I talk a lot here about time-management and productivity strategies or what I call “the tactical and the practical”, but I want to take a moment to take a step back and look at the reasons why we feel overwhelmed, stressed, and stretched thin in the first place.
I believe there are 3 over-arching reasons we struggle with time management and productivity:
Attempting to rely on our memory
Not having a system for our tasks and to-dos
Distractions and focus struggles.
Most of the techniques and strategies that I teach and coach around address one (if not more) of the issues above. So, let’s dive in!
Relying on Memory
Let’s talk about why we should not rely on our memory. At first, this probably sounds counterintuitive. Aren’t our memories a good thing? Don’t people pride themselves on having a great memory? So yes, our memory can be a very powerful tool. But it shouldn’t be the place that we store all the stuff we have to do.
Attempting to use our memories to keep track of what we need to do isn’t very effective and it actually increases stress.
We want to use our brains for thinking about, and focusing on, the task at hand, not for remembering that you need to pick up milk, or call back your mom, or write that report.
If you sometimes feel like you are not present (at work, at home, on the phone), it’s often because our brains are working overtime trying to hang onto all that stuff we know we have to do. And when our brains are trying to hold onto all that stuff, it’s VERY hard to focus on the present.
Imagine this all-to-common scenario:
Your partner, or roommate, texts you in the middle of the day and asks you to pick up milk on the way home. You say “ok”, and store that in your memory. An hour later, you’re writing an email, when a thought pops into your head “remember the milk”. You are momentarily distracted from what you are doing. Two hours later, you’re in an important meeting with your boss and that same thought pops into your head “remember the milk”. Now you’ve just missed the last sentence your boss just said. Was is important? Hope not!
In any case, you get where I’m going here. Our memories are not a great place to keep track of the stuff we have to do. When we get all of this stuff out of our heads and into a system, we are able to use our brains in the moment, on the thing we are trying to do, instead of getting stuck in the future or the past.
Not having/using a system
Now you now know that relying on your memory is not the most effective way to manage all of the things we have to do. And I bet you’re thinking, “if I’m not supposed to rely on my memory, what exactly am I supposed to do?”. The answer is to have a system OUTSIDE of your head where you can keep track of all of your tasks, projects, open questions, etc. Not having a system, or not using the system you already set up, is the second common roadblock to managing your time effectively.
What do I mean by “system”? Well, that’s going to be a bit different for each person. But at its core, a system is a method for capturing, organizing, prioritizing and documenting your tasks. It will be a method that you use consistently, to achieve consistent results and ensure that you know, with certainty, that you are spending the right amount of time on the right things.
When you don’t have a system, things can fall through the cracks. We have a lot of input sources these days: we’ve still got the old inputs like snail mail, phone calls, face to face meetings, (and some offices even still have fax machines), but we’ve got a lot of new inputs as well: email, messaging apps like Slack and WhatsApp, text, etc. In short, stuff is coming at us from many directions, and if we don’t have a way to catch it all, categorize it and prioritize it, not only do we start to feel overwhelmed FAST, but we start to miss things.
Creating a system that works for you, and filtering all your inputs through it, is one of the best ways you can take back control of your time, and ensure that you’re on top of it all.
I think anyone who works in a modern office, and especially in an open office, can commiserate here. Whether it’s the email notifications dinging all day long, that coworker who doesn’t appear to have an inside voice, or your new hire that still needs A TON of support, distractions are ALL around us, ALL the time.
A recent study out of UC Irvine shows that it takes on average 23 minutes (that’s minutes, not seconds) to refocus after an interruption. And that holds true even when we are distracting ourselves (say, when we decide to check our email in the middle of writing a big report). 23 minutes. Think about that! An average 8 hour workday breaks down into about 21 periods of 23 minutes. Are you distracted more than 20 times a day? (Other studies show that in an office environment, we’re actually distracted every 11 minutes or so.) No wonder you’re having trouble focusing and getting everything done!
Distractions are a HUGE issue. We live in an age of technology, and technology is wonderful in so many ways. But our tech feeds off of our ability to be distracted. We have to be more mindful and purposeful to minimize distractions if we want to improve our time management skills and get more out of the time we have.
If you’re experiencing issues with any of the above, don’t hesitate to reach out.