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Ruthless Focus - A Different Type of Time Management Philosophy

If you could list all the reasons I work, the number one reason would be to support my family. My definition of support includes spending an appropriate amount of time with family, not just working to support it. I suspect most of you would agree with that as a goal. How  many of us - me included - succeed at it?

We've probably all read at least one time management book in our career or at least heard the highlights, and to a degree those techniques work. Being organized and methodical go a long way to keeping you on track, but yet I consistently see people that at the end of the week have accomplishing a lot less than they could have/should have. Why? Does it happen to you? Do you know why?

I've seen a few major causes:

  • Incorrect estimates of time required
  • Building a list and not working the list
  • Putting more work into something than it really requires
  • Taking on more work than you can realistically do
  • Allowing time to be stolen from us in very small chunks

It's the last two that interest me the most and that I want to talk more about today. It's increasingly common to see people take on tasks that clearly have a full plate, yet they add more. Part of this is the book the work while it's there mentality, part it that if the idea that if I commit to the work I'll have to make time, and maybe part of it just wanting to please and/or help. A few people will engage in heroics to get things done, but more often they prioritize and something doesn't get done, doesn't get done on time, or doesn't get done well. Even if heroics work, is it sustainable? Once something fails two things can happen; you learn humility and think harder before committing, or you realize that the consequences of failing aren't a big deal and that you're no worse off than having not tried at all. Which approach suits you?

I spent my formative adult years in a profession which wanted boldness, but never at the expense of over extending, as the price for even minor failures could be quite high. As a result it's hard for me to ever commit to something I don't really think I can accomplish. Even with my stance on what I can/can't take on, it's often tempting to try to add more, especially if the extra something is fun and/or challenging, and I still seem to let it happen to me in minor ways that in turn require me to deduce time from family and add it to work.

The second part is that it's all too easy to find ways to do things that produce absolutely nothing. One category is obvious not working such as browsing ESPN or whatever, the second category is things that seem like work related (Twitter, Blogs, email, etc), and the last is work that just doesn't matter. I'm not begrudging anyone a couple minute break to check on their favorite team or to see how the stock market is doing. But imagine you spend 20 minutes per day doing that. You can opt to really get 38.5 hours of work done, or work 42.5 hours to get 40 hours done (to get your list done).

That time is easy to measure, and justify as you will. There's a different cost associated with things like reading email popup's or Twitter, and that's the task switching involved. 5 minutes of Twitter (or instant message, or....) can probably cost you a couple minutes more of time getting back on focus. But we have to read email as it comes in, right! It might be important! I think task switching is something most of us can do to some degree, but don't under estimate its cost.

I'm picking on Twitter a little, but as we discussed it during a recent meeting I explained I have a good reason for not doing Twitter and other similar things - my week is full. I have all the work I can do and then some. If I spend 5 minutes a day on Twitter I absolutely will spend 25 more minutes working because I have to meet my obligations for the business. If I really want to Twitter I need to go carve the time out by removing some other 25 minutes of work, or I can work a slightly longer week. Maybe I need to be sold on Twitter, but if it starts, something else goes. My participation in PASS is another great example, I knew going in that if I was elected I was going to add at least 5 hours a week to my schedule for 2 years - call it 200 hours of family time I'm taking to invest in career. Hard decision to make.

If you're working 40 hours or less a week and are meeting your goals the only question would be if you focused, could you do more? I believe in sustainability, so ESPN is ok, Twitter is ok, task switching is ok - all in some proportion. If you're working 40+ hours a week I'd suggest taking a ruthless look at how you spend your time and remove all the stuff that dilutes your focus. Focus doesn't mean you never read a blog or take a break, focus doesn't mean you only do short term thinking. It means you look at what's important and have the will to NOT do the other stuff.


I'm Andy Warren, currently a SQL Server trainer with End to End Training. Over the past few years I've been a developer, DBA, and IT Director. I was one of the original founders of SQLServerCentral.com and helped grow that community from zero to about 300k members before deciding to move on to other ventures.


Posted by Brent Ozar on 28 January 2009

As a telecommuter, I find that the time I spend on Twitter is still less than the time I lose when I'm sitting in an office somewhere and people come up to talk about the big game, last night's LOST episode, what the boss is wearing, etc., etc.  Those kinds of conversations seem to sap way more time than Twitter ever has for me, and I only wish we could opt out of some of those as easily as we can minimize Twitter when we need to focus.

Posted by Steve Jones on 28 January 2009

I've wavered on Twitter, and I somewhat agree with Brent. There are people that get lost in it, but being at home, alone, it allows me to get a break and still discuss things with people.

I also find interesting information at times on it, which gives me material.

Posted by Haidong Ji on 28 January 2009

Amen to this, Andy.

Btw, by now I am a long time fan of your blog now. Keep up the good work.

I particularly like this one, It means you look at what's important and have the will to NOT do the other stuff. That's the money quote for me.

Posted by Andy Warren on 28 January 2009

Thanks mon, nice to have loyal readers!

Posted by Andy Warren on 28 January 2009

Brent, there's some value to having fun/taking a break/socializing. If Twitter is part of your daily dose of that, that's as valid as anything else. It's when it's an overall increase in the break time that you start extending your day or decreasing your value!

