It is fascinating that when you study the most effective individuals throughout history, you see the same theme coming back again and again in how each of them managed their time. The key was focus and concentration on a few very significant priorities, always keeping in mind what is centrally important at the moment (that is, what’s best next).
We see this especially in Winston Churchill. Here’s how Steven Hayward very effectively summarizes Churchill’s approach in Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity:
Despite his wide-ranging attention and interests, he always kept in mind what was centrally important to the moment. He was always able to focus his full concentration on the immediate task at hand, and he sent clear signals to his subordinates when an inquiry or directive was of special importance. “When his mind was occupied with any particular problem,” Sir Ian Jacob wrote, “it was relentlessly focused upon it and would not be turned aside.” Ultimately this served as the cornerstone of his time-management system.
….His general method of work…was to concentrate his personal attention on the two or three things that mattered most at any given moment, and to give to each of these all the time and attention that it merited.
This is the same observation Peter Drucker made about effective executives in the midst of his 50 years of observing them: “Effective executives put first things first, and do one thing at a time.” That’s the key.
Note one misunderstanding we can fall into, however, about what it means to focus on a few core priorities. It doesn’t mean that you are getting less done and doing fewer things overall. Rather, it means you are doing more things overall. That’s why you do one thing at a time — precisely because you have so many things that need to be done. Hence, you focus on one thing at a time because “doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform” (Drucker, The Effective Executive).
So the key is you identify that which is centrally important, and work on that all the way until it’s done. Then you work on the next thing of central importance until it is done. And so forth. (And, of course, above all of these and governing the choices you make about what to do next are just a few, overall, chief goals for the current quarter or year or season.) Drucker summarizes this well:
Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of their organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.
From Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive:
- Pick the future against the past;
- Focus on opportunities rather than on problems;
- Choose your own direction, rather than climb on the bandwagon; and
- Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is “safe” and easy to do.
My guest post at The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. I talk about the importance of setting goals and how to do it well for this year, without overwhelming yourself.
This is a really good article over at 99U on overcoming the biggest obstacle to delegation. I love out how it starts out by nailing the exact difficulty that I find with delegation:
You’ve tried every productivity hack in the book and have reached your max capacity in terms of output. You know that you need outside help to bring the work to the next level… but you hesitate. On the one hand, the idea of not having to do everything yourself really appeals to you. On the other, you wonder if you can handle the management responsibilities on top of your already heavy workload.
Your concerns are valid. In order for people to help you, they need to know what you need and to receive feedback and direction along the way. Your workflow that was uniquely yours will now have to account for another person. With the right systems and communication, this process can run relatively smoothly. But without them, the people who were supposed to help can end up creating more work.
She then gives five very helpful strategies. It’s worth the read.
I appreciated this post from Michael Hyatt today on how he’s had a low-productivity week. I can relate, because my week was the same! It’s frustrating.
I even did a sort of experiment this week. Normally this week I’m at ETS, the annual convention of the evangelical theological society. I didn’t go this year. So I thought it was a good opportunity to test this question: Do business trips decrease your tangible productivity?
As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, I believe that conferences are incredibly productive because of the relationships developed. In fact, I believe that everyone should go to every conference they can.
But the question I was experimenting with this week is: what does business travel do to the more tangible aspects of your productivity? Specifically, would I have a more productive week in terms of tangible output because of not taking that trip this week?
Unfortunately, I feel like I would have gotten just as much done on that front if I had gone to Baltimore this week for ETS as if I had stayed home. For if I had gone to Baltimore, I would have put in a good 12 hour day before leaving in order to get a bunch of stuff moved ahead, and would have had a plan for a bunch of reading and such in between sessions. There would have been also time on the plane for work, and on top of that the conference itself. As it was, I got some good stuff done this week, but not near what I had hoped or planned, and my energy flagged on several days.
It’s probably not always the case that you can get the same amount of tangible things done on a business trip as if don’t go, and there have been many times when I’ve had to skip out on a trip because of tight project deadlines. But I think we can conclude that at least on many occasions, business trips do not cut down on your tangible productivity, but sometimes even increase it.
The question of business trip productivity aside, all of us can relate to Hyatt’s point about having low productivity weeks. What should we think about those?
