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Getting Knowledge Work to Done

Mike Cohn at Mountain Goat Software takes on the idea of Getting to Done.

Cohn’s insightful post is focused on scrum as a software development process but applies to self-management and knowledge work. Let me explain how.

Cohn’s post considers four ways that completing work helps us. He defends the position that it is better to finish five tasks and leave five unstarted than it is to make partial progress on ten tasks. Here are the four ideas. I’ve changed the emphasis of the fourth and added a fifth:

Finishing gives faster feedback. In delivering software applications, feedback is critical. We get an idea what users want and try to build it. We think we’ve done a respectable job, but never really know until the users get their hands on that part of the application, use it, and let us know. Knowledge work is similar. We never really know how good a job we’ve done until we implement the new or improved process and measure the results or deliver the completed report and get feedback. Neither of these can be done with a partially finished knowledge work task.

Finishing gives faster payback. In software, an unfinished feature is similar to inventory and work-in-progress in a manufacturing plant. We have paid for the inputs, but cannot yet sell the product. Until we finish, we won’t get paid and we can’t cover the cost of the inputs. In knowledge work, we have used up some of our valuable attention, and perhaps our employer has paid for our time, but we don’t have anything that we can implement or deliver to recover those costs until we have finished the task.

Estimating progress on unfinished work is a hard problem. Software is well known for the “90% complete” problem. Software project managers have a running joke that programming tasks are “90% complete for 90% of the time”. Cohn’s post makes the point that this could be literally true in the programmer’s mind because as we make progress on a task, we find more detail about what needs to be done to actually complete the task. I believe this to be true of complex knowledge work tasks as well. Regardless, we are terrible at estimating how long things will take, particularly when the task is something we have never done before. On the other hand, we are great at knowing a task is unstarted, and decent at knowing when it is finished. In between, we are terrible at estimating how far we have come and how much we have left to do. And (see the next point) the more partially finished tasks we have, the worse we are at figuring out when they will all be done.

Work should be “not started” or “done” with nothing in between. Here, I’ll emphasize a different point than Cohn’s post. While we are working on a product, a software feature, or a knowledge work task, it is in a very complex state. A finished task is conceptually very simple; an unstarted task is slightly more complicated, but still relatively simple. A partially finished task is the most complex by far as we must keep track of the moving parts within the task.
Imagine a factory with lots of work-in-progress. When we stop work while Product A is unfinished, we must put it away somewhere, clean and reset the tools, and get out the plans/instructions for Product B. When we restart work on Product A, we must find where we put it away, figure out where we left off, take it to its next machine, and reset the tools. Only then can we get it finished and shipped. All these tasks are unproductive, and thus waste.
There is similar waste in “reloading” a complex knowledge work task. I’ll illustrate with a complex writing task. Imagine we’ve set aside a partially complete version of Report A to work on Report B. When we return to work on Report A, we must complete several steps just to get ready to move it along. We must find the right version and figure out the page where we left off. We must get out our supporting materials or refind a web page we are referring to. We must get into a similar mental state as we had when we left off. I call these steps “reloading” the task. This reloading may take seconds for a very simple task, but can take several minutes for a complex task. Also, reloading is a cognitively demanding, mistake-prone task, so it uses up some of the brainpower that we could use to complete the report. Finally, we know reloading is hard, so it gives us another reason to procrastinate and turn to simpler, less important work.

Finally, I’ll add a new point: The psychology of starting. We feel somewhat relieved when we’ve started a task. Depending on our work culture, reporting that we haven’t started may be associated with ignoring work. Therefore, we feel bad about not starting. So, it may be challenging to adopt the “not started or done” mindset. However, I guarantee that, as a boss, I’d rather have something complete than nothing. If you deliver five complete out of ten, at least I can move five projects along. If you deliver zero complete out of ten, I’m helpless. In addition, over time, the “not started or done” mindset will help your boss think hard about the priority of individual tasks. This will get the whole team working on the problem of having multiple number one priorities.

The expenses and challenges associated with work-in-progress are well known in the manufacturing world. Cohn’s post shows similar challenges in the world of agile software development. I hope I have made the point that work-in-progress is also expensive and challenging in everyday knowledge work. Get finished, or don’t start. Devote your attention to a single task, Get to Done what you can, and deliver it, even if some of your tasks make no progress.

