Time Management and Productivity

The pandemic has brought with it many changes not least of which is the ‘work from home’ edict which many businesses are now adopting into their policies creating far more of a hybrid model than what existed pre-pandemic.

When asked more than three-quarters of people report that working from home saves them time, this typically relates to commuting and business travel, and about half of remote workers report that they are more productive. Of course, many of these are self- assessments so they cannot be classified as objective.

That said, despite these self-reported time savings and productivity gains, data from enterprise software firm Atlassian shows that the average workday has expanded by a full 30 minutes globally. Surely the opposite of what we would expect if people are using their time more productively. To compound the issue, the additional 30 minutes of work has come mostly at the expense of what is typically leisure time in the evening.

Time management promises us that if we become more efficient, we can make space to accommodate all of our to do list comfortably. And yet, time management is like digging a hole at the beach: the bigger the hole, the more water that rushes in to fill it. In a world where demands on time keep piling in infinitely, freeing up an hour on a calendar is like an alert signal announcing your capacity to work on another project or take on an additional role – and thus the ‘free’ hour gets taken.

This is not to say that time management has no value. Productivity is important. But in a world where burnout is running rampant, we also need strategies for reducing demands on time instead of simply accommodating it. There are three things you can do to escape the trap.

As soon as an agreement is in place, it creates a pressure to deliver. If we have to break or renegotiate the agreement, we add the additional stress of a challenging conversation and the guilt of letting someone down. To reduce the pressure from task volume, hold your position upfront so you aren’t compelled to renegotiate later. How you hold the line depends on whether your pile of ‘to-dos’ tends to grow from tasks you are assigned or from tasks that you choose to take on.

For tasks that are assigned to you, think in terms of priorities not time. When a boss asks you to do something, responding with “I don’t have time for that” probably isn’t the right response – it may feel too abrupt. Rather than taking that route consider asking: “Where would you like me to prioritise this request against a, b and c?” This accomplishes two things. First, the onus for prioritisation is placed on the superior, not you. Second, it reframes the exchange from a one-sided choice to a collaborative discussion about what is most important.

For tasks you are considering adding on yourself, calendar-block first. We often overwhelm ourselves because we are overly optimistic about our capacity. We look at our calendar, see some daylight, and think, “Okay, I can probably get this done for Friday.” And then Friday comes, and — guess what — we have to renegotiate.

The challenge is that your calendar usually only shows the claims on your time that involve tasks that you perform with other people at the same time that they do – for example meetings, phone calls, coffee chats, and so on. Your to-dos are a parallel list of agreements with other people for tasks that you perform on your own and not in real time with others that still has a claim on your time. The solution? Merge your calendar and to-do list by blocking time on your calendar for each and every one of your to-dos. By getting a complete view of the commitments you’ve made, you can see your real capacity before you agree to take on more.

Our past year has been characterised by an endless parade of decisions: Do I send my kids to school? Can I visit my parents? Is it safe to return to the office? Continually facing decisions with important consequences and imperfect information can lead to the demands from the mental work we need to do outstripping our ability to cope. Overload will increase the likelihood of errors and contributes significantly to feeling overwhelmed.

You can begin to reduce your load by replacing decisions with absolute principles. For example, the science of weight-loss management tells us that it is much more effective to say, “I won’t eat after 7 PM” than “I’ll limit my snacking after 7 PM” The latter creates an infinite number of subsequent decisions: “Can I have this cup of yogurt? What about a piece of fruit?” The absolute principle of no food after 7 PM shuts the door once and for all. The decisions disappear.

It could be classified as ‘’finding the one decision that removes 100 decisions.” For Tim Ferriss, an Author and Blogger, this meant establishing a principle of reading no newly published books in 2020. After years of being deluged by eager authors and their publicists to read, review, or blurb dozens of new or upcoming books a week, this blanket principle freed him from hundreds of book-by-book decisions.

Steve Jobs famously decided to wear the same thing every day to remove the decision fatigue of choosing an outfit every morning. Jon Mackey, the managing director of the Canadian operations of executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, set up the principle of no meetings on Fridays. After failing to protect time for deep work through individual decisions on which meetings to accept or reject, he created a day a week in which he can focus.

Distractions side-track us. They stop us from accomplishing our tasks and making our most important decisions. Distractions are a particularly corrosive contributor to feeling overwhelmed because they prevent us from feeling that we are making progress against the sources of the pressure.

When you try to use willpower to shut out distractions such as social media, you are pitting yourself against an army of our generation’s greatest minds. They are focused relentlessly on how to exploit what Facebook’s founding President Sean Parker calls “the vulnerability in human psychology” to steal a slice of your attention. When it comes to distraction, structure will beat willpower every time.

Here’s an example: A number of business leaders have decided to establish periods during the day in which they turn off their laptop’s Wi-Fi to focus. Other leaders have created 30-minute sessions during which their team can come in to clear questions and get direction. This has dramatically reduced the number of people asking, “Can I grab you for five minutes?” throughout the day.

Former Deloitte CEO, Cathy Engelbert eliminated scheduling back-to-back meetings. Instead, she had her assistant leave 10-minute gaps for what she called SMORs — small moments of reflection. This quick break to recover meant she wasn’t distracted at the end of meetings by what was coming up next or carrying the prior meeting into the current one.

In all of these instances, the solution isn’t to become more efficient to accommodate more tasks, more decisions, and more distractions. The imperative is clear – simplify. Reduce the number of tasks you take on, replace decisions with principles, and put structure in place to eliminate distractions.

Tinderbox can help you manage your time better and help your team increase productivity – first step to achieving this is to set up a free no obligation meeting by calling us 0116 232 5231 or contact us by email at ignite@tinderboxbusinessdevelopment.co.uk.


The Tinderbox Team