unproductive and often unnecessary. The use of a Master List coupled with systematic strategies allows us to more effectively manage actions thus alleviating the apprehension of unfinished business. Often we feel some relief just by committing the action item to the list – even without yet taking any action upon it.
To begin a Master Action List, simply write down or type absolutely everything no matter how small. Develop the list without considering the importance or significance of each item. This will be looked at later. It does not matter whether you create your list using paper or a computerized devise. What is important is that you remove everything out of your head and get it onto your list Write down all things for which you have even the smallest responsibility to change, finish, get involved with, handle or do something about.
Once completed, create sub lists by grouping and consolidating similar actions. Examine how to best subcategorize the items on your list. Some tasks may be associated with certain days of the week or need to be done in a specified location or even with a particular person. Try not to over-categorize but keep the breakdown simple. I prefer to keep my action lists on my Palm Pilot. The categories, which I find useful, are: Errands, Calls, Online actions, Computer work, Agendas (according to project, committee, or partners with whom I’m working), Pending or Awaiting Response (for those activities that have been delegated), to read/research, and Projects. I also maintain categories for my partner, key clients, technological advisor, and assistant. This helps me remain focused upon the work with which they are or will be involved. Upon defining your own personal categories, move each action item onto an appropriate sub-list. This will facilitate reviewing and accomplishing each step.
Examine each list daily or as often as you need to get them off your mind. Now it is recommended to look at your pending tasks giving consideration to their overall importance and due date. Identify the action items that offer the greatest return on investment. Also note those action items that hold the greatest potential to escalate into a crisis situation if ignored. Schedule a time for a comprehensive weekly review of these lists. Reevaluate and reassess for the coming week.
Making the Most of Delays and Short Windows of Time.
Expect the unexpected as scheduling set backs are unavoidable. Be prepared to fill in gaps as they arise. Keep on hand reading/ reference material, files/folders, and contact management tools so you can make use small parcels of time making appointments, returning phone calls, or responding to emails. When no work is on hand consider sorting receipts or cleaning out a briefcase or wallet. A considerable impact may be made upon your action management lists by regularly taking small bites. Develop the habit of handling instant tasks (2 minutes or less) as they arise or at the first reasonable opportunity. You’ll gradually make an impact as you continue taking small bites.
Aim for Success not Perfection.
Any job or project has a point of diminishing returns. Think of time as return on investment. Will the payoff of this task be worth the effort that you’re putting into it? That is the juncture at which additional time or effort spent is not going to significantly affect or enhance the end result. Beware of trying to complete an action step more perfectly than is necessary to satisfy your boss, client or yourself. A job that is done “too” well may require the devotion of time that could be better applied somewhere else.
Determine the time you need to leave the office and that which must be completed before heading home. Schedule your tasks into the day beginning with the time you need to finish. Be sure to overestimate the time that it will take to complete tasks as things always seem to take more time than we expect. If travel is involved, allow a buffer zone for traffic or subway jams. Include break time for lunch and a snack, as this too will improve your productivity.
Identify and Master Recurrent Timewasters.
Minimizing outside interruptions is a crucial aspect of an effective action management program. The first step is becoming aware of how, why, and when interruptions prevent you from completing work. Then consider ways to deter these common breaks in your schedule. Establish private time during the workday if your business will permit such a practice. Private work time periods should ideally be without instant messaging interruptions or the distraction of pinging notifications of arriving emails.
Callers should either speak to a secretary or be routed into voicemail. Remember to change your greeting during “do not disturb” periods to inform callers that you are in the office but unavailable until a given time. Either forward callers to a suitable designee or advise them how to reach you if they have an emergency requiring your immediate attention. You may wish to appoint staffers as liaisons to regular callers or clients.
The staffer could be titled “account manager” or “personal representative” and empowered to handle all calls of a routine nature – forwarding only problematic matters to you. Return calls all at one time if possible and keep them brief. Plan callbacks when people are less likely to chat – such as before lunch or at the end of the day.
Drop-in visitors are another challenge requiring forethought and finesse. Ask your secretary to protect your interruption-free periods and angel her desk to provide a physical barrier between you and the would-be intruder. If you don’t have secretary, you may choose to reposition your own desk to avoid direct view of those passing by your office, close your door during private work time and put up a sign-notifying visitors when you will be available. If you plan to establish regular interruption-free periods each week then notify staff of this new practice in a memo. When someone does manage to get in front of you while you’re busy with other work, ask if the matter could wait and if so, schedule a time later in the day to address it.
Having worked for many years as a Registered Nurse, I admit to having philosophical conflicts when I think about widespread use of drugs aimed at helping us work harder and for longer periods. No one will dispute the existence of the fast paced, high-pressure environment that surrounds our homes and workplaces. Survival of the fittest still remains a truism and if we are to reach new heights on the productivity fitness scale, we must assimilate effective action management methodologies and strategies into our routines. Successes will be achieved when we find proper balance in the various spheres lives. I’m highly skeptical that any pharmaceutical agent can provide us with this; however, implementing the strategies described above will get us soaring in the right direction.