This is the second in a two-part series of guest articles by Dana Brownlee. Read Part 1 here.
Dana Brownlee developed what she calls “The NEW Time Management Model.” Instead of focusing on how to get more done in a day, she now focuses on how to accomplish what really matters. To do that, she asks these four questions:
Question 1: Should I do this?
This is the most important question. This is where you have a “come to Jesus” moment with yourself and reject the rose-colored glasses, perfect vision of yourself that you had 20 years ago and instead embrace your not-so-perfect reality to determine where you should really focus your energy. (For me this meant accepting that I wasn’t really the Harvard Business Review-subscribing professional that I thought I was.)
Time is truly everyone’s most valuable resource, because you can’t buy it or create it and we all have the same amount—yes, Oprah and Donald have the exact same amount that you do. (Isn’t there something divine about that?)
I remember seeing Suze Orman tell a woman to take out a $10 bill and tear it in half. The woman hesitated, of course, and Suze explained that we recognize the value of money when we’re holding cash, but when we waste money on clothes we don’t need (or magazine subscriptions we don’t have time to read maybe), it’s the same waste of money. We just don’t think of it that way.
I feel the same way about time. There is an opportunity cost factor that is huge when we consider how we spend our time. Every minute that you spend doing something that’s lower in importance to you (say grocery shopping) is time taken away from something more important to you (maybe reading to your kids). The key is thinking about this consciously as you develop your to-do list. Of course, there are some mundane tasks that we have to get done, but usually we give little if any thought to what we choose to take on each day.
This reminds me of something that my wedding planner told me years ago as we drove to check out a wedding venue: “Dana, there are really only two steps to designing a fulfilling life: deciding what’s important to you and focusing your time on those things. The second step is a lot harder than the first.”
Question 2: How should I do it?
Often once we decide to do something, we charge into action trying to get it done as quickly as possible without giving any thought to how it should be done. Taking just a moment or two to consider the best approach can be very valuable in the long run.
Should you do this alone or use a small team to help you? Should you outsource or delegate it? Could it possibly be automated? Those simple questions can not only significantly decrease the amount of time required but also produce a better end product.
Several months ago I had the wisdom to finally hire an assistant. Even though I’d felt swamped for years and knew somehow intuitively it wasn’t the best use of my time (considering my daily rate) to be spending hours hovering over the copier at FedEx making copies for my training class with one arm while I’m holding my 6-month-old in the other arm while singing “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” I’d resisted what seemed like a completely pompous luxury for obvious reasons.
Nevertheless, I finally took the plunge and contracted with a college student to work with me 10 hours a week as my executive/personal assistant. Not only did his help make my life easier, but I actually loved writing that check every week because the value I got was so tremendous. I tried to assign him tasks where I thought he would excel, and he did. If I needed a flyer updated or newsletter created, he could do it much quicker than I ever could. Indeed, bringing him on was one of the smartest decisions I made for my business—and for me!
Question 3: What’s the right level of effort?
Whoever said “Perfection is the enemy of good enough”was really telling the truth. Like many other high-achieving professionals (particularly women, I’d guess), I had a bit of an overachiever complex. In the middle of a task I’d often hear my mother’s words in my head saying “Dana, if you’re going to do something, do it right!” and of course “right” in my mind equated to “perfect.”
However, I’ve also realized that there is a cost (again, the opportunity cost consideration) to taking the time to perfect every single task. I vividly remember as a young employee with a major telecommunications company working for hours to perfect my estimate for building expenditures for the office that I managed. When I provided my figures (estimated down to the last nickel) to my management one day during a meeting, they looked at me, laughed and said “Dana, just round to the nearest hundred thousand and let’s move on. You’ve got more important things to do.”
It often takes a while to break yourself from this assumption that perfection is required for each task, but the time rewards can be huge if you start to push back on the initial urge toward perfection all the time. Just recently, I completed a school application for my 3-year-old and was so proud of myself when I used Wite-Out out to correct an incorrect address that I’d written, instead of reprinting the entire application and starting again (my first inclination). I reminded myself that an application with a Wite-Out correction indeed was “good enough.”
That may seem insignificant, but that decision easily saved me 20 minutes that evening. If you have just a few of those each week, the saved time starts adding up quickly. (Not to mention that 20 extra minutes of evening time once the kids are down are like gold to me!)
Question 4: How can I increase my efficiency?
Finally, we get to some of the traditional “time management tips.” This is all about how you can work more quickly through the items on your list. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be more efficient. We all need to do that. The key, though, is to not start here. If you’ve taken appropriate action after asking the previous three questions, you should now have a much shorter to-do list— yeah!
So now, it makes sense to adopt some best practices to increase your efficiency and productivity. Here are just a few of my favorite tips:
- Schedule only about 75% of your day. That provides room for the unexpected items that pop up daily.
- Schedule work time. Religiously schedule one time block in the morning and one in the afternoon to do your work, instead of running to back-to-back meetings all day and starting your work at 5 p.m.
- Deactivate the chime on your email announcing incoming messages. If you’re performing life-saving surgery, you’ll still pause to check your email if you hear that chime, and oftentimes the email isn’t important anyway.
- Schedule specific times during the day to read/respond to emails, instead of grazing through them throughout the day and allowing them to constantly distract from whatever you were doing.
- Keep a running list of quick items to complete during downtimes (e.g. waiting at the dentist, waiting for a webinar to start) but work first on the most important tasks each day. At the end of the day you’ll feel more fulfilled if you accomplished the important items and didn’t get to some of the lesser important ones.
When it comes to time management, I’m as much a student as a teacher, but I can say that my fulfillment quotient has increased dramatically since I changed my perspective on time management. I heard someone once say that everyone’s headstone when they die will have a birth date, death date and a dash in between. The question is: “What will you do with your dash?”
Dana Brownlee is president of Professionalism Matters Inc. a boutique professional development corporate training firm. Her firm operates www.professionalismmatters.com and www.meetinggenie.com, an online resource for meeting facilitation tips, training and instructional DVDs. Her latest publications are “Are You Running a Meeting or Drowning in Chaos?” and “5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting Time in Half!”