I actually think low productivity weeks are not always bad. One of the features you’ll see in my book when it comes out (the release is set for March) is that I rarely fall into the stereotypical thinking on productivity. I believe that the process of productivity and effectiveness is much less linear than we often think; there is often a three steps forward, two steps back component.
Which means we can be encouraged even in the midst of times when it doesn’t feel like we are being productive. That’s why in an earlier version of the book, I even had a box called “Seasons of Low Productivity Are Not Always Bad,” quoting Jason Fried from a great post on his blog a few years ago. (I had to cut the box for space reasons from the final version, unfortunately.)
So, for the encouragement of everyone who had a low productivity week this week (inlacing me!), here is that box from the original version of my book:
Seasons of Low Productivity Are Not Always Bad
Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals and author of Rework, from his blog:
“A few weeks ago, I was on fire. I was working on some designs for a prototype of a new software product, and the ideas were flowing as they hadn’t in months. Every day, I felt as if I were accomplishing two or three days’ worth of work. I was in the zone, and it felt fantastic.
“It lasted about three weeks. And then I found myself back at my old pace. Instead of being super productive, I was sort-of productive. Some days, I felt as if I barely accomplished anything.
“So what was wrong? Nothing at all.
“I believe it’s perfectly fine to spend some of your time, maybe even a lot of your time, not firing on all cylinders. Just like full employment isn’t necessarily good for an economy, full capacity isn’t always great for your mind.”
The Virtual Assistant Solution: Come up for Air, Offload the Work You Hate, and Focus on What You Do Best is Michael Hyatt’s new e-book, and it looks great.
The concept of a virtual assistant was first brought to the forefront, it seems to me, by Tim Ferriss in his book The Four Hour Workweek. What Tim had limited space to talk about, Michael Hyatt now fleshes out for us in much more detail, going into why a virtual assistant is such a good idea and how to do it well.
Here is the table of contents:
1 Why You Need a Virtual Assistant
2 Why a Virtual Assistant Beats a Traditional One
3 What a Virtual Assistant Can Do for You
4 Answering the Most Common Questions
5 The First 90 Days with Your Virtual Assistant
6 Tools for Staying in Sync
And here’s a helpful overview from the introduction:
The term “virtual assistant” means a lot of things to a lot of different people. To be clear, I’m talking about someone who works remotely and with whom you contract for professional services like clerical work, meeting and event planning, project management and coordination, even marketing and social media. The idea is having help that fits your needs, your schedule, and your budget. And you can have it without the constraints of payroll, benefits, and recruiting.
Authors, coaches, consultants, creatives, doctors, entrepreneurs, executives, nonprofit leaders, lawyers, pastors, professors, and speakers— there’s a long list of people who could benefit from a virtual assistant.
But despite how many people could benefit, I’ve noticed that many are reluctant to take the plunge. As a result, they miss getting the help they need. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you think hiring a full-time, in-office assistant is your only option. Maybe you have no experience with virtual assistance (or have had a bad experience like I did) and don’t think it can work for you.
This book will clear up the misconceptions and allow you to be more effective with your time and talents. It will equip you to understand the dynamics of a virtual workforce, define how one or more virtual assistants can help you accomplish more than you ever thought possible, and offer practical advice on how to hire, integrate, and fully benefit from your new virtual staff.
(Hyatt, Michael. The Virtual Assistant Solution: Come up for Air, Offload the Work You Hate, and Focus on What You Do Best (Kindle Locations 96-106). Fleming House Publishers. Kindle Edition.)
You can also read more about the book in Michael’s post introducing it.
Productivity is not always a linear thing, and in today’s knowledge economy, lists and deliberate plans aren’t always what get things done.
A classic example is what I am doing right now. Usually as I work on projects and process my email throughout the week, I put key documents on my desktop when I don’t have the time to file them in the right spot immediately. Then, once a day or ever few days, I process those files just like I process my inbox, identifying any actions they might imply and putting them where they need to go. (Basically, it’s like processing your inbox because it is an inbox.)
Right now I’m processing my desktop from the files that collected there this week. One of the files on there had my notes from Catalyst Atlanta (here are the notes I’ve posted so far). I’ve had it on my list for a while to finish posting them, but have had some other projects I’ve needed to get done.