Posted by jcrawf02 on 31 January 2009

couple days late, saw your post from the Database Weekly, but I agree with you. Best thing I ever did was stop checking email/phone except for 10am and 4pm every day. I mean, don't even open the application, turn the ringer off. I've gotten away from that and your post is reminding me that I need to become ruthless again.

Amazing how all those world-ending disasters don't seem to happen, or don't really need an immediate response, like everyone else who's addicted to their email thinks.

Good luck to all who try to be ruthless.


Posted by DangerMouseKaBoom on 1 February 2009

I thought this was about me...then I realised that this,my friends,is for the FaceBook lovers..hehe,it had become a MAJOR problem at my work place that there was surf control on it(still is the last time I asked!!).Divided attention actually leads to wrong resolution = No Work Done etc etc etc...take it from here,my work place maths stops at this point

Much as divided attention(I see it that way)is a problem, I find that not being able to say NO as well as the Hero syndrome should be examined in detail too..but this is a VERY GOOD article,allow me to forward to my boss...never mind I am writing this at work...ahem

Posted by Andy Leonard on 3 February 2009

Hi Andy,

  I always enjoy your blogs!

  I think technology has two sides for us: the technical, which is the technology itself; and technique, which is how we interact with it. The technology has no value in and of itself (yet - that will likely change in the future). The value arrives when we interact with technology. And really, the value's in *how* we interact - what we do, our technique - with it.

  Where there is value gained there can also be value lost.

  I've not felt a need to defend Twitter or my use of it, and I still do not feel that need. I understand some folks don't use it. Andy, you provide fine arguments for not doing so. I don't - for a minute - think you "don't get it." I'm not even close to thinking that. I think you have reasons for not using Twitter, and they're good reasons.

  My reasons for using it include an almost unnatural and nearly insatiable curiosity with messaging systems, combined with a love for people who enjoy learning - especially people in the technical community. I believe tools pass through a lifecycle; in which they begin as toys. For me, Twitter is still a toy - follow @AndyWeather if you don't believe me!

  But one day (soon even), it will become a tool.

:{> Andy

Posted by richardm on 4 February 2009

Work and family are facts of life as old as time itself. We have no control over time. Remember, it's not the time you put in it's what you put into time that defines your priorities and values - we are deluding ourselves if we think otherwise.

Posted by Tobar on 4 February 2009

New thoughts and good reminders. Thanks.

Posted by Brent Kremer on 4 February 2009

Excellent article. Our office just implemented an office communicator in an effort to allow the business department to get answers quicker. The purpose was for emergencies but has morphed into an alternate to email and general conversations about local news. I would say 20 minutes a day of lost productivity is a good estimate. Now is 20 minutes per person worth a faster response?

Posted by lee on 4 February 2009

Some people seem to be able to work amongst constant chatter and interruption. I can't.  I think your description underestimates the time cost of people-to-people interruptions. I get more real work done remotely in a day, than in a week in the office. I know it takes me longer than a minute to refocus; where was I? etc.

Posted by richardm on 4 February 2009

Given a choice between a 10 min ask or a two minute read in isolation, most of us go for the chat everytime. Is it worth it? - depends on the content of the chatter I guess. Some of the best confidence generators in the workplace are delivered this way.

Posted by jschroeder on 4 February 2009

Some good points I'm going to stop reading this blog right now.

Posted by rgriffin on 4 February 2009

Disabling the email notifications is a big help...I highly recommend it.  I spend 5 to 10 minutes every morning making a punch list in my notebook of what I intend to accomplish today.  Getting those knocked out are the priority.  Usually this list does not capture my entire day, so I have no reservations about checking the news sites or socailizing a bit.  (as a matter of fact, all of us IT guys need to socialize more at work, but that's another topic for another day).  It also leaves me some time to deal with any emergencies that might pop up during the day.  "Time Management" is an oxymoron...Task Management makes more sense.  A couple of great books are "Getting Things Done" by David Allen and "Time Traps" by Todd Duncan...(this one is geared for salesmen, but it is still good)  

Posted by Andy Warren on 5 February 2009

Andy L, that's a very good reply! I'm sure I lean towards hard positions too often, but I really do agree that it's to up each of us to figure out how we best learn/communiciate/focus, and then to balance that with how our peers do so. Indeed, it's the peer integration that is really challenging - what happens if I have a peer/boss/client that loves IM (or other messaging tool of your choice) and it doesn't work with my style. Do I change or do they? Hopefully the tools provide some intermediate ground?

Posted by Andy Warren on 5 February 2009

John S - not that you're reading this, but good for you! If this blog isn't giving you back enough value, I totally agree with removing it from your list:-)

Posted by Andy Warren on 5 February 2009

Chat vs read is also interesting. I find more and more that I do my best thinking by talking to someone that is at least somewhat knowledgeable about the topic. Just verbalizing seems to help me shape my ideas and deepen them, more than reading does (writing falls somewhere in the middle). Im not sure how much of chat is social though (we're social critters after all) and how much is that we find it more effective.

Posted by Bill Nicolich on 5 February 2009

Ruthless Focus...That's a greate meme! I think this will make the most sense for "highly engaged people." What I mean is, people who attract a lot of work to them, usually due to their abilities, reputation and passion.

My first day-to-day experience with highly engaged people was when I took a job in the financial district of San Francisco. I've always considered myself as productive, but my experience there took things to a new level.

Then I've seen the reverse--where folks are much less engaged and where time management is much less applicable.

So for some, your meme will seem overkill. For others, it's right on.

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