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Take Control of Your Time

Sean Spurgin

I got up yesterday and started work with the best of intentions. I walked into my home office with a clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish. Then I sat down, turned on my laptop, and checked my email! Three hours later, after fighting several fires, I could hardly remember what I had set out to accomplish that morning. I’d been ambushed. I was not taking control of my time. And I should know better. It reminded me of a story Stephen Covey used to tell…..

Walking through the forest one day, I saw a man busy chopping a tree down…. 

The man was still busily swinging his axe to cut the tree down when I walked past him on my return journey.   

“How long have you been trying to cut the tree down?”

“I can’t stop to chat… I’m busy trying to cut the tree down.”

“But your axe is blunt.”

“I can’t stop…..I need to get the tree down.”  

“Why don’t you just stop now and sharpen your axe?”

“I can’t stop…..I need to get the tree down before it gets dark.”  

Later still

“Did you get the tree down?”

“No, I’ll start again in the morning.”

“So I guess you could sharpen your axe now?”

Well, it’s nearly halfway, and I’ve got all day tomorrow, so I don’t think I’ll need to.”  

Feel familiar? How many of us stop to sharpen the axe?  

It’s easy to work more hours than ever before whilst not being as productive as we should be. But working longer and harder is not the answer if you want to keep your sanity. If we want to avoid becoming busy fools, we need to focus on the right priorities.  

Each day only has 24 hours and we can’t sustainably work through all of them. Acknowledging this can be tremendously empowering. Once we admit that we aren’t going to get it all done, we’re in a much better position to make choices about what we are going to do. Instead of letting things fall through the cracks, we can intentionally push the unimportant things aside and focus our energy on the things that matter most.   

When it comes to managing our time there are many things we can do, here a few ideas that have worked for me:  

  1. Take accountability, recognise that everything that happens to you is your responsibility. The buck stops with you! Set aside time to plan and really think about where you spending your time. Are you focused on the right things – watch this great video (Based on a Stephen Covey video)
  2. Everyone’s heard of the “To-Do List.” Whether you use Outlook, a dedicated task manager, or scrap paper, the idea is the same: you list in priority order the items you want to get done. Simple. Until you have more items that you can physically get done. Enter the “Not-To-Do List.” The idea is to list all the activities you are intentionally going to stop doing for the sake of greater productivity. Remember that it’s impossible to get everything done. Also remember that odds are good that 20 percent of your thoughts, conversations and activities produce 80 percent of your results.
  3. Focus on what you can influence, stuff that is in your control. Stephen Covey’s ‘circle of influence’ is a powerful and simple tool to help you think about where you spend your energy. Focusing on the things in our circle of concern is not the way to go!
  4. Don’t procrastinate. Do it, delegate it or dump it. Be decisive. Don’t sit there wondering where to start. Get started. Don’t just do what you find easy and in your comfort zone. Do what’s effective. Do what’s needed. Complete most important tasks first. This is the golden rule. Each day, identify the two or three tasks that are the most crucial to complete and do those first. Check out this great video on why we procrastinate –
  5. Interruptions – Make sure that you factor in time for interruptions. The phone will ring, unexpected emails will arrive. If you try to book in appointment after appointment, with no breathing space, you will always fall behind. Decide on the importance of the interruption and be prepared to tell the intruder to come back at a better time – or go to them! On a daily basis, evaluate the importance of every urgent interruption. Only change your plan if the urgent activity is also more important.
  6. Assertiveness – This one was tough for me, but it has made a big difference. Learn to say NO – not ‘I’ll consider’ it or ‘Come back to me, next week’. Be prepared to say ‘no’ to things that impinge on your time and are not important. 
  7. Plan – “Plans are nothing, planning is everything,” Eisenhower said, it is the act of thinking and planning which is more important than the actual plan. Build time into your diary every week to spend at least a couple of hours to think and plan. Making plans is relatively easy: the hard part is the execution of the plan.
  8. Break habits – We have 60,000 thoughts a day, 90% is the same as yesterday. It easy to fall into habit and sleepwalk through the day. Small changes can make a big difference, just because meetings normally start at 10 am and last for 60 minutes in the conference room it doesn’t mean that’s the right formula. Try different durations, locations and times depending on the urgency and desired outcome.
  9. Be ruthless with meetings. Always set an agenda and a finishing time. Don’t let them drag on or allow participants to go off on tangents. The average office worker spends around 16 hours in meetings each week, but a quarter of this time is usually wasted. Use a meeting structure, see my blog around the PPCCR process
  10. Leave buffer time in-betweenDon’t pack everything close together. Leave a 5-10 minute buffer time in between each task. This helps you wrap up the previous task and start off on the next one.