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Time According to Drucker’s Watch

qtq80-KJjZNvI just finished reading The Essential Drucker. If you don’t know who Peter Drucker was, you probably should, because he was a leading thinker on organizations and management. He also coined the term knowledge worker more than fifty years ago. He wrote about how the advent of the knowledge worker would change the nature of executive and managerial work, along with the structure of organizations. Drucker – Wikipedia

I find all of his writing instructive. The Effective Executive (for example) is a 50-year-old treatise on the job of an executive in the modern corporation and one of the handful of nonfiction books that I reread occasionally.

Essential includes a chapter titled “Know Your Time,” which describes practices for time management. While decades old, it is particularly useful. In this post, I’ll summarize the main points.

Summary

Time is a unique resource. It is completely perishable. In the “accomplishment” process, there is no substitute for time as an input. It takes an instant to have the “aha” solution to a problem, but it takes time to get to the point of understanding the problem well enough to have the “aha”.

We are terrible judges of how we have used time in the past. Invariably, we need a time log, an audit, to tell us how we have spent our time over the last few weeks or months.

The time demands

Much of what we spend time on is unproductive, even if it is work. Our organizations require communication, which is rarely done efficiently. We must build relationships with each other, which cannot be done in an urgent manner.

However, knowledge work requires large chunks of time. Creating a presentation from scratch needs a fairly large chunk to get started, then editing can be done in smaller time increments. Strategic thinking and problem solving need large chunks. Getting work done through other people, the primary task of an executive, requires chunks. Any deep work, by definition, needs sizable chunks.

Time diagnosis

While we have been recording time for manual work since the start of the 20th century, we do not normally record time for knowledge work. But time is more important for the knowledge worker than it is for the manual worker. It is simply easier to record for manual workers.

So, effective knowledge workers track their time. The details of the method are not important, but the act of recording time is the first essential step in analyzing how we use it. Time tracking needs to be done for fairly long periods, weeks or a month, in order to account for daily and weekly variation. And our time drifts toward trivia, so tracking needs to be done routinely, at least a couple of times per year. Once we have recorded our time use, we analyze it for three areas of time use:

  1. Identify and eliminate things that don’t need to be done at all. There are probably more of these things than your memory will let you see. Some thought is usually required as our default is to be lazy and simply declare that things “have to be done”. It is fairly easy to test the assumption – stop doing it for a while and see if anyone notices.
  2. Identify and assign things that could be done by others. This is not exactly delegation, but a complete giving over of authority to another person. Again, we have to be tough on ourselves here as the lazy way out is to default to “I have to do it”. Perhaps the task needs to be tweaked or better automated before we completely hand it off.
  3. Identify and eliminate things that we do that waste others’ time. The only way to do this is to ask the honest question of our peers and direct reports. As leaders, when we ask for reports and status meetings, we must be ruthless with ourselves about the need for them. Again, our default is the enemy here. People likely need less oversight than we think and will ask for it if we don’t offer.

Pruning the time wasters

Having dealt with the things we have individual authority over, we now turn to those things that are organizational in nature. Organizational misalignment and poor structure waste everyone’s time, but primarily the time of leadership. Now we analyze our time record for four areas of concern:

  1. Identify the “routine crises”. These represent a lack of system or a lack of foresight. After the second occurrence of a crisis, we should assume that it will become routine if we don’t do something systemic to prevent it. Budget cycles, seasonal sales, release cycles, and recurring external events, such as employee turnover may trigger these broken processes that need to be fixed. Well-designed work and organizations should normally lack drama.
  2. Over-staffing wastes time. In an overstaffed organization people collide with each other too often. This results in jurisdictional disputes, politics, and other signs that people are in each others’ way. Knowledge workers need to be able to do their work with a minimum of explaining to others and asking permission. If the leadership of the organization spends more than a small fraction, say 10%, of their time on these kinds of issues, overstaffing may be the cause.
  3. Poor organization shows up in excess meetings. Meetings are caused by a need to exchange information. In a perfect world, everyone would know what they need to know to get their job done. However, we live in an imperfect world. Nevertheless, good meeting discipline requires severely limiting the number of meetings. I would add that some meetings may be caused by having hired staff that are unequal to their task and consistently require the help or advice of others to get anything done.
  4. Poor distribution of information wastes time. Routine calls for information and “bystanding” in meetings to see if there’s “something I need to know” can be eliminated by setting up proper distribution channels and creating meeting discipline.

Solutions to these seven kinds of problems may be obvious once they are noticed. Or they may require a long, disciplined effort. But the result of this work is useful for the entire organization, especially in terms of time recovered.

