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Moving From Firefighting To Strategic Results

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7 Tips To Improve Your Time Management

Do you feel like day-to-day tasks make it hard to focus on long-term priorities and that you’re often a bottleneck for team members? Are you challenged with delegating tasks given that everyone else has a lot on their plates, too? That’s how I felt until I started working with a business consultant this year on improving my time management skills.

Although I wasn’t always in firefighting mode, I did feel like I was bouncing from one task to the next, getting too into the weeds and leaving strategic planning as my last priority. Karl Sakas, agency consultant at Sakas & Company, coached me over three months, and here’s what I learned.

1) Know Your Goals 

Set longer-term goals (aim for one to five years). For example, my one-year goal is to become more strategic. Using the 80/20 rule, I should focus on what gives me 80% of the results with 20% of the effort. Steps to meet my one-year goal include:

  • Assessing where my time is going now
  • Identifying my top strategic priorities
  • Committing to a target on strategic work (i.e., hours per month)
  • Including strategic priorities in my monthly goal-setting (see below)
  • Making monthly adjustments based on issues I encounter

Next, set monthly goals. Include three or four baseline goals, a reach goal and pre-goals to help meet these monthly goals. For example, a baseline goal for me was to review my task spreadsheet and mark items that in an ideal world only I should do versus what others could be doing. I then set a due date to review the tasks.

My pre-goal was simply to schedule time to review the task spreadsheet and mark items. Karl cautioned that the goal-setting process can help me be more strategic, but there are limits if others don’t have bandwidth to do certain less strategic tasks.

2) Prioritize: Group Your Time Into The 4 D

Rationalize your calendar by evaluating whether to drop, delegate, delay or do (from time-management expert Dr. John Lee). For me, I needed to determine what would make me more efficient by reorganizing my daily time to remove unnecessary tasks. That is, what can I drop, delegate or delay? The tasks left are for me to do. Once I cleared the clutter, I blocked personal time required for follow-up after meetings. Finally, I blocked heads down time meant to focus on those strategic tasks that were always falling to the bottom of the pile. This helps me prioritize my day.

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3) Build Incentives 

Establish rewards and penalties for meeting or missing your monthly goals. For my reward, I decided I would book a massage. I don’t do that often, so it would be a treat. If you already have a standing massage (well, actually, you’ll probably be lying down), you’ll need to think of something else unique and motivating. Karl suggested an equally motivating penalty of having to donate $10 to a campaign or cause I don’t agree with. Let me tell you: That spurred me on even more than the massage!

4) Stop Yak Shaving And Bike Shedding

Clear out your process inefficiencies.

First: Yak shaving has to do with drifting too far away from your original goal. It comes from this story: Your home office chair is making an annoying creaking noise because of a loose bolt. You could tighten it, except it uses a hex head and you lent your bit set to your neighbor. You can’t ask for that back, because you first need to return something to your neighbor: a special anti-allergy pillow that you borrowed for a friend. But you can’t just return the pillow because the dog ripped half of the stuffing out. The next thing you know, you’re down at the local zoo shaving a yak, all to stop a squeaky chair.

All of the decisions to get there were individually justified, but at some point you drifted too far away from the original goal for those tasks to still make sense as a whole chain. Other options? Buy a new bit set or give your neighbor some money for a new pillow (or do both). But don’t go shaving a yak. (See Wiktionary.org’s entry on yak shaving as well as a nice synopsis by Tatham Oddie.)

(Source: GIPHY)

Second: Bike shedding means working on trivial tasks. This originates with a metaphor to explain Parkinson’s law of triviality. A committee with a job to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend most of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed. Meanwhile, it neglects the design of the power plant, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. (From Wikipedia’s law of triviality.)

5) Work On Small Improvements – They’ll Add Up

Recognize and address tool inefficiencies. Consider this: If something takes six people 10 minutes each to complete, that’s an hour of productivity. If they have to do it two times per week and three weeks per month, that’s 72 hours a year. If you bill out at $100 per hour, it would be worth spending up to $7,200 to remove what might seem like an insignificant time waster. Bottom line: It’s often worth the effort to fix the tool (or find a more efficient approach).

Working in a distributed company, our team needs the ability to communicate in real time, quickly set up meetings and share screens. We’ve been bouncing from one productivity tool to the next, from Google Chat to Circuit to Slack to Zoom. We needed to settle on one tool internally so we don’t have to go searching for our own teammates! Leave me a comment if you want to know what we chose.

6) Empower The Team

If people keep asking you what time it is, build them a clock. If you can explain the framework they should use to consider choices, they can make better future decisions without you being involved — and they’ll know when they do need to escalate to get your help.

This goes back to properly delegating (one of the four Ds). It’s worthwhile to train someone. Disclaimer here: I’m still working on this one. It’s hard when we’re all busy. I’m going to have to make one of next month’s baseline goals a delegation goal.

7) Make It A Habit

Schedule a daily calendar review to find items that have snuck onto it or changed priority. Now you can now drop, delegate or defer. Karl shared a “top five daily checklist” to help organize my day. It consists of today’s top five tasks to work on in order of most important to least important. After I complete one of my top fives, I take a break and then I complete a smaller task or two. Then I repeat the process.

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Now that I am back from my massage, I need to figure out my next set of monthly goals.

And that’s it. I haven’t perfected this, but I’ve realized that only I can prevent my own fires (cue Smokey Bear’s deep voice) and managing my time is a key step to move from reactive to proactive. Do you have any tips you’d like to share?
 
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