Dealing with Time Robbers: Being effective in busy environments

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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You have almost certainly experienced time robbers. They are the sneaky self-generated and external factors that prevent you being really productive. Here Isobel Tynan discusses how to deal with them.

A day in the office

Picture the scene. You are at your work space bright and early on a Monday morning, poised over your laptop, a to-do list at hand. Then, as the day progresses, there is a meeting that actually you didn’t really need to go, which overran. Next a normally routine query takes 20 minute. After that your boss unexpectedly asks you to pull together data for an important client meeting that’s just come up.

By that evening, as you prepare to leave the office your to-do list looks as tired as you feel. You have had another very busy day, but you don’t feel like you achieved anything at all.

According to Teresa Amabile, a professor at Harvard Business School, this is all too common. She argues that, “overload is the standard condition in most organizations.” As a result, people spent their days “fire fighting” – resolving the latest crisis or deadline without ever getting ahead of the work flow.

Time management bootcamp

For many of us time management can seem impossible to master. I decided to put myself through my own version of time management bootcamp. I wanted to see what I could learn, apply and leverage.

My first port of call was to get an overview of my time resource utilisation. What aspects of my time served me well? What were the main areas for development?

Mind Tools have fantastic resources to get you started. The first thing I tried was their How Good is Your Time Management? quiz. This will help you identify what aspects of time management you most need help with. It clarifies the main development areas. For example,

  • Goal setting
  • Prioritization
  • Managing interruptions
  • Procrastination
  • Scheduling
  • How are you spending your day?

I then undertook their highly recommended daily discipline. Over a period of two weeks I completed an activity sheet every day. This meant noting down each activity and how long it took. I got into the habit of writing down at the end of each hour what I’d been doing.

Prior to doing this I had created (another Mind Tools resource) my priority to do list. In addition, I ranked each day’s items in order of importance.

This practice is incredibly insightful. It really focused my attention on where my time resource went each day. It also highlighted the reality of busyness vs actual achievement.

What are the time robbers?

Completion of the daily activity sheet provided an additional benefit. It identified some of my time robbers.

Typically external time robbers might include:

  • Meetings: Was there an agenda? Did you need to be there?
  • E-mail and phone interruptions
  • Other people’s deadlines
  • Responding to crises

Self-generated time robbers tend to cover those habits that impede our productivity. Examples of these are:

  • Over-commitment (saying yes to everything)
  • Lack of organisation and planning
  • Procrastination
  • Confused responsibilities
  • No system of self-accountability

These lists are not exclusive and, no doubt, you’ll have your own specific factors. One tip I found worthwhile was to note down your top three most common time wasters. And which one will you get the most benefit from eliminating?

Prioritise work that is ‘important but not urgent’

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey classifies work tasks according to whether they are important or urgent. He notes that many of us spend the majority of our time on tasks that are urgent and important. These include “fire fighting” – responding to crises, and others’ demands at short notice.

Sometimes this is necessary. However, the best way to ensure that we’re using our time wisely is to concentrate on work tasks that are important but not urgent. Therefore, we should focus on the tasks and projects that are most important to us. We do this rather than reacting to other people’s demands.

The more you focus on dealing with important tasks before they become urgent the fewer ‘urgent and important’ tasks you will have to deal with. The best way to do this is to work on the most important tasks first thing every day. Then, regardless of what distractions and interruptions come along, you will have made some progress.

Pareto Principle

Named after Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, the Pareto Principle (or the 80-20 Rule) concludes that 80% of output comes from 20% of the effort. What this means for time management is that to optimise your efforts you should focus your time and energy as much possible on the high payoff tasks.

This means that you achieve the greatest benefit possible with the limited amount of time available. A quick way of doing this is to ask with each task: “Is this in the top 20% of my activities or bottom 80%?”

This helps you to favour the higher value tasks.

From multitasking to mono-tasking

While we may believe we are effectively doing two things at once, the reality is we’re actually switching between tasks. It’s estimated that it can take our brains up to twenty minutes to re-focus on the original task after being interrupted. Instead of trying to respond to everything it makes sense (and is more enjoyable) to fully absorb yourself in one task for a period of time.

Batching Tasks

One quick way of making it easier to focus on one job at a time is batching tasks of a similar nature together and doing them all at once.

To-do lists

Instead of having a lengthy to-do list, keep tasks to a daily maximum of three tasks. Focus completely on those and only those. While initially it may seem strange to exclude other tasks, focusing completely on three makes it more likely you will complete them, and you will have achieved something at the end of your day.

In summary, the main learning points for me were as follows:

  • Time is a finite resource and if you don’t plan how you want to use it other people will.
  • Optimise your time by identifying your important tasks and progressing these each day.
  • Identify and reduce the impact of your own time robber.

Anne Sexton

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