Most professionals tell me they never have enough time to do everything they wish to do in a given day, week, or month. That is bull. They simply have not used the available time correctly. There are three main issues that you have to contend with if you want to control time instead of allowing time to control you: the 80/20 Rule, when to work on what, and how to guard your time.
The 80/20 Rule
This classic is all about prioritizing. To prioritize means to place something ahead of something else. Seems simple, but it paralyzes many professionals. Think of all of the people, tasks, and projects that dominate your typical week or month. Here is a quick challenge: write down the top 20 things you have to do at work. Which things on your list are the least important? Mark them off the list. Try marking off at least half of the list using this rule. It becomes brutal fast – which is why you have to spend time identifying the most important people, tasks, and projects (the 20%).
The 80/20 Rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, is invaluable as a place to begin thinking about many issues. Eighty percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people, eighty percent of the profits come from 20% of the products, etc.
I am not telling you to neglect the less important people, tasks, and projects (the 80%). The point is to make sure you identify and focus on the things that matter most. The 20 percent represents a very special group of people, tasks, and projects that will determine how fast and how far you will climb the organizational ladder.
To identify the 20 percent, ask yourself these two important questions: Which tasks/projects will bring you the most experience, new relationships, and best visibility? Translated: what type of work or which functional areas usually provide the “fast track” in your organization? Ideally, they will align with your personal strengths so that you do not lose too much “fit.” Next, which relationships should be newly established, more fully developed, or deemphasized? Translated: who you hang around matters a lot! Find the most productive networks of people at work and figure out how to join them.
Look at your list again. In fact, write down one week’s worth of typical tasks and activities. Which are the most important for your future in the organization and in your career? These are the 20%. Give them a check mark. Now make an honest estimate of the amount of time you spend on the items you did not mark. You might be amazed by how much time and effort you are putting into the 80%. Find the 20% and treat it with the reverence it deserves. A great rule: don’t spend more than half of your time on the 80%.
When to Work on What
Once you have the 20% clearly in sight, it is time for step two. When is the best time to work on these things? Think carefully and determine the two or three hour window each day when your brain processes most effectively. It is the time of day you are able to think through complex challenges without getting a headache. This is your Einstein Window. Thus your next challenge: identify when you have your daily mental peak and dedicate it to the 20%.
I realize you face constraints – you have meetings, calls to make, and employees who need you. An occasional distraction is inevitable, but the rule is to work vigorously to protect the Einstein Window. Most of the time you think superficially. Only during the Einstein Window do you have good odds of breakthrough thinking.
How to Guard Your Time
There are many simple ways to protect the amazing Einstein Window. Here are just a few:
If you have one, close the door. Open-door management has its limits. Keep it open most of the day, but close it when you are working on the “good stuff” during those precious few hours when your brain really excels. Keep the door closed at least one hour each day.
Turn off your email, phone, and all manner of devices that will chirp or beep and distract you. Try it for at least an hour. I promise nothing bad will happen. You can’t truly use the Einstein Window until you find some uninterrupted peace and quiet.
Next, learn to say, “No.” “No” is not a four-letter word. How many times have you been deep in thought when your boss or a peer wanders in and asks for help with something that is not an emergency? If it is during your “Einstein Window” and not an emergency, say “No” and get back to them later.
Finally, get lost if needed. Literally. Get away from the people hogging your time and set yourself free! Take the occasional Einstein Window, and a meaningful chunk of your 20%, and leave your cube or office. Take your retreat in an empty conference room or at the park down the street – get creative.
There is an entire industry built around helping you manage your time more effectively. I’ve boiled it all down to three simple rules: 80/20 your work, identify your Einstein Window, and protect that window! You’re welcome.