Monday, 1 January 2018

Make a list and have a productive New Year

It is the time of the year when we sit down, bloated from Christmas excesses, reflect on the past and plan the year ahead. Undoubtedly this will involve a list (of resolutions) which will gradually be forgotten over the next few months. But “to do” lists (or “action plans” if you are reliant on others) are a good and simple aid to productivity. Crossing off a completed item offers a warm feeling of satisfaction, positive reinforcement and does the world of good for our psychological wellbeing.

But don’t just write a list, prioritise the items – which is easier said than done. How many of us go into the office in the morning with our mental “to do” list but the day pans out more like this:

  • Write your “to do” list
  • Turn on computer … check a few websites
  • Do some emails
  • Discover a “fire” ... and take time to put it out
  • Go to meetings ... do emails under the desk
  • Finally get to do something on your list ... but get interrupted consistently
  • Look at the clock only to find it’s the end of day ... and nothing is crossed off your list
  • Work late to catch up ... but can't get it all done
  • Come in the next day and repeat the cycle

My colleague Iain Smith, of Network for Skills, and I offer training in remote working, where good time management is fundamental to productivity, whether in or outside the office and whether you’re a manager or team member. Iain introduced me to Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix, presented in his classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989).

Covey’s matrix helps you categorise tasks and identify the ones you need to spend time on. There are four quadrants to the matrix dependent upon whether they are Important or Not Important and whether they are Urgent or Not Urgent, see the graphic below. An important and urgent task in Quadrant I tends to be a crisis or emergency (firefighting) that needs to be dealt with straight away out of necessity, otherwise it results in dire consequences. Whilst such tasks have to be dealt with immediately, they may be the responsibility of others or could be resolved more efficiently by others more qualified – your job is to manage the crisis, not to resolve it alone.

Quadrant III refers to tasks which are urgent but not important. These tend to be needless interruptions and chat, superfluous meetings, reports and emails, or dealing with colleagues’ impromptu requests for some quick help. Sometimes these tasks may be easy or give you a sense of being busy and important, but if they divert you from important tasks then you are deceiving yourself and your productivity will suffer. Avoid doing such tasks by either dedicating minimal time to them or delegating them.

Not urgent and not important is Covey’s Quadrant IV. This quadrant includes workplace gossip and timewasting, spam emails or ones you are unnecessarily copied in to (and the multitudes of irrelevant copy-all replies). Excessive interruptions due to social media and gaming also fall into this quadrant. To maximise your productivity try dumping tasks and activities in Quadrant IV.

That leaves Quadrant I, which is those tasks that are important but not urgent. Activities in this quadrant tend to be strategic or preventative requiring planning. This includes tasks which affect your career development, business capability, relationship building, creating new opportunities and genuine relaxation (reenergising). Whilst not urgent you need to set time aside for completing tasks in this quadrant. You won’t get any prompts, but if you ignore this type of activity you will be doomed to perpetual firefighting.

Responding to emails is often stated as one of the biggest disruptors of productivity. Whilst emails may be important they generally tend not to be urgent. Make time to respond to emails but schedule time to block respond (maybe two or three times per day), and switch off email alerts! Phone calls are trickier because it is not until you answer the call that you know whether it is urgent or important or not. But don’t be afraid to offer a call back if you realise it is not urgent.

If you want to learn more about time management or how to manage your time when remote working or how to manage remote workers, then visit our dedicated website or drop me an email.

By the way, Number #1 on my list of New Year’s resolutions is to write a monthly blog. I consider that important but not urgent. Let’s see how I get on.

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