Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Personal Strength of Focus - A Time Management Secret

In an earlier life, I was a West Point cadet, served a combat tour in Vietnam, and retired as lieutenant colonel after 20 years’ service. In other words, I studied the principles of war and had the opportunity to apply them.

One of the principles was called “Mass.” I think today it might be called “Concentration of Force.” The idea is to discover the enemy’s vulnerability and then concentrate overwhelming force at that point. The disruption and disarray this causes leads to other opportunities.

As a young man it was fascinating to analyze wars throughout history using the principles of war. But it’s pretty grim stuff when you apply it on the modern battlefield. As I said, that was another life. Today I use the Principle of Mass to work through my “To-Do” list.

I wasn’t always so successful. My typical workday went something like this…

I’d start my computer and check my three email accounts for urgent messages. If there were any, I’d answer them. I’d check my blog, Facebook and Twitter—got to engage, or what’s it all about? While I was doing that, I got a couple instant messages from my coworkers. One wanted me to check a text file. The other asked for information. We ended up talking on the phone instead. My To-Do list has about twenty important projects. Daunting. I noticed a yellow post-it on my desk: “Return Bob’s call after 9.” I did that. The call took longer than I thought it would. I answered an instant message query while talking to him. Bob asked for some original text. After the call, I wrote it and sent it to him. I opened a file I was working on the day before and refined some of the language. I got a call from my business partner, so I closed the file to talk to her. My coffee was cold, so I went to warm it. When I returned, I decided to work on the file. But first I checked email for more messages. Several needed attending to. I looked up and realized that it was time for lunch. The afternoon went pretty much the same way. I finished the day exhausted and with a feeling that I didn’t make progress on any of my priorities. The pressure of time bore down on me harder than before, and I vowed that tomorrow would be different.

This, of course, is miserably frustrating. It’s the way of failure. But I have the answer. It was given to me by a productivity expert named Eben Pagan. In one of his programs he outlined a brilliant approach to achieving focus and getting things done during my day.

It starts with the day before…

Before shutting down for the day, decide which project you want to spend concentrated time on the next day. This should be the most important project you have. Ideally, it’ll be the one you’re most passionate about. Schedule two hours—with a half-hour break in between—to work on the project. Then find everything you’ll need the next day to support your work. Arrange it in your workspace for easy access. Go to bed early enough to rise refreshed.

Start the next day with stretching, exercise, hygiene and a healthy breakfast. Eben recommends making this a life habit. Arrive at your workspace a half-hour before the scheduled time for working on the project. Take care of anything urgent. Review your task objective and support materials. Remind people that you’ll be in “prime time” for two scheduled hours and can be reached after these periods. Then at exactly the appointed time (plus or minus five minutes), start a one-hour timer. And begin work. Do nothing but your task during the hour. When the timer alarm goes off, stop. Take a half-hour break. The idea is to recharge your energy for the next hour, so relax, meditate, check email--whatever works.

At the appointed hour, reset your timer and resume work. Again, do nothing but work on your priority project. When the timer goes off, stop. Now you can deal with all the things that used to distract you from getting things done.

This may sound like an unnatural or unfamiliar level of discipline. A timer? Yes, a timer. Get one at your office supply store for $10.

I’ve always believed in the axiom, “Structure will set you free,” and Eben Pagan’s method really puts it to the test. He contends that if you take this approach, you’ll get far more done in these two hours than you used to during a typical unstructured day. All I can say is, it’s hard to argue with him, because it works. I’ve been using this time management method, and I’ve discovered there are no downsides. Only positives. The lesser important things are put in their place. They no longer distract me. I’ve been getting a tremendous amount of work done. It’s how I deploy my energy at work using the Principle of Mass. And I’ve won some battles!

If you’re plagued by the inability to focus and get important things done, I recommend you try structuring your mornings like this. Do it every day until it becomes routine. Later, if you want to, you can structure your afternoons like this and get twice as much done.

I’ll say this. The method makes sense, but it’s different. It’s easy to talk about it and think about it, but changing a work routine is like making a lifestyle change. You won’t find it comfortable at first. That comes later.

Here's another Fortune Cookie for you...

Go off in every direction, and you’ll end up nowhere.

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . (License to use photo purchased from istockphoto.com)


Lois Hughes said...

There are some straightforward and powerful ideas here. I happen to have an old-fashioned timer left over from years ago in the cabinet and am going to try your ideas. It all does become overwhelming and I am always feeling pulled in different directions when I sit down at my computer. Will try to structure my time as you suggest and will look for positive results. Thanks.

Petrus Hansen said...

Thomas Edison said that: "Vision without execution is hallucination”. Leaders who work smart are effective planners with a focus on getting things done with the best use of their time and their resources.

Management coach Padraig Hyland takes a humorous look at time and apparently it can be beaten.

Watch this insightful time management video @ http://bit.ly/h8nVPL

Adrienne said...

I tweeted this because how your day used to go is exactly how my day goes all too often. I like the strategy and I am going to try to use it!

Anonymous said...

Hey Dennis,

I just happened to stumble across this article. Great post!

I use Productive Balance (http://www.productivebalance.com) to prioritize my tasks, by assigning point values, based on importance. Also, Productive Balance allows you to assign your tasks to customized core values, which helps you plan and maintain balance.

Give it a try - it's pretty cool. And, it's free. :)