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How to regain control of your time

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

One of the things that usually catches new leaders by surprise is the huge amount of requests for their time they start getting. Overnight, your responsibilities double or triple. Now you not only have your own share of tasks to accomplish, but you also need to help others achieve theirs. Plus, a load of administrative and management tasks suddenly fall on your lap.

Do you feel like dealing with other people requests is eating up all your time and there is no time left to deal with your own priorities?  Here’s a little checklist:

  • You find yourself at the end of the day staying late after everyone has left so you can finally concentrate on your tasks

  • Your to-do list is so long that just seeing it creates anxiety

  • You are running around all day but at the end of the day you’re unable to point out what exactly you have achieved

  • It seems like every time you sit down for some focused work, you get interrupted.

  • Your main activities in any day are answering emails, talking to  people, fielding calls and being in meetings.

  • You’re feeling more and more resistant and resentful to all these requests on your time

  • You feel drained and anxious at the end of the day, seeing how work is piling up.

You’re not alone in having to manage this frenzy. Dr. Gloria Mark from the University of California at Irving found that managers and project leaders spent, on average, only three minutes in any single event before being interrupted (or switching activities).

So, interruptions will now be, to some extent, a part of your new normal. But that doesn’t mean you need to let them rule the day. Here are three simple strategies to try out immediately to better manage interruptions and regain control of your time.

Herd and corral activities

According to some studies, it can take 15-20 minutes for us to get into any new task that requires deep focus and concentration. No wonder then that we can’t accomplish anything concrete in a day when we are constantly interrupted.

Because of this, it pays off to corral your activities by categories, so you don’t interrupt focused work to answer a call, for instance. Certain tasks in particular, like answering calls and email, tend to spread themselves all over our day if we let them, preventing us from tackling more important projects.

Instead, try this: herd all your email and call activities together and corral them into 2 or 3 time compartments throughout the day. Don’t let them scatter and wreak havoc in your day!

I like to have two email times only, one right before lunchtime and one before leaving the office. Each is around 30 min long, and all my email answering and sending happens in these time slots. Depending on the amount of emails and calls you deal with, you might need more or less, longer or shorter compartments. Try a few different configurations and see what works for you.

Create “time for others” compartments.

When you’re in a leadership position, time for others, in particular your team members, becomes very important. But that doesn’t mean you need to have a full time open door policy. You can apply the same “time-compartment” strategy to your interactions with team members, bosses and colleagues. Reserve the times of the day when you are most focused and productive to work on your own tasks. Then create time compartments to deal with other people’s requests on your time.

These “time for others” are your “open door policy” times, where you can have short one on one meetings with your team and receive colleagues who want to speak to  you. But you can also use them to roam around the office checking on progress, checking in with your boss, or dealing with any admin.

Make sure to clearly communicate your “open door” times to others, and enforce them. Tell your team upfront that you will be available for them from, say 10 am until noon and from 3 to 5 pm, and that outside of these times, please only interrupt you if it is an emergency. Then make sure to agree on what constitutes an emergency!

If people interrupt you for a non-emergency issue outside of these times, kindly let them know that you are working on something important and you will come back to them later.

Reduce meetings and meeting times

Now that you are in a leadership position, with some luck, you have a bit more of a say on what meetings need to happen and which ones are not required. For each of the meetings in your calendar, ask yourself:

  1. what is the purpose of that meeting (e.g. to inform/share, to brainstorm, to decide, teambuilding, etc), and

  2. what is the expected outcome (a division of tasks, an agreement on how to move forward, establishing deadlines, etc).

If the meeting does not have a clear purpose or outcome, most likely it will only waste your time and that of others. Can you cancel it? Can you clarify the purpose and outcome to make it useful? Is the purpose is best achieved in a meeting or through other means (e.g. email, one-on one discussions)

Then work on reducing the time of the meetings you cannot cancel by:

  1. Creating and sharing a clear agenda for the meeting that explains the purpose, the intended outcome, the participants and their roles, as well as anything people need to do to come into the meeting prepared so they can contribute.

  2. Ensuring your meetings have a starting and ending time

  3. Establishing clear meeting rules/guidelines, for example, limiting speaking time for each person, appointing a moderator and a note-taker, etc.

I recommend choosing a single one of this strategies and try implementing it for two weeks, then testing a second one and so on, so you don’t get overwhelmed. Let us know on FB or in the comments how you tweaked these strategies to make them work for you, or share any other strategies you use to deal with interruptions!



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