Improve Your Time Management and Focus to Improve Your Work—and Deliver Real Results

Read on to learn how rethinking how you use your time can help you become better at setting priorities—and therefore at meeting your goals.

In The Hobbit, Bilbo and Gollum have a contest of wits to determine whether Gollum will show Bilbo the way out of the cave—or whether Gollum will eat him. In his final test, Gollum asks Bilboto solve this riddle:

A thing that all things devours

birds, beasts, trees, flowers

gnaws iron, bites steel

grinds hard stones to meal

slays king, ruins town

and beats mountain down

Fortunately, Bilbo guesses correctly and answers “time” (and lives to continue his adventures!).

This passage has stuck with me because I often feel that no matter how carefully I plan or how disciplined or organized I am, time is the unstoppable force that often manages nonetheless to chip away at my best-laid plans, wear me down, and have the final say in everything I do. This phenomenon is one that everyone can relate to, I’m sure!

My trainings, keynotes, and writings often touch on the issue of time—how to manage it, how we never seem to have enough of it—because it’s such a critical concern for pretty much everyone. Unfortunately, no one has yet figured out how to make more of it. But as I’ve pointed out in an earlier blog post (“Top 10 Tips for Defeating the Time Thief”), the solution isn’t to have more time but to “learn to use the time you do have more wisely.”

The first step is to identify the optimal ways to spend my time. My top three methods for figuring out these priorities each involve assessing my activities according to one of three criteria:

  • Urgency versus importance
  • Impact versus effort
  • Value

There’s some overlap among the categories, and not every strategy is ideal for each situation. Let’s go through them all together.


Prioritizing Your Time: Urgency versus Importance

Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.
—Nathaniel Hawthorne

Time ManagementWhen thinking about how to seize control of your schedule, you’ll enjoy much more success if you focus not on how much time you have but on what you need to do with it. Instead of thinking “How should I spend my forty-hour work week?” ask yourself “When I get to Friday [the end of this month, the end of this quarter, etc.], what do I want to have accomplished this week [month, quarter, etc.]?” Starting at the end gives you the perspective you need to zero in on your priorities. 

When I look at everything on my plate, I find it very useful to rank priorities among priorities. For each task before me, I define the following:

  • How urgent is this? (What is the due date for this?)
  • How important is this to my boss? (How interested are they in this? How will this benefit them?)
  • How important is this to the company? (What impact will it have on the company?)

Then I figure out which of those questions is my primary driver for that project and build my time management around that area. 

If the project’s urgency outweighs its importance to your boss or the company, for example, then use due dates as your starting point for planning. (Don’t forget to take “estimated time to completion” into consideration.) And if a task comes to you straight from corporate (and isn’t one of your boss’s projects), it’s a good idea to chat with your boss about what the end goal looks like—what it really looks like—so you can plan your time accordingly. 


Prioritizing Your Time: Impact versus Effort

If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?

—John Wooden

Anyone who’s spent even a minute in the corporate world has come across some version of the “impact versus effort grid” or the “impact/effort matrix.” There are lots of variations of this analysis, but they all examine the relationship between the effort someone puts into a project and the impact of the results. (And of course, they all usually include the words impact and effort in their titles.) 

Here’s the graphical representation that I used in an earlier post (“Strategic Thinking: How to Get Better at It”):

The terms can vary. For example, some people replace “Major Projects” with “Big Bets,” sub in “Incremental Progress” for “Fill Ins,” or use “Money Pits” instead of “Thankless Tasks.” All these versions convey the same idea, though.

Open up a new document (or, if you want to go analog, grab a piece of paper) and map each of your recent tasks onto this grid according to the relationship between the task’s impact on your organization (or your department) and the amount of effort you put into it. Then take a good hard look at your results.

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably focused significantly (maybe even mostly) on tasks that have little impact on the organization. Sometimes we all fail to properly assess the impact of a certain task or miscalculate how much time and effort are needed for it. Sometimes it’s hard to resist the appeal of ticking easy-to-complete—but, in the big picture, insignificant—tasks off our to-do lists. (E-mail, anyone? We all know what a time-suck than can be!) Your goal should be to put your effort into the tasks that deliver the biggest impact.


Prioritizing Your Time: Value

My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?

—Dr. Seuss

Sort your tasks into these three buckets:

  • Time ManagementValue-added activities. This category includes work that improves customer experience, work that physically transforms the product or service, and work that is done right the first time.
  • Non–value-added activities. This category includes work that consumes resources but does not add value to the product or service.
  • Necessary, but non–value-added activities. This includes work that doesn’t add value to the product or service but must be done anyway.

Obviously, you want to get as much value out of your work as you can. Sometimes you have no choice but to do things that don’t bring much value. But whenever possible, you’ll want to minimize how much time you put into low-yield activities and focus instead on those that deliver value.


Next Up

Now that you’ve broken your projects into three buckets (urgency vs. impact, impact vs. effort, and overall value), come back next week to learn how to build a plan and improve your focus to gain more time in your week. I’ll also give you tools for analyzing your productivity for any lingering time thieves.

Have a good week!

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