Consolidating discretionary time

The key to consolidation is to move things around to create the needed chunks of time. The problem is that this is a perpetual need. Non-discretionary time expands; new meetings are called; new crises pop up. Therefore, effective knowledge workers need to be consistently vigilant over their schedules.

Finally, it is difficult to know when knowledge work tasks, done during the chunks of discretionary time, are finished. We all have perfectionist tendencies and overdo. If we create 10 hours of discretionary time per week, but use it poorly, we are really no better off. Think in terms of deadlines for discretionary projects. Time box efforts and stick to the time allotted. Understand what is the minimum effective product and move on when it has been achieved.

I would add that attention management is a requisite skill in time management. If we can’t stay focused on tasks we set ourselves during discretionary time, we are not using it well. After, perhaps, decades of fragmented attention use, our ability to focus intently for periods of time may be weak. Don’t forget to defend your attention when entering into periods of discretionary time.

Time is more scarce than any other commodity. So it should be used more carefully than any other. The first step is a time audit.

Question: Have you ever audited your time? If so, let us know one key insight you gleaned. If not, perhaps now would be a good time to start. If you do, come back and share your insights.

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Are You an Overwhelmed Leader?

The overwhelmed employee: Simplify the work environment
(Deloitte University Press report, 2014)

There’s lots of good information in this report, but one idea stands out for me: whether leadership in the organization is able to manage their own attention effectively. As a leader, your followers mimic your work style. If you are, or appear to be, overloaded, they assume that this is the state of the world and accept their own overloadedness. After all, if the senior managers can’t handle this situation gracefully, why would the “underlings” believe they can. In fact, Peter Drucker wrote (The Effective Executive, 2006) “Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates.” Drucker found that management works by example, with new leaders modeling the behaviors of their leaders. He is supported by many others; here is a recent HBR on the effect of leaders’ behavior on organizational culture.

From the Deloitte report: “Nearly six in ten respondents (57 percent) say their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information [and schedules]”. Note that these were two separate questions in the survey, so both employees and leaders are struggling with managing knowledge work.

I’ve coached through this situation in the past. Good attention management usually starts at the top of the organization.

As a leader, you need to think carefully about whether your attention management practices are worthy of emulation. Because, whether you want them to or not, your employees are using you for an example. Have conversations with your employees about good practices and the state of their attention and focus.

As an employee, you need to think carefully about your own attention management practices and not default to copying behaviors in the organization. Your leadership and colleagues may have very intentional and thoughtful systems. On the other hand, they may cringe if you copy behaviors that leave them overloaded themselves. Again, the leadership of the firm should foster conversation around this issue, but if your organization is one of the 57%, you may have to take the lead.

Question: Have you thought about developing an attention and information management system to stave off overwhelm?

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How Productivity Training Is Being Done Poorly – A Pair of Articles

In a pair of posts on HBR, Maura Thomas discusses problems with training on time management and personal productivity. She finds that training people only to prioritize incoming tasks results in scattered attention and, overall, lower productivity. Instead, she advocates training for attention management. I agree, based on my experiences with clients, and sincerely hope this sounds familiar to those of you who consistently read my blog.

She finds here that productivity skills training should, but doesn’t normally, center around three components:

  1. Clarifying role-level priorities rather than task-level priorities (look for an upcoming blog post on roles vs. tasks)
  2. Training for attention management instead of “time” management
  3. Implementing a comprehensive workflow management system (and here)

She also notes here that, when adopting a new productivity system, people often start well, but fail to change their habits in the long term. She finds three underlying causes of this failure:

  1. Her clients are convinced that some old habits are necessary, despite the overall inefficiency of the old system. New habits, like single-tasking vs. multitasking, are logical and make sense, but our old habits and beliefs are hard to change.
  2. The local environment doesn’t support the necessary changes. We resist making the environmental changes necessary to support the new habit, primarily because we don’t understand the power of the environment on our behaviors. (Note: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is helpful to address this and the previous bullet.)
  3. They overthink the new system, making it too complex. Since the system is too complex and difficult, they revert to old (easier) habits under stress.

The core idea is that changing habits and workflow systems is hard work. We have to use our best tactics: small, incremental changes over time, remembering to make time for the overhead of using the new habit/system, and patience with ourselves when we mess up and fall back to the old system. David Allen says that it takes at least two months of diligent effort to achieve the “clarity” that results from application of GTD.

