Feature Article: Time Management is Dead: The New Reality of Productivity

Weíve all been there. Thereís mail piled up on the corner of your desk. You have 37 unread e-mails. The phone is ringing (not that phone Ė the other phone). And youíll be lucky if you can get through three of the fifteen items on your to-do list.

Oh Ė and you have four hours of meetings ahead of you.

It didnít used to be this way. The world has changed in the last decade or so. Has your approach to time management changed with it?

If you find yourself stressed out and frustrated every time you try to hunker down and take control of your time, thereís a good chance thatís because you need a new way to think about time management. Donít fall into the trap of trying to force yourself to work within a system that just isnít compatible with the pace of your day or the nature of your work. Just like electronic organizers are perfect for some and others swear by paper planners, even the best time management system will fail if it doesnít jive with the way you get through each day. 

If youíre looking for a productivity system that is compatible with real life, consider 4-A Time Management. By focusing on four key elements of productivity you can create a flexible, customized productivity strategy that is compatible with the fast paced demands of today.

Activity. When there are 117 things that could be done next, how are we supposed to prioritize? In this new era of productivity, it is pretty much impossible to successfully schedule your day in advance. You might set out a clear list of objectives and a bulletproof timetable, but we all know that one unexpected phone call can cause the whole plan to collapse in on itself Ė priorities change, a crisis pops up, a deadline is moved up a week; these things happen.

Since you canít plan for everything, it is important that you have a crystal clear understanding of what your priorities are. If something happens that is beyond your control and these priorities need to be adjusted Ė fine Ė but until then, you should have a game plan.

Evaluate your to-do list to see which tasks will yield the greatest benefit. The old A-B-C method probably wonít work if the flow of your day changes often. You need a new method of deciding where to spend your valuable time. 

Think about the average amount of time that you can work uninterrupted. Which of your tasks will benefit most from that undivided attention? Which require a lot more or much less? Make a plan to work on the bigger, more time-intensive projects when you know youíre least likely to be disturbed. Save the little ones for those windows between meetings and phone calls when you wonít get much else done. 

If one of your important projects is just too intimidating for you to ever make any headway, break it down into smaller, manageable steps. I guarantee that nine times out of ten, once you get started youíll forget why you put it off for so long to begin with.

Availability. The best laid plans wonít stand a chance if you donít find a way to control your availability. Your time is your most valuable asset. Donít just give it away to anyone who asks! Youíll never have complete control over your availability, but itís important to know how to carve out blocks of distraction-free time that is conducive to productivity.

Meetings are notorious for eating up massive blocks of time. Learn to say ďno.Ē Itís pretty likely that you donít need to be at all of the meetings that youíre attending. Can you send someone in your place? Ask for the minutes to be forwarded? Address the situation with a quick phone call? Evaluate whether the meetings you attend are really necessary. 

When youíre not in those meetings, schedule time to work. In some jobs this is easier to do than others. It might just be a matter of shutting your office door and setting your phone to voicemail. Or working from home or heading to Starbucks with your laptop. You might need a clear signal for your co-workers, like using a do-not-disturb sign or putting on head phones when you need to work uninterrupted.

Whatever your solution Ė donít abuse it. If you try to make yourself constantly unavailable, you will quickly find that others lose respect for your ďIím busyĒ signal. 

Then youíre right back where you started, whether youíre up against an important deadline or not.

Accessibility. Youíve already decided that you arenít going to give everyone around constant access to your time. The next step is to make sure that you have easy access to the information, tools, and resources you need to be productive.

Invest the time necessary to make sure the things you need on a regular basis are at your fingertips. Things you access frequently should be filed on your desktop in an organizer or in a drawer thatís at armís reach. Put the files you only use occasionally where they are accessible at your desk, but give the easiest access to those things that you reference regularly. Archive files you rarely need in the bottom drawers or in files away from your desk. 

Perhaps the most important and overlooked thing you can do to get organized is to structure your electronic files. In an age where most files are electronic, itís easy to lose them to the vacuum of cyber storage. File electronic documents similar to the way you would paper ones. Donít just plop everything in ďMy DocumentsĒ or on your desktop and leave it for lost. Set up folders and sub folders that have intuitive titles that youíll easily navigate. Use dates and enough detail in file names that you wonít have to open multiple documents when youíre looking for something specific. In short, do the initial work of saving the files in an organized manner to make referencing them an easy task. 

Stopping to hunt for what you need not only wastes time, but it destroys your rhythm and forces you to break your concentration. Itís well worth it to organize as you go.

Attention. The most effective time management system in the world wonít do a thing to improve your productivity if you donít focus on the task at hand. For many of us, the problem isnít a lack of willpower; itís having the restraint to refuse distractions. 

This means closing Outlook when youíre not working on e-mail and trying to check it only a few times a day. Resist the urge to open messages as they come in. This also means letting the voicemail light stay on until youíve finished what youíre doing. Treat your project time like an appointment with a coworker. Ignore the phone, the e-mail, and the urge to go get a cup of coffee. 

Of course, avoiding email and the phone might be much easier than avoiding the distractions that come from coworkers. If youíve already put your ďdo not disturbĒ signal in place, be it headphones or a closed office door, and youíre still being interrupted, itís time to tactfully redirect the person distracting you. 

Acknowledge the issue and let them know youíre in the thick of an important project. Ask if you may give them a call in an hour when they may have your undivided attention. 

Just remember Ė itís better to be like a postage stamp and stick with something all the way to the end than it is to be a butterfly that flits from task to task! 

So forget managing your time Ė it canít be managed. Manage yourself with these 4 Aís and youíll increase the likelihood youíll have a productive day.

Make it a productive day! ô

(C) Copyright 2008 Laura Stack. All rights reserved.