Dr. Laurence T. Spring has served as an educator for 30 years, including 15 as a superintendent. He is a consultant to organizations and schools, specializing in change management and equity issues. He writes about the obstacles that prevent effective change management and how organizations can overcome them.
Time is one of those tricky things. We are usually so busy in our work days that we end up exhausted and can’t wait to collapse at the end of the day, but we never seem to get as much done as we hoped. As the un-done items from our to-do lists pile up, we ask ourselves, “where did all my time go?”
If this resonates with you, you are not alone. Most people struggle with time management, to some degree, especially in a startup environment where things can be fast-paced and hectic. Luckily, there are several minor changes that you can make to give yourself back significant chunks of time and increase your productivity. Here, we’ll discuss eight common time traps and ways to rectify them.
Not controlling your time
The first trap is not being in control of your time. Having an open-door policy is an important thing for building an open and communicative culture, but if it means that people are constantly interrupting you, your work and your productivity will suffer. You can gain control of this by either setting “office hours” for when it is ok to interrupt or establishing criteria for when an issue is significant enough to warrant an interruption. Likewise, if too many things reach that threshold, the issue may be that your folks do not have the resources, authority, or skill to do their job and you have a different problem to solve.
Having your attention hijacked
The second time trap is the tyranny of the last person in the door. You’ve seen this when you’re having a conversation with someone about an issue and another person interrupts with the intention of “just bringing something to your attention.” Invariably, the conversation shifts from the initial discussion and attention is given to the interrupter. Under the guise of bringing something to your attention, this person has hijacked your attention and your calendar, and you reinforce that behavior when you entertain it. Keep your attention on the person who has scheduled time with you and don’t get pulled off task by the interrupter. While this person is probably well-meaning, it pulls you away from your priorities and devalues that person you were meeting with, both of which will cost you in the end.
Keeping your calendar over-scheduled
The third trap is over-scheduling. I don’t mean over-scheduling in how some kids are over-scheduled in four different after-school activities, but over-scheduled in that you may not be creating functional time between meetings. If your calendar follows the default times in most scheduling apps, you have meetings of 30 or 60 minutes, and the next seems to begin just as the previous meeting ends. There is a need for transition between meetings and without a gap, meetings get started later and later as the day goes on. Additionally, without a little time between meetings, you risk losing track of key information, not being prepared for the next meeting, and you have no chance to get to the restroom.
Instead of 30-minute meetings, make 25-minute meetings your default, or 50-minute meetings instead of 60-minute meetings. The person you’re meeting with will know the expectation upfront and you will have five additional minutes to write down your notes and reflections from the meeting. You might even have time to use the restroom before the next meeting gets started. This scheduling technique will easily give you 60-90 minutes of reflection and preparation time every day. This is the equivalent of an extra 5-8 hours of bonus time each week. You will hardly notice the loss of the five minutes of meeting time, but you will feel a great deal of relief when you breathe between each meeting.
Not giving yourself time to think
The fourth time trap is not scheduling think time for yourself. We have become accustomed to believing that being busy and harried is a badge of honor and somehow a necessary precursor to success. If you don’t have time to think and reflect, the quality of your decisions will be weaker and more shortsighted. Rather than trying to sneak in your think time, or feeling guilty about doing it, schedule your think time as though you are your most important appointment of the day.
The fifth time trap comes as disorganization. Too often, we begin the day running, moving from one thing to the next, with precious little opportunity to get organized and stay organized. An easy fix to this is to schedule a brief appointment with yourself at the beginning and end of every day. A 15-minute appointment first thing in the morning is an opportunity to ensure that you have all the materials you need for the day. Get mentally prepared and ensure your to-do list is clear. A 15-minute appointment at the end of the day is a great opportunity to file loose papers, finish any notes, and clean off your desk so that you can begin the next day with no clutter.
Holding onto others’ responsibilities for yourself
The sixth time trap is taking on other people’s work and/or refusing to delegate. Too often, especially when your organization is new or growing, leaders can take on more work than they should. Sometimes it is easier to do it yourself than it is to teach someone else how to do it. Sometimes others shy away from the responsibility and accountability that comes with these tasks, and sometimes leaders just have a hard time letting go. Regardless of the reason, leaders need to practice the gradual release of responsibility to others. Delegation of responsibility, with support, will not only free up your time but also help develop the skills of your team members.
Practicing “productive procrastination”
The seventh time trap has to do with procrastination. I see this most often represented as “productive procrastination.” This happens when you are avoiding doing a task and engaging in mildly productive work instead. Ever have a dreaded report that needs to be written, but you feel you must first reorganize that file drawer? Instead of pushing these dreaded tasks off throughout the day, make a point of tackling your most onerous task first thing in the morning. By getting it out of the way early on, you free your mind from that anxiety, and you can be more productive.
Keeping email front and center
The eighth time trap is leaving your email window on and open. Think of email as your convenience, a way for you to communicate with people when it is convenient for you, not a way for them to interrupt your work. It can be tempting to keep checking your e-mail and scanning your inbox every few minutes. This behavior interrupts your flow of thought and takes away from your ability to devote quality time to whatever you are working on. Instead, schedule moments in time to check your email for issues that require your attention and schedule a window of time to do nothing but read, write and reply to emails.
These time traps collectively sap hours of your time each week and reduce your productivity. By changing your habits in small ways, you can make a big difference in how harried you feel and how much more productive you are during the day.