Remember cartoon character George Jetson’s grueling two-hour workday, which earned him a deluxe apartment in the sky? Whatever happened to that future? Instead of enjoying a shrinking workweek due to better technology, as we’ve expected for decades, the average American workweek has actually grown to nearly 60 hours!
How is it that we have less discretionary time and work harder than ever, even though technological breakthroughs have made us all incredibly productive?
To be blunt, some of it’s due to simple inefficiency. I’ve been a productivity expert for two decades, and I see my colleagues and clients battling the exact same dragons over and over again. In this month’s column, let’s take a look at the five biggest time-traps that drag down our productivity, and how to deal with them.
Trap #1: Poor Prioritization
Poor prioritization comes in two basic flavors: either you can’t effectively juggle multiple tasks on your own, or you’re trying to please a boss who labels everything urgent and top priority. Either flavor can generate the paralysis of analysis, in which nothing significant gets done, or the need to work longer just to keep up with the workload.
Whatever the cause, if you find yourself in this time-trap, you may soon fall prey to overwork and overwhelm. The solution is one of those “easy to say, hard to do” conundrums: you have to confront the problem and wrestle it into submission before it destroys your productivity altogether.
If your lack of organization is the problem, sit down and start ruthlessly triaging your daily to-do list. Reduce your must-do tasks to the few items that truly matter, based on your job requirements and whatever your supervisor assigns to you. Drop anything you can, give misplaced tasks to the people they really belong to, and delegate others whenever possible. Move “someday” tasks back to your Master List until you have time to deal with them.
If your boss considers everything he assigns you top priority, due yesterday, then meet with him and respectfully ask that he realistically prioritize your projects. If he can’t or won’t, then you’ll just have to do it yourself.
Trap #2: Distractions/Interruptions
Loud conversations, ringing phones, unscheduled interruptions, email alerts, and our own wandering attention all drag us out of our work focus repeatedly during a typical workday. Occasionally we also have to deal with crises, emergencies, and communications breakdowns.
As with most time-traps, the solution here usually boils down to the firm application of self-discipline. Rather than allow the same things to constantly interrupt your focus, find a way to deal with them once and for all. If noise is a problem, start wearing noise-canceling headphones and listening to music or ambient sound as you work. If you need to focus, don’t answer emails and phone calls as soon as they come in. Turn off email alerts and let calls roll over to voicemail. Go to a quieter place to work. If you have an assistant, filter your communications through them first.
Trap #3: Overwork
It surprises me that this trap occupies third place on my list, but that’s where the statistics place it. I’d expect it to be #1, because we’ve all complained at one time or another, “There’s not enough time in the day!” And it’s just getting worst: as the American workforce stretches toward a productivity breaking point, it seems that most of our leaders are dumping more work on us than we can handle in a given day.
But time remains our most precious resource; given the set length of the day, we can give up only so much of the time we need for sleep, good health, socializing, family, and all the other things that make life worth living. You have no choice but to more firmly control your behavior, trimming away the unimportant and tightly controlling how you spend every minute of your workday. Firm, consistent time management and hard work are the only way to pull out of this trap.
Trap #4. Poor Self-Discipline
Among those I’ve surveyed, poor self-discipline falls fourth on the list of recognized time traps. But whether we’re willing admit it or not, a simple lack of willpower gives rise to almost all of our time traps. It’s the grandparent of lost productivity. Many of us have problems maintaining focus on work, for a variety of reasons: interruptions and distractions, disinterest, attempts at multitasking, or a simple inability to concentrate. Some fail at setting or hitting goals, or simply being punctual. The solutions I’ve already outlined in the previous time-traps can solve these problems. Tighten up that willpower, apply draconian time-management techniques, and take back your workday.
A secondary issue expressed by about a quarter of those who cite this as their biggest time trap is procrastination. For a variety of reasons—fear of failure or success, dislike, disinterest, overwhelm, confusion, and the like—we drag our heels on some tasks. The only way to overcome this issue is to force yourself to “eat the frog,” as Brian Tracy puts it, taking care of the issue immediately instead of putting it aside for later. Big, daunting tasks require reduction into smaller subtasks with their own mileposts and deadlines you can more easily handle.
Trap #5: Poor Organization
Personal chaos can also bog you down. If you don’t take a little time each day to organize your data, plan out your tasks, write to-do lists, and otherwise prepare for what’s coming up, you may end up wasting large chunks of time looking for things, figuring out what to do next, trying to track your action items, and in general untangling the snarled web of your workflow. Refuse to accept such chaos in your life. You may not be able to control how well other people organize their lives, but you can certainly control your own.
First, set up a simple filing system for paper and electronic files, using a logical, intuitive naming protocol, and file things as you receive them. You shouldn’t have to take more than a minute or so to find any piece of information you need. Next, adopt an organizational system that meets the “HUG” criteria of Handy, Usable, and Garbage-free. It can be paper, electronic, or a hybrid of both. Keep all your schedules and contacts—work, personal, and family—in that organizer, carefully annotated and separated.
Make time not only to plan, but also to review your big picture work, to ensure you know what’s working and what isn’t for both you and your team. Then take steps to make any necessary repairs. The time you spend now will help you avoid train wrecks later.
The Bottom Line
There you have it: my list of the five top time management traps, based on two decades of helping people hone their workplace productivity. There are others, but these are the worst of the worst. Ultimately, working your way free of any of these problems comes down to clamping down hard on your self-discipline, then bringing a laser-sharp focus to bear on what truly matters—and nothing more. It may not be easy to do, but it really is as simple as that.