A few years ago, I was a very busy person.
If somebody asked how I was, I’d instantly revert back with a single word: ‘busy’. I was too busy for explanations, and too busy for small talk. I was too busy to delve into any kind of meaningful conversation, and way too busy to genuinely ask about the wellbeing of my team members.
At home, I was even busier. I was up at the crack of dawn being busy, rushing the kids through breakfast before rushing them out the door. I’d return from work in the evening only to continue the frantic cycle like a woman possessed. There was dinner and homework and showers and cleanup and bedtime stories to GET THROUGH.
The funny thing about being so busy was that I’d never actually complete my daily to do lists. They would sit on my ‘to do list’ notepad with numerous items un-ticked, offering a daily reminder of my productivity failures.
Then I started doing something counter intuitive to what a busy person might think she should be doing: I got fascinated with productivity — not in terms of getting more done, but rather by researching the topic obsessively. It started as a form of procrastination, but quickly formed the groundwork for a number of new habits that would change my life (and in many ways the lives of those around me). I studied the productivity habits of successful women, looking for tidbits about how they manage their day.
I then took action and decided to completely rethink how I approached my day.
Work less hours
My first goal was to work less hours. Like many people in professional services I was working from before eight in the morning until after six, but technically only being paid to work nine to five. I decided to spend eight hours a day in the office, maximum. At first I felt uncomfortable about it and came up with excuses, then I decided to just own my desire to arrive bang on time at nine and leave bang on time at five. I have a life outside of work and I was determined to find some time to actually live it.
In order to spend a couple of hours less in the office each day, I needed to spend those hours wisely. As a manager I was not in a position to simply cancel meetings — meetings make up most of my day, especially speaking with different project stakeholders. But I could take better control of them and demonstrate behaviour that people could see could ultimately benefit the entire business. Where possible, I canceled frivolous activities (such as disappearing for an 11am coffee with colleagues), and kept lunch breaks to a minimum. I would rather spend that time NOT having to catch up on work at home. Needless to say, I also created a self-imposed ban on social media and general-related news throughout the day. I check these outside of my ‘nine to five’.
Own the minutes
There are 480 minutes between the hours of nine and five, I’ve taken control of every single one of them. I got rid of my ‘to do list’ and started scheduling tasks into my calendar and applying minutes accordingly. I work on my most important projects early in the day, allocating a couple of hours of alone time in the office to get through as much as possible.
Sprint through the vulnerable
The vulnerable points of your productivity often come when tackling those projects that require more brainpower, ones that are easy to procrastinate on — like writing an article, producing a report, setting the strategy on a future plan, or working on a P&L. These are the sorts of tasks you think you want do, but keep putting off. They are also the tasks that may ultimately determine your success in the job. To tackle these — and even to tackle things like my inbox — I set my timer and work through a series of sprints. This method and involves focusing solely on one thing for 25 minutes, before relaxing for five. I will often complete five of these sprints first thing in the morning, and find that I’m getting through more than I was previously getting through in an entire day. There are a number of apps you can use for timing your sprints.
Schedule a ‘thinking’ sprint
I believe thinking time is essential — for planning, for getting inspired and for staying motivated and up-to-date on what’s going on. I set a timer for ‘thinking’ time, shortly after eating lunch every day. Often I do this during a brisk walk, but other times just while sitting at my desk. I apply this ‘thinking’ to the work I do, so may also use it to listen to relevant industry-related podcasts or to check in on industry developments online. Some days I just sit and think: about new projects, new procedures, about how I’m going to help out a staff member with a personal issue.
Get obsessive about meetings
I now schedule meetings on the quarter hour and allocate the specific amount of time necessary: be that 15, 20, or thirty minutes. I never schedule an internal meeting for longer than 30 minutes (unless it’s a strategy session or workshop). I start every meeting with a set agenda, usually just two to three points, and then summarise those points along with their actionable items at the end of the meeting. I often allow for five to ten minutes following a meeting to action whatever I can immediately. Previously, my meetings would run overtime, I’m now obsessive about keeping them on time — and keep a discreet eye on the wall clock that sits in my office. I’m lucky that I’m in a position to dictate how these meetings can run — not everyone has such a luxury, with many at the mercy of a manager or boss. However I think we can all be a little more proactive in limiting the amount of time spend in meetings, especially by taking the initiative to arrive with a set agenda.
Enjoy the hours at home
I don’t count minutes or clock watch when I’m at home with family, other than watching for the minute I leave for work in the morning and acknowledging the minute I get home. After eight hours of spending every minute in the office wisely, I’m ready to be a little more spontaneous and relaxed with my family. I no longer attempt to ‘be productive’ at home. It’s no longer about ‘getting through’ the evening. I also no longer do a huge amount of work after dinner, unless we have a major deadline or some other pressing issue coming up. Instead, I read and try and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Working through every one of those 480 minutes between nine and five requires me to be as switched on and as alert as possible.
My new habits are obsessive, but they’re working for me. I’m getting more done than I ever did before, I’m happier and no longer walk around wearing ‘busy’ like a badge of honour. One of the best benefits of this approach is the impact it’s had on people around me. My kids see a happier and less exhausted mum. My team members appreciate the fact their boss has become fanatical about a war on time wasting. Everyone wins.