The end of the year is a natural time to give thanks, exchange gifts, and make resolutions. Most of those resolutions involve doing more, like exercising more, volunteering more, or spending more time with the family. While all of these are worthy resolutions, most won't be kept. By February 1, they will be a distant memory.
Often, that's because most of us simply add our new commitments to a workload that is already heavy. We trick ourselves into believing that we can always do more. But perhaps what we really need is to stop doing more and start thinking more. To be successful, we need to take a moment and question everything we are doing. We need to stop and ask ourselves: Where am I going? What is most important? Where should I really focus my time? What should I stop doing?
Stop "fighting fires"
When reviewing goals for my clients, I generally see a conspicuous absence of longer-term goals and plans. I am not talking about 10-year or even five-year time horizons. I'm referring to plans for the next 24 to 30 months. Clients will say that they don't have time to develop longer-term goals and plans; they are too busy executing their day-to-day responsibilities. However, what could be more important than knowing where you are going in your business and career?
Work life can seem like a never-ending series of mini-crises, interruptions, and distractions. We become entangled in handling perceived "emergencies," which in reality aren't truly crises. In fact these activities can often be delegated or delayed without the world coming to an end; in other words, the consequences would be minor, or at least manageable. But here is the difficult part: Most of us like the adrenaline rush of "putting out fires"—solving those immediate emergencies. They make us feel needed; they are exciting.
If you are spending most of your time handling emergencies, when do you find the time to think about longer-term plans for your organization and career? When do you find the time to sit down with your people, coaching and developing them? When do you find the time to lead?
Consider this New Year's resolution: "This year I will spend at least 50 percent of my time on value-added and nonemergency-related activities." That transition from putting out fires to operating thoughtfully with a strategic plan that includes how to deal with exceptional situations can be difficult. The activities of planning and setting goals lack the short-term excitement of handling emergencies. But remember that in the long term, they will help you get where you want to go and not just where the "wildfires" have driven you.
To resist the temptation of succumbing to time-consuming emergencies, recognize that you are more effective if you spend your time on the most important areas first. You need to schedule this time on your calendar. Make it a real commitment. And during that time, you need to just say no to the things that get in the way of accomplishing that deep thinking and planning.
One of the things you should just say no to is distractions. Some of the biggest, most "urgent" distractions are e-mail and phone calls. They waste time not because you respond to them but because you respond to them as they come in. When you do this, you stop the momentum of other important tasks that require focus and thought. During your value-added, long-term planning time, stop the distractions. Put your phone on "do not disturb." Put the mobile device on "silent" in a drawer.
Instead, attend to e-mails and calls at specific times during the day, and not during your planning and thinking time. You will still return phone calls and e-mails several times per day, just not as they come in. Otherwise they will trickle in all day and interrupt your concentration.
How long should this slot of scheduled uninterrupted time last? It is generally believed that you can retain a high level of performance and focus for 40 to 90 minutes at a time. After 40 to 90 minutes, take a short break. You can engage in an unessential task if it keeps you connected or gives you pleasure. This might involve grabbing a cup of coffee or chatting with a co-worker. You will come back refreshed and ready to refocus.
When working on long-term planning, you should also just say "no" to multitasking. When you multitask, you may feel like you are doing more, but in reality, you are probably not doing any of the tasks well. The idea that multitasking is efficient has now been debunked. We need only look at our own performance to see that when we try to focus on more than one thing, we do none well. How many times have you lost track of the conversation because you were looking at your computer? How often have staff meetings droned on because the focus and energy in the room was divided by participants multitasking on their handhelds? Like the old saying goes, "Listen and silent have the same letters for a reason."
You need to give your planning time the same attention—without interruptions—that it would receive if you were meeting with a career coach or mentor. Frequently, when I start working with new clients, the first conversations are transforming. When the focus is solely on their career and goals, they get deeply engaged and animated. They can finally say things about their plans, and have them heard, validated, and sometimes challenged. You need to give your own planning time that same focus and full participation.
Not multitasking is just as crucial in our personal lives. You cannot have "quality time" if you are multitasking. If we are paying attention to what we are doing, the family knows it and appreciates it. Do one thing, do it well, and move on.
When you realize that setting goals and planning your work is the most important task you have, everything else will fall into place. Once you know what your long-term goals are, you are better able to focus on what needs to be done now, and in what order. When you take away unnecessary work and distractions, you get more time for those important tasks. Most of all, when you focus—when you stop multitasking—your work speed and quality improve. So this year, resolve to just say "no."