Forget the Immediate, Focus on What's Important

The key to better time management is establishing priorities and enforcing boundaries

May 26, 2010

We often lament the fact that there are “not enough hours in the day,” as if having a few extra hours would enable us to finish everything on our plates and carve out some time for non-work activities that make us feel happy and fulfilled. The reality, however, is that if we had those extra few hours a day, most of us would simply fill it up with additional things to do, rather than use it to relax and recharge. What we really need is not more time, but a better and more holistic approach to managing the time we have; one that involves better prioritization and the establishment of boundaries to make sure that we stay on track.

Setting Priorities

Effective time management starts with prioritization. One way to prioritize is to distinguish between important work and the “urgent” busy work that eats up most of the average workday. Important work consists of tasks that move you and the organization closer to key long-term strategic goals. Busy work, on the other hand, consists of short-term, often one-off activities with a misleading sense of urgency. We often equate busy work with “putting out fires.” It includes things like urgent emails and last-minute requests that elicit reactive rather than proactive responses, and fail to do anything to get us closer to our business and personal objectives. The problem is that we are drawn to busy work because it is usually short in duration and involves an immediacy that makes us feel productive and important, even though our time would be better spent working on other more impactful projects and initiatives with a longer shelf-life.

In order to focus on what is truly important, make a list of everything you have to do over the next week – including recreation and personal activities. Then select the 5 most important things from that list each day and commit to completing them. Make sure your short list includes a few items just for you. If your workplace inspires the kind of frantic “fire-fighting” that distracts from the strategically impactful, you will need to implement and enforce a strong set of boundaries to help you stay the course.

Enforcing Boundaries

Boundaries involve setting limits so that we keep important time commitments, including those we make with ourselves. They keep us from allowing other people’s crises and poor planning from negatively impacting our game-plan. Learn to say ‘no’, or give realistic timelines when ‘no’ is not an option.  Build in time on your schedule to step away from email and IM, and work on an important task. Give yourself at least an hour.  If the internet is too much of a temptation, turnoff your wireless adapter, or unplug your Ethernet cable. You should also schedule at least a half hour once a week to reflect on your progress and plan for the week ahead.

Guard these times and approach them with the same level of commitment that you apply to a meeting with your boss. Put them on your calendar and don’t overbook them. If you have an office, close the door so that you are not interrupted. Otherwise, seek out a quiet place that is free of distractions.