The following is a guest post by Don Martin, one of our Professional Services team's talented project managers.
As project managers, we have all been there before; for every item crossed off the to-do list, two more are added. Projects in the queue pile up and our dreams are haunted by impending deadlines. No matter how hard we try, the end is always just out of reach.
Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a one-size-fits-all solution to the classic problem of having too many projects and not enough time. That being said, I have discovered strategies to combat this problem and eliminate it entirely from most of my days. It is my belief that the core problem is not the quantity of work we have or the amount of time we have to do it. The core problem is how we spend the time we do have, and, dare I say, that we often spend it quite poorly. Today, I want to share with you three of the simplest but most effective strategies that have improved my time management skills and allowed me to experience more freedom and peace of mind at work.
The 2-Minute Rule
I’m a chronic list-maker and perhaps you are too. Lists can be a very positive tool. They are an easy way to visualize everything that needs to be done and in what order. Lists also allow you to free up your mind to focus on the task at hand by eliminating the need to keep a mental checklist.
Lists, however, can also be misused. Without boundaries, lists can become an obstacle to productivity rather than a tool. Let me explain. Chronic list-makers tend to write down everything that needs to be done. The immediate results are longer lists, more time spent making the lists and increased angst about the quantity of tasks that need to be completed. This can often leave a person fretting over whether they have written everything down and paralyzed not knowing where to begin.
Enter the 2-Minute Rule. The 2-Minute Rule states that if a task takes two minutes or less to complete, then it does not go on the to-do list. Instead, the task should immediately be completed. From my experience using this rule and helping others do the same, there are always two immediate consequences. Your to-do list will shrink by over 50% and you will find yourself more energized. The reason lists shrink by so much is that common list-fillers such as “email so-and-so” and “schedule such-and-such meeting” no longer make the cut. The increased energy comes from getting more accomplished in a shorter amount of time. This new energy is then able to be directed towards those projects and tasks that require every spare ounce of juice you can muster.
Eliminate Unnecessary Meetings
There are few things that can render a person’s day more unproductive than a schedule full of unnecessary meetings. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones that invariably start 5-10 minutes late while you either wait for someone to arrive or wait for IT to work out the technical issues of the video conferencing system. Then, when the meeting starts, the conversation is dominated by one or two vocal attendees while the rest of the group robotically nods their heads or sneaks peeks at their phones. Finally, at the end of the meeting, the next steps are arbitrarily assigned to the attendees and that one person who took vigilant notes promises to send an email summarizing the meeting. Oh yes, you know the meetings I am talking about.
Now, I am not prepared to state that all meetings are unnecessary, but I will argue they are often a complete waste of time. If you find yourself in far too many meetings that are zapping both your energy and the energies of your team, then consider following me down the path to eliminate unnecessary meetings from your life. For starters, when scheduling a meeting, I recommend asking yourself the following three questions before ever putting something on the calendar.
Question #1: Is the purpose of the meeting to provide an update to the attendees?
If yes, then consider replacing the meeting with an update via email or a memo instead. You will quickly find that the time spent typing and sending an update is drastically less than the time it takes to schedule a meeting, book a conference room, travel to and from the meeting, hold the meeting, and send a summary of the meeting. Let’s skip all the pomp and circumstance when possible and give yourself some much needed time back to your work day.
Question #2: Are there decisions that need to be made at the meeting?
If yes, first ask yourself who actually needs to be involved in the decision-making process. Odds are, only a subset of the original meeting attendees need to be involved. Second, consider alternative venues to make the decision. Oftentimes a quick phone call, email, or text is sufficient in obtaining the information needed to make the decision. If a larger group of people need to weigh in on a specific decision, consider creating a simple poll or survey that can be circulated electronically.
Question #3: Is there tangible work that needs to be completed at the meeting?
If yes, a meeting may be necessary. In this case, I have three challenges for you. One, only invite those who need to complete the work. This will eliminate extra noise in the room and give others who don’t need to attend time back to their work days. Two, think of how long you think the meeting should take and then cut the meeting time in half. This strategy forces everyone to stay focused on the task at hand and surprisingly yields more productive results. Lastly, have an agenda and stick to a hard start and stop time for the meeting. In doing so, you will set clear expectations for the meeting and allow the attendees to more accurately plan the rest of their time.
Work In Sprints
Tony Schwartz, an engagement consultant who has worked with the likes of Google,Facebook, and Coca-Cola wrote in the New York Times
“… it’s better to work highly focused for short periods of time, with breaks in between, than to be partially focused for long periods of time. Think of it as a sprint, rather than a marathon. You can push yourself to your limits for short periods of time, so long as you have a clear stopping point. And after a rest, you can sprint again.”
Tony speaks a truth that most of us know to be true but resist accepting. We are not able to stay productive for very long. This, however, does not stop us from trying. We convince ourselves that the more hours we work, the more work we will get done. This is simply not true. On the contrary, the results of this marathon mindset are sub-par work, increased tiredness, and decreased job satisfaction.
In place of these marathon days, the concept of working in sprints has emerged. Sprints should be no longer than 90 minutes and have clearly defined starting and stopping points. Distractions should also be kept at a minimum. This includes turning off your phone and shutting down your favorite instant messenger apps. Interruptions during a sprint can derail your focus and make it difficult to re-engage.
In between these sprints, it is equally important to take breaks. While mental energy is a renewable resource, it doesn’t refresh on its own; you must create the time and space to recharge. An effective break is one where you remove yourself physically and mentally from your work space and projects. Some simple ideas I have used in the past include reading a novel at a nearby coffee shop, walking around the block, taking a nap, or going to the gym. Breaks do not need to be extremely long; I typically recommend 15 or 30 minutes. What is most important is that you disengage long enough to recharge your batteries for another sprint. Individuals who have transitioned from the marathon mindset to working in sprints have reported higher levels of productivity, lower stress levels and increased balance in their lives.
In the project management world, there is always a lot to do and little time to do it. It is my hope that the three strategies I have shared will help you and your team use the time you do have more efficiently. By implementing the 2-Minute Rule, eliminating unnecessary meetings and working in sprints, you can transform your work day, reduce stress, and increase productivity.