When I came to that file while processing my desktop tonight, though, it felt easiest to just finish posting the rest of the notes, rather than put them in their project file and rely on my list to remember to get the rest of them posted.
And that’s the semi-arbitrary nature of work today in our knowledge economy. There are so many things I get done simply by setting out to process my inbox, or email, or in this case my desktop, and I think that’s probably true for most of us. Seemingly mundane actions, that aren’t even very well defined (“process desktop”? — what a broad term that can take you down a thousand different paths), often result in getting some important things done.
You’d think that the best productivity results from highly detailed, deliberate plans. And, there is definitely a place for that. But a lot of our productivity also results from more cursory, spontaneous things. That’s in part because of the way email and computers are set up — you have these inboxes and desktops that aren’t good at natively organizing their content into natural groupings. As a result, a lot of things get done more randomly.
And, as long as you don’t do everything randomly, allowing that to happen is actually one of the subtle tactics for maximizing your productivity. When something is before you that you have the energy to do, just do it.
The article is in two parts. This is the first part, with the first five myths. The second part should be posted tomorrow or so.
(Update: Here’s part 2.)
As I wrote my book, I thought hard about the question of whether it is truly possible to stay on top of our work. Sometimes, there is so much coming at us that it seems like it actually might not be possible at all, and that the solution is to give up the hope altogether. Further, in one sense that solution can sound very “spiritual.”
There will always be times in our lives where the realities of the situation exceed our capacities. The process of writing the book was one for me. I simply was not able to keep up with all of my work during that time. If I had more money, I would have hired lots of help to keep my day-to-day non-book routines and actions in motion. But given the limitations I had, I often had to let my email and other tasks build up. I eventually got through them all, but it took a long time to catch up.
Extreme situations aside, it is indeed possible to stay on top of your work. This is our natural instinct to believe, and if we reflect on it a bit, we see that it is indeed correct.
For example, if I’m at McDonalds and the lines are going really slow, I don’t think to myself “well, it doesn’t matter; I’m just glad I’m able to get lunch at all.” Not at all. Unless there is a crisis, emergency, or other extreme need, that would be a truly horrible over spiritualization; a denial of the doctrine of vocation. I don’t have that mindset, and the manager of the restaurant, let alone the corporate offices, doesn’t have that mindset either. If things are going really slow and are held up, they find a way to fix it and resume their standard of providing fast service to people. That’s part of the reason they exist. If you look at most successful companies, they’ve developed systems that enable them to meet customer needs in a timely way. This is one of the callings God has given to businesses.
And if businesses are able to keep up with demand, you are able to, as well.
What I’ve found is that the key determinant in whether you are able to keep up with your work is whether you believe that you can keep up with your work.
If you don’t believe you can keep up with your work, then you’ll never be able to do it. But if you believe you can, you will be able to figure it out.
The challenge is this: the practices for keeping on top of our work are not widely known. Developing the capacity to keep up with things takes effort and creative thought. It doesn’t come automatically. But if you take the time to step back, retool, and learn the practices for managing your work effectively in the knowledge era, you can do it.
Though I didn’t start our writing this post with the intention of pointing to my book, one of the reasons I wrote my book is to help you with this. The book will be coming out in March, and hopefully you will find it helpful practices for getting on top of your work and, even more than that, an overall framework of thought for how to do all of your work, in every area of life, for the glory of God and good of others — which is, ultimately, the essence of true productivity.
If you’d like to keep up with plans for the book launch, receive any early excerpts, or otherwise stay in the loop on things, I’d love for you to be a part of things as we get ready for the launch. Subscribing to the blog would also be the best way to do that at this point, and I’ll have more details for how you can be involved down the road.
Part two is now posted, where we talk about:
- How to balance our competing roles in the modern age of knowledge work
- The importance of aligning lists with roles
- A process for reducing workload
- Spatial thinking as it relates to time estimates and priorities
- A realistic model of using plans
- The common but wrong disdain many Christians have towards hard work
- How we should and should not respond to someone who is having problems managing their time
- How workaholism and laziness both reflect idolatry
- The importance of rest in a biblical framework and how to practically incorporate rest into our lives
- A biblical call to mission statements and understanding our mission
- A fascinating, biblical approach to delegating out of love
- Some tips for delegating in the home and family
(You can also find part one here.)