Cell phones ring, visitors drop in, e-mail comes rolling across the screen. Maintaining focus can be a challenge, and the challenge is only becoming worse in this age of constant and instant availability.
One of my favorite books is The Effective Executive by management guru Peter Drucker. Despite its 1966 copyright date, it remains a hallmark book on time management. One of my favorite passages is this one:
“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours.” (Page 29)
While opportunities to fragment our day increase, the fact remains that nothing of much worth is going to be accomplished without some degree of focus. How can we create the “chunks” of time in an age that so desperately tries to fragment our lives? Below are five suggestions:
- Allow things to “pile up” and handle them in one group. This technique applies to such things as e-mail, voice mail, and the U.S. mail.
- Stay ahead of deadlines. When we bump up against deadlines, we are invariably causing problems for other people. Naturally, they call, e-mail, and drop by for a “status report.” Staying ahead of the game eliminates the need for others to “check up” on you, and provides more time to focus on the project at hand.
- Visit other people on your own time schedule. If drop-in visits from the same few people are a problem, drop in on them first. In this way, you are doing it on your schedule. As a principal, I made it a point to be in the halls before the start of school and circulate through the building. If a teacher had a quick question, my presence coming down the hall provided the perfect opportunity. Those quick interactions in the hall reduced the number of interruptions throughout the day.
- Plan your work, and make it easy. We interrupt ourselves. We often do so by turning from the difficult job at hand to some diversion that is easier and more fun. To combat that temptation, make what is at hand easy, and hopefully make it fun as well. Break the overwhelming goal down into manageable tasks that are clearly worded. All too often, the to-do list contains items which have rolled from day to day simply because they are ambiguous. Clear up the ambiguity by making decisions and asking questions.
- Group related tasks. Grouping applies to more than e-mail and voice mail. When a few quick face-to-face meetings are needed, handle them all in a group. Go from one person to the next as you make your way through the building. Do the same with errands. Once you get in the car, go from one to the other.
When our work is easy, interesting, and fun, there is less temptation to succumb to the interruptions in our lives. Focused or fragmented? It’s a choice. Nobody is going to protect our time. That one is up to us.