So, we have two issues:

We need to focus on the right things – roles and attention. I hope you see that focus in my posts.

We need perseverance and accountability for developing our new habits. The best way to do that is to get a coach or an accountability partner. If you’d like to discuss coaching, contact me. Otherwise, talk with some people who have your same desire to improve. Share this site with them. Start getting together at least once a week. Discuss how you’re each doing on adopting your new habits. Share your story in the comments.

Question: How have you been trained, or have trained yourself, in time management and personal productivity?

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Defending your attention

You do not operate in a helpful or neutral attention environment. The environment is hostile to your control of your attention. It sounds dramatic, but your attention is constantly under attack. This, as much as anything, shows that it is valuable.

Attacks come from three kinds of sources: yourself, your stakeholders, and non-stakeholders who believe your attention is valuable. Further, it is useful to classify attacks as either distractions, which come from you and your habits, or interruptions, which come from others.

Distractions are internal. We cause them ourselves. We need to set aside mental space and defend it fiercely, even from ourselves. I believe what David Allen says – if we put our “stuff” in a trusted place, our brains will stop offering up distractions. So, how are you organizing your “stuff” to defend against distracting yourself?

Our habits both cause distractions and serve as our primary defense against them. If your habit is to check email or Facebook first, you are opening up your attention defenses to attack. If, in preparing for deep work, you shut down your browser and tidy up your workspace, you are defending against distractions. How do your habits and processes help defend your attention?

Interruptions are external. The phone rings, or someone stops by your office with a question. They are a common fact of life for everyone. These kinds of interruptions need defenses as well. Close your email client; put your phone on silent, or in airplane mode. Teach your stakeholders how to get attention requests into the proper queue. How do you defend your attention against random interruptions?

Leaders are more likely to be exposed to interruptions by the nature of their work. But leaders also normally have the power to delegate tasks. Take stock of your interruptions and see if there is some weakness in your delegation processes. One clear sign is that the people you delegate to don’t have the level of authority they need. What defenses have you put in place to guard your attention as a leader?

Your attention is valuable and people are trying to get it. Some of those people are legitimate stakeholders. They deserve your attention, at least at some point. Others are not stakeholders, but want to be; you need to choose when and how they get your attention. Requests for your attention from the web and email probably don’t deserve as much of your attention as they currently get. Finally, you probably distract yourself. If so, you can defend through getting the stuff in your skull out into a system and choosing better habits. We all need to prepare our defenses – delegation, habits, and systems – as much as we can. And we need to do it in advance.

Question: What are you doing in advance to defend your attention against constant distractions and interruptions?

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Deep Work by Cal Newport

qtq80-VjzbQmI have followed Cal Newport for several years now. He earned a Ph.D. in computer science at MIT and is now a tenured professor at Georgetown. He was doing his doctoral work at the same time I was and seemed to have good advice on how to go about earning a degree without going completely insane. He has since published a pair of great books: So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I’ll post on So Good later, but my thinking about attention management is closely tied to his notion of deep work, so I wanted to cover the topic and the book for my readers’ reference.

Deep Work explains one way in which work is changing. With the rise of knowledge work, Newport sees a division of labor among knowledge workers. Much of knowledge work is what he calls shallow work. Shallow work is the administrative side of knowledge work, including managing email and other communication, organizing, editing, and non-directed surfing on the internet.

In contrast, deep work is the work knowledge workers produce when they are at their best. This is the demanding problem solving, strategizing, proving-new-things kind of work that produces value. It is valuable in the economy because it is hard to replicate and to the worker because it improves the worker’s skills. Deep work occurs in relatively isolated extended chunks of time. We work to get our heads around the entire problem, chapter, or situation and, when we finally do, make progress on the really difficult part of our work. It is the kind of work that, if interrupted, takes a significant amount of time to restart because we have to regain the mental state that was lost due to the interruption.

Newport argues that, in order to produce value, we need to spend more time in deep work.

The problem is that social and technological forces move us toward shallow work. Three prevailing, but questionable, ideas push us toward shallow work: We can multitask and still produce our best work (we can’t). We have to be available for communication at all times (probably not). Social sites and most of the internet produce valuable information (they don’t usually). Newport acknowledges that exceptions exist, but generally argues that these three ideas are not true. Finally, he notes another force toward shallow work – our brains favor shallow work because it is cognitively easier, requiring less mental effort and concentration.

Newport argues that deep work is valuable, increasingly rare, and more meaningful than shallow work.

