Printed 2017/08/22 11:10AM

Ruthless Focus - A Different Type of Time Management Philosophy

By Andy Warren, 2009/01/27

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:

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.

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