Four Ways to Use Time Constraints to Improve Personal Productivity
In recent weeks I’ve been writing a lot about constraints at the project level. This blog is more about improving personal productivity. In it, I offer four ways to use time constraints to your advantage. After all, it’s hard to be productive at work if you are constantly distracted by personal demands.
Years ago, I wrote a blog about why I try to keep my productivity strategy very simple. I’ve found that when the strategy is too complicated, I spend too much time making my system attractive. And then, I don’t get the work that matters done. And so, I went to tracking everything in one calendar appointment — in the notes field. It was quite effective. Google’s search power allowed me to quickly figure out whether I had paid that bill, finished that client report, or resolved that outstanding problem.
I recently read a post by Nir Eyal on why we should abandon task lists and manage everything in a calendar. While I still keep a task list, it is oriented around my calendar. If you have no time to do something that you are thinking about, why keep it on an ever-growing list of tasks that just makes you feel deflated and dissatisfied? Sometimes, I will have an idea that something needs doing and put it on my calendar for a year from now.
If you have no time to do something that you are thinking about, why keep it on an ever-growing list of tasks that just makes you feel deflated and dissatisfied? #todolist #projectmanagement #productivity #smartprojex
1 — Clearly define what you need to do and give yourself a limited amount of time
One of the biggest reasons that people get stuck and lose focus on what they want to do is because they don’t have clarity around what they need to finish. This is particularly true on your work activities, but it can also be true in your personal life.
For example, you might know that you want to clean out the garage. But is this task a simple ‘straighten up the garage’ task? Or are you planning to get rid of the worn-out tools that don’t work, or the dry rotted umbrella? And if you are talking about the latter option, do you plan to include the time it takes to find and order a new umbrella or chain saw? Or is that a different task that you need to remember to do? When you add a time constraint to the task, it forces clarity.
2 — Identify why you need to do it, and say no if you don’t have a compelling why
Long ago, I wrote on the need to find a compelling why for your project. And it’s just as important now as it was then.
In his book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell tells a story, as recounted in a television documentary about the Empire State Building. “Towards the end of the show, the interviewer talked with several guys in a huge basement trash room filled with the daily waste. One of the guys proudly declared: ‘Our job is to make sure that tomorrow morning when people from all over the world come to this wonderful building, it shines, it is clean, and it looks great.’ His job was to drag bags, but he knew his purpose. He didn’t feel he was just a trash hauler. His work was vital, and his purpose blended into the purpose of the building’s most senior management eighty floors above.” (p. 24)
The same logic applies to your personal life. Why are you cleaning out the garage? If you don’t have a compelling reason to do it, say no. Yes, I know there are some things that periodically must be done but ask yourself why. Maybe you just think they must be done. Use time constraints to help you understand what is most important.
3 — Know what’s important to you and how much time investment you want to make
I find it helpful to periodically assess my life in several areas of focus. For me, those areas of focus include (in no particular order) my two companies, family and friends, faith and fitness, community, financial affairs, and household. You may have totally different areas of focus. Once you decide on your areas of focus, ask yourself how much of your waking hours you want to invest in each of those areas.
Recognize that over time these numbers will change, even if the areas of focus remain the same. When your family needs or health needs increase, you may cut back on your community endeavors.
When you look for your why on a task, it helps to begin by asking whether the task you think is important is connected to one of your areas of focus.
It also helps to understand what your long-term goal is for each area of focus. For example, if financial affairs are an area of focus, do you want to get rich, or do you just want to not get audited by the IRS? Those are two very different goals, and your goal will influence how much time you want to invest in that area of focus. And recognize that these goals change periodically and must be reexamined.
4 — Track your time and learn from your observations
This is a piece of advice that I have been slow to adopt. But once I started tracking my time, I found it very enlightening. I’m not obsessive about it, but I recognize that I tend to over-research concepts or over-think questions. And so, I find it very helpful to allow myself a reasonable amount of time to accomplish a task — and hold myself to that number when possible.
What are your tendencies? I remember a project where one of the people on my team had a very large deliverable that he refused to dissect into manageable pieces. He said it wasn’t possible. I watched the work on this task grow larger and larger. And I wasn’t sure whether he was making real progress or not. I wasn’t the lead project manager on this project but as I raised more and more red flags, and asked more and more questions, the team began to get nervous. To this day, that project stands out in my mind.
One of the observations you may make is that you need to break your activities into more manageable chunks. Or you may observe that you always underestimate how long something will take. To use time constraints to your advantage, try these four suggestions.
Stay tuned for my next blog. In it, I will review some new software that I’ve been using that might help you improve your productivity, personally and professionally.