Spring has arrived, and with it a deluge of articles and blog posts on productivity and time management. This post and its sequel are no exceptions.
There are many challenges to working efficiently and effectively; some are universal and others are unique to you. Distractions like social media, overcrowded inboxes, and smart phones with their enticing candy-colored apps are ubiquitous, and add to that your chatty office neighbor and a patience-testing commute and it can be hard to know how to find the time and energy to accomplish what’s required.
What is the key to managing your time so that you can meet your objectives? As it turns out, there are many pieces to this puzzle. What’s most important is that you find the strategies that provide the best results for you and your circumstances, and to realize that what works may change over time with new responsibilities and situations, or even with the season.
Same Routine, Different Day
GMN member Myriam Fizazi-Hawkins, director of the Grantmaking Resource Center at the National Endowment for Democracy, has spent time developing a routine that works for her, from list-making to e-mail management to regularly scheduled productive meetings. What works for you will be different, but having some type of routine, especially one to start the day, gives structure to your time and helps you avoid the “where do I begin?” and “what do I do next?” thoughts that can threaten motivation and productivity.
Research has shown that we demonstrate greater willpower in the morning, before the distractions of the day (e-mail, phones, people) begin in earnest. We have a clearer brain and a brighter outlook in the early hours than we do after a carb-laden lunch, so take advantage of that time to delve into the bigger, more difficult, and/or high-impact projects on your list before the energy wane many of us experience in the afternoon hours.
In a word, no. In more words: Studies have shown that both productivity and performance suffer when we multitask, and we exhibit less creativity when we try to do too much at the same time. You don’t just lose the minute or two (or fifteen) you took to check e-mail or Facebook. Depending on the time spent on a diversion, getting back to full attention can take nearly 25 minutes. That’s a recipe for disaster for your to-do list.
It is possible to scale back the multitasking and shallow dives into work in between distractions. It takes practice and focus.
With apologies to Newton, projects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted upon by an external force. Unfortunately, potential external forces number in what seems like the thousands. Our attention spans are shorter, and we are accustomed to texts, tweets, Facebook status updates, and snippets of news. We have a fear of missing out, even with the myriad ways we receive information, but it’s impossible to keep up-to-date on everything. We are overloaded with information, bombarded with interruptions, and concentrating on work is harder than ever.
To clear the way for more important assignments and a steadier focus, have you thought about first taking care of smaller tasks that will take two minutes or less to complete? You can also get started on a project the day before, and stop while on a roll, so you do not have to start from scratch in the morning and have an easy place to pick up from. It’s less daunting to “start” in the middle than it is to start at the beginning.
Begin your day by identifying the top three (or whatever number) things you want to accomplish. Goal-setting helps us look forward, keeps us on track, and provides a feeling of success when a goal is reached.
Take some advice from Rosemary Martin, program manager at the National Geographic Education Foundation. Determine a block of time that you’ll focus on a project, and nothing besides that project, and stick to it. She says 30 minutes, or up to 90 minutes, is a reasonable time to devote to a task to make progress on or even complete it. There’s even a name for this practice, called the Pomodoro Technique. It gets its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro is Italian for “tomato”) that Francesco Cirillo, the inventor of the technique, used to set his work intervals. “Pomodoros” are measured in 25-minute increments, with short breaks in between. During a pomodoro, interruptions are postponed so momentum is not lost. There is only the pomodoro. Lifehacker lists several apps that can help you measure your work cycles, ticking optional.
Any piece on time management would be incomplete without a couple of paragraphs on procrastination, that devil of time theft. The reasons we procrastinate, and potential solutions, are many, but note that it’s actually not as much a time management issue as one that is linked to our emotions. Perfectionism, disorganization, fear of failure and/or judgment, distraction, the need for immediate reward, apathy, boredom, anxiety, overwhelm: what is your procrastination cocktail? Sometimes understanding those underlying emotions can help us deal with the inability to START.
A researcher colleague says that external deadlines are what get him to start—and finish—projects. Breaking work down into smaller tasks, committing publicly to a project, talking through roadblocks (mental or otherwise) with a colleague, and setting up a reward system are just a few ways to manage, or avoid, the procrastination path. Another strategy, used by writers facing a blank page everywhere, is to just start. Oftentimes, in our minds we make a job bigger than it really is and use that as an excuse to avoid it. Or, there’s only 20 minutes, so why start now? Positive thinkers can turn these obstacles into productive action, by breaking down a larger job into a few smaller ones or seeing the 20-minute window as an opportunity to make headway on a project. Envisioning and planning the future is one way to move ahead. It might also work to think about how good you’ll feel when the dreaded task is done. Relieved. Free.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this series, which includes more strategies and tips, plus a list of resources for additional reading.