The value of deep work is based on two of its properties: it allows us to quickly master hard things and it allows us to produce more output of higher quality. It is increasingly important to do these things as we face cognitive computing and the automation of manual and some craft work.

The rarity of deep work is based on cultural arguments. 1) Workplaces are trending toward open offices, instant messaging use, and increased insistence on social media presence, each of which hampers deep work efforts. 2) Particularly in large organizations, it is difficult to directly measure the contribution of deep work; this supports the cult of busyness, in which visible, but shallow, contributions are often rewarded. 3) The cult of the internet believes that something is irrelevant if it is not visible.

In support of the meaningfulness of deep work, Newport makes three different arguments, backed by research.

  1. Neurology – Managing our attention through engaging in deep work keeps us focused away from the traps (e.g. the comparison trap) that tend to make us discontent.
  2. Psychology – Our minds prefer to be engaged in deep work; we like to be challenged and get bored quickly with routine tasks and what currently passes for leisure.
  3. Philosophy – Deep work promotes a sense of craftsmanship (the technical version is elegance) which endows our work with meaning far beyond simply earning money.

Newport finds that, in order to engage in deep work, we need to be in relatively distraction free environments. He cites many examples of authors, academics, and scientists who produced world-changing work, in part, because they removed themselves from distraction rich environments. In part 2, Newport lays out four rules that help us determine what is deep work in our context and help us focus on it. This is the point where my work connects to his – attention management. Much of part 2 relates to thinking on this site.

Rule 1 covers methods of entering into deep work periods. We need to defend our attention while we are trying to work deeply.

Rule 2 shows ways that we can improve our deep work stamina. We need to train ourselves to focus and concentrate, particularly since if we have been engaging in shallow work for years.

Rule 3 is about our communication tools. We need to be more selective about what we engage with on the internet through recognizing that not all tools are of equal value.

Rule 4 considers removing shallow work. We need to identify shallow work in our lives and work to eliminate it; Newport gives a couple dozen tips and practices to try in our work lives.

The book concludes with a short description of how development and application of deep work principles have fueled Newport’s quite successful academic career to date. That evidence alone should be sufficient motivation to bring some deep work into our lives.

Cal continues to elaborate on these ideas on his blog. In addition, Brett McKay interviewed Cal on the Art of Manliness podcast, here.

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Noise and Attention

In previous posts, I’ve talked about Urgent vs. Important and using the Eisenhower Matrix.  I wrote these to introduce a mental model of how to mange our attention and be more productive, both personally and professionally. I want to consider another topic in this vein: Noise. (Note: much of this thinking was triggered by a post on A Life of Productivity by Chris Bailey, check it out. The core thoughts come from Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman.)

As knowledge workers, our attention is our most important productive tool. In my attempt to manage my own attention, I try to evaluate how I’ve used my attention in the past. In one instance several years ago, I recognized that listening to talk radio during my afternoon commute (politics, in particular) frittered away my attention. So, I stopped listening to it. I’ll lay out the logic of my decision after I outline the definition of information as noise.

Bailey cites four traits of noise from Before Happiness, by Shawn Achor (which I have not read):

It is unusable, or not actionable.

It is untimely, and will likely change before it can be acted upon.

It is hypothetical, rumors or opinions with an unknowable level of truth.

It is distracting, diverting attention from information that may actually be actionable.

  • Let’s look at my drive time political talk shows through this lens:
    The information I consumed was unusable, partly because it’s scope was national, but mostly because it was repetitive and merely reinforced opinions I already held.
  • Outside of an election cycle, the opinions and positions expressed were untimely.
  • Since the information was solely based on individuals’ opinions it was highly hypothetical.
  • It felt like I was using my attention in a good way, but I wasn’t. My attention was distracted from acquiring other information that may have been actionable for me.

After I changed my listening habits to books on tape and music, I found that I was consuming actionable information, or at least calming, cheerful, enjoyable music – clearly a better way of using my scarce attention.

When we consume noise, we lose attention that could be focused on gathering actionable information. Take a minute and think about how you are using your attention.

Question: Can you eliminate some of the information noise around you and use that attention to improve your mind or your mood?

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Using the Eisenhower Matrix – Urgent vs. Important

As a follow up to a previous post on time stealers, I thought I would do a more detailed post on urgent and important.

Things that are urgent are attempting to get our attention. Whether we give them our attention is a crucial choice. As knowledge workers, our attention is our valuable creative resource. If we unintentionally fritter it away on unimportant tasks (whether urgent or not), we are wasting that resource.

