How to Get Things Done in a Digitally Distracted World | By Jennifer Britton MES, CHRP, CPT, PCC

Tired Manager at Desk - Glasses askew- 4 Time Management Foundations

Doing more with less is a key mantra of today's business context. At the same time, most of us are buffeted with distractions at work. From the chirp of an incoming email. to changes in how we do business, many leaders and business owners spend their week being pulled from task to task. Whether it's running from meeting to meeting or juggling multiple demands from stakeholders, it can be useful to stop and pause and return to time management basics.

This article returns us to 4 Foundations of Time Management for leaders and business owners.

Consider these factoids:

  • Managers may spend up to 40% of their time managing email - more than 2.5 or 3 hours a day (hamsterrevolution.com).
  • You may face up to 56 interruptions per day (Wendy Cole in Time Magazine 2004).
  • Information overwhelm. An issue of the New York Times these days contains more information than the average person was likely to encounter in their lifetime during the 17th century (Elaine Biech, 2007).

What are the implications for business owners and leaders?

On a daily basis it might seem like a constant barrage of information and communication is keeping you away from what needs to get done. Over time this may lead to overwhelm, and in the longer term we experience disengagement and a lack of satisfaction with results. The practical implication - nothing gets done!

Here are 4 Foundations of Time Management:

1. Know Where Your Time Actually Goes

A lot of us "think" we know where we spend our time. When in fact the "thinking" may not be representative of where our time is really spent.

One exercise my clients enjoy participating in is the Time Tracker. For decades authors including Steven Covey and Laura Vanderkam have encouraged us to audit where our time actually goes.

For the span of a week (or longer if your schedule varies greatly) track where your time is going. It's useful to do this in 15 or 30 minute increments. Electronically or on paper, note each time block and categorize it into common areas (meetings, commuting, email, time with staff, reporting, time spent building and maintaining relationships etc). At the end of the week, summarize and total where you have spent your time.

As you review your tracker information ask yourself:

  • What do you notice?
  • Where are you spending the bulk of your time?
  • What results are you getting from this? As the Pareto Principle (learn more on Wikipedia here) asserts, we often get 80% of our results from 20% of our efforts. Where are the bulk of your results coming from?
  • What do you want to do more of? Less of?
  • What changes are needed to support you in maximizing your productivity?

2. Prioritize

The "fallacy of the urgent" is pervasive in today's business context, where EVERYTHING appears to be urgent. We have a fixed amount of time, so it's important to consider what is truly important in our work.

In considering your priorities you might ask yourself:

  • What's important?
  • What are the things which are important to you - in the Short term? Medium term? Long term?
  • What things are important to your clients/customers/team?
  • What actions are aligned with your values?
  • What is REALLY a priority in the bigger picture?

There are several tools which can support prioritization including:

1. The Urgent/Important Matrix
2. The 80/20 Rule (or Pareto Principle)
3. Prioritization Matrix (or Action Priority Matrix)
4. Strategic Issues Mapping

Many of these tools help us dig into deeper layers of understanding of what is truly important, versus a "nice to do". So, with your task list in mind, consider which of your 'To Dos' can also be DEFERRED or DELEGATED. And then consider which ones simply need to be DUMPED. Now schedule in the priorities you've identified.

3. Execute (Get Things Done), and Manage Your Interruptions

Getting things done is key to productivity. Execution feeds into our focus, our vision and also managing our interruptions. What windows have you allocated and scheduled to get things done? Is this the time of day when you are at your peak? Have you given yourself enough time to complete the focused or "deep work" needed as a business owner or professional?

The hidden damage caused by interruptions:

Every time we get interrupted, we need to stop what we are doing, refocus and then start up again. But we often don't factor in the cost of "starting-up" again.

Research by Gloria Mark* has found that there's an average of 11 minutes between interruptions and it can take upwards of 25 minutes to get refocused again.

And while we may not be able to completely erase interruptions, we can manage them more effectively.

Some possible options for managing interruptions include:

  • Keep an interruption log. Just as you need to know where your time actually goes, review where your interruptions come from. What can be managed better?
  • Create dedicated focus time. This may require a change to the way you work. What time of day could you "close your door" for a centralized focus time? Communicating this time to other team members, or even instituting it organization-wide supports blocks of more focused work. This may in fact shorten the time it takes you to get things done overall.
  • Schedule times when you will check email and/or the phone. Depending on your role, email may be a constant interruption. It may be useful to experiment with creating dedicated email time, turning it off at points of the day. The key to success with this strategy is shaping other people's expectations. Communicate your plan to others so they're aware you won't be available or online at certain times.
  • Consider these questions:
    • What specifically, is going to help you create "focused action"?
    • What blocks of time have you allocated to get work done?
    • What interruptions are you facing in your work right now? And what is the cost?
    • What approaches can you use to minimize interruptions?

4. Track Your Time

Tracking our time provides the data we need to make better business decisions in a rapidly changing context. And tracking these metrics visually on a regular basis, can provide useful insights around patterns and other trends.

My latest book is entitled "PlanDoTrack". While we can have the best plans, we need to execute and get into action. We also need to track and note what is impactful and creating value for ourselves, and those we support.

There are a number of metrics we can track:

  1. For entrepreneurs, metrics we may want to track include sales, customer meetings, or design and development time.
  2. For leaders you may want to track 1-1 time, goals, time spent in meetings, time with stakeholders, and other designated Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

PlanDoTrack (see link below) includes an annual set of blank Monthly Daily Trackers you can use to track the metrics of your choice on a daily basis. Each month you'll be able to notice different trends and patterns. Consider:

  • What tasks and activities do you want to track? What results?
  • When have you scheduled time to review your metrics?

Building in time on a regular basis to plan, prioritize and reflect can have a significant impact on how you feel. Then you will know who is in the drivers seat - you or your work...

Wrap-up

As we wrap up this article, consider which of these 4 Foundations of Time Management is a priority for you? What resources would you recommend to others?

Taking time on a regular basis to build in quick pauses to explore what you are doing and where your time is going is essential. What is having a positive and negative impact? Use this information to focus your efforts and build the momentum for ongoing performance.

* Mark, Gloria & Gudith, Daniela & Klocke, Ulrich (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - Proceedings. 107-110. 10.1145/1357054.1357072. Also refer to the New York Times article by Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson "Brain, Interrupted"

Jennifer offers these Resources to Help You Get Organized:

  1. The Coaching Business Builder Website
  2. Coaching Business Builder Workbook & Planner - Putting the Pieces Together
  3. PlanDoTrack Workbook & Planner for Remote and Virtual Professionals

Contributing author: Jennifer Britton is the author of five books including the Coaching Business Builder Workbook and Planner (2018), Effective Group Coaching and From One To Many: Best Practices for Team and Group Coaching. Jennifer provides a wide range of supports for coaches, and other professionals who are working with teams and groups. From 1-1 coaching around signature programs, to the Conversation Sparker Deck to the 40 Ways to Work with Visual Cards, she's committed to helping coaches create engaging and impactful work with the teams and groups they support, while creating a thriving business. Visit her online at https://www.groupcoachingessentials.ca

If you liked this article on Time Management, you may also like:

Some great Time Management Tools (from The Coaching Tools Company) to use with your clients include:

Our Time Management Toolkit which includes:

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