Once we see the difference between urgent and important, we intuitively understand that we should put our attention on the important tasks and information. If an item is not urgent and not important, we know we should stop doing it, or ignore it. It is not demanding our attention (not urgent) and does not produce progress toward our goals (not important). So quadrant IV (Q-IV from the Eisenhower Matrix) items are easy to eliminate, as long as we have identified what is important.

Important is a particularly personal decision. If an item helps us make progress toward our goals, it is important. But since the goals are ours, we don’t really need anyone’s agreement on this and few people can change the level of importance without our agreement. So if you think an item is truly important, go to work on it.

Urgent is different in that the level of urgency can be manipulated by people other than you. Salespeople and advertisers make a very good living using urgency to get our attention. Anyone anywhere in the world can put something into your email inbox or ring your phone. Junk mail is often marked “Urgent!” Your boss can make something urgent pretty quickly.

The tricky part of focusing on the important is identifying those items that are urgent and not important. This decision takes your attention, although sometimes not much. We can manage many of the items in this quadrant with tools and delegation. In years past, executives had assistants whose job, in part, was to assess urgent items for importance. Now we have spam filters and unsubscribe buttons. Work to allow urgent and not important items to identify themselves so you never have to see them, or can identify them quickly.

So, having eliminated the non-important, how should you allocate your attention? Q-I or Q-II (from the Eisenhower Matrix)? In order to understand that, we need to understand how urgency works over time.

urgency vs time

As you can see in the picture above, I argue that important items get more urgent with time, while not important items get less urgent. This means that Q-II items move to Q-I over time, while Q-III items move to Q-IV. Some people use this fact intentionally – I am aware of individuals who never respond to the first request for information or effort, but let some time pass. “If it is important, they’ll call me back,” thus letting “them” determine the urgency. Nevertheless, I suggest that these people are causing themselves a problem in that no one does their best work when the task is urgent. Deadlines cause us to cut corners. In fact, my new definition of panic is “doing things you know you shouldn’t do, due to time pressure.”

Therefore, working on Q-II items has two benefits: you have time to do better work, and fewer items get into Q-I. Therefore, over time, you gain ground on the pile of Q-I items. You can’t eliminate them completely; other people can and do wait until something is urgent before they make you aware of it. However, you can make a significant dent reasonably quickly.

The bottom line is: identify what is important so you can categorize items according to their quadrant. Then take time from Q-IV to address Q-II items and build defenses and processes to handle or identify Q-III items. Then, use the combined savings from Q-III and Q-IV to address even more Q-II items. Then utilize the additional time from fewer Q-I items to continue to address Q-II items.

Question: How much time are you able to spend in the important, but not urgent quadrant?

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Time Stealers

Sometimes, in order to discuss a problem, we need common terms – a vocabulary. The problem I would like to discuss is efficient use of time. Which activities should I engage in to meet my goals? Which activities (time stealers) should I avoid. I’ll try to start a discussion of the problem by contributing and defining a couple of applicable terms: urgent and important.

We commonly get confused by the similarity of these terms, so I’ll start by defining them (per www.mindtools.com). An activity is urgent when it demands your attention; it makes you feel that you need to deal with it now. An activity is important when it leads to meeting your goals, including your goals for and with others. The confusion arises because these two separate notions are often true about the same activity. Many activities are important and urgent, but many activities lack one or both qualities.

Let’s consider some examples: a ringing phone or a crying baby are both urgent. They demand our attention. But are they important? It is hard to tell without more information. The ringing phone may be your spouse calling to tell you that the car is broken down (important), or it may be a salesperson trying to talk to you about a “special deal” on a cruise package (not important). The crying baby may be your child who has fallen down and skinned her knee (important), or it may be someone else’s child being fussy about too much time at the mall (not important).

In this sense, we can think about activities in a matrix as follows:

Image

(Stephen Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, via http://www.usgs.gov/humancapital/documents/TimeManagementGrid.pdf)

For our purposes, time stealers are those activities in the bottom half of the matrix.

I hope you can think more clearly about the activities you engage using these definitions. You’re probably thinking “Great, now all I have to do is figure out what is important. How would I do that?” Stay tuned, this thinking has broad implications on how we plan and best utilize our time. In the near term, I will post in more detail on how to manage time based on these definitions, including how to identify important information and tasks.

Question: How do you currently differentiate between important and not important?

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