I think I’m better in time management than the average, so to further improve this skill, I went to a time management training of John B. May. It was a one-day training about how we should reconquer our own job, how we should make sure that not others control our daily work through constant interruptions.

We were encouraged to leave the training with an action plan that we want to put in place so that we can do our best in our jobs.

Here is mine, I divided the actions into three topics.

Actions to reduce interruptions

Maybe this group is the most important one, given how these days knowledge workers spend their time in their - mostly - open offices.

1. Mute my e-mail client.

Even if I don’t have a pop-up for each incoming e-mail, it’s distracting to have a beep every time I receive one. Immediately, I start thinking about what it can be about. I don’t have that beep anymore. I muted my client. And the chat as well. But how and when do people reach me? This question leads to the next point.

2. I check emails 2-3 times a day

More importantly, I check my emails when I want to, not when I’m conditioned to by the beeps. So I check my chat windows after every pomodoro and the mails, it depends. I batch my mail management into 2-3 times a day, but sometimes between two pomodori I just have a glance at what I received. But I try not to.

3. No actions from cc

I try not to read emails - or just skim them through - where I’m only in cc. If somehow it turns out that there was an action to me while I was in cc, I remind the sender to put me to the “To:” field the next time if she wants me to take action.

4. Every meeting invitation should have…

… an agenda and objectives. If I receive an invitation without any of those, unless it’s the recurring status meeting, I don’t accept. I reply with a tentative acceptance and asking for the agenda and the list of desired outcomes of the meeting.

5. If people come to my desk …

… I encourage them that first time, they make the first contact by chat. So, I can control when I want to help them. There should be rarely a longer delay than 25 minutes tops.

Actions to improve my output

In this section, I collected those action items that should result in better performance, higher-quality outputs from my side.

6. Block my agenda to have one-hour slots for high-yield projects, long-term enhancements

I block my agenda every day for deep work that I should spend on high-yield activities instead of doing shallow work. I avoid the slots between noon and three when I’m supposed to be less productive according to statistics.

7. Use shorter deadlines

I’m going to use shorter deadlines in order to push me more to the limit. According to Parkinson’s law, every task will expand to the available time. So in order to achieve more we have to reduce the available time for the single tasks. This doesn’t mean that I’d decrease my sizings during backlog refinements, not at all. I mean that I create shorter deadlines personally for myself when I start working on something.

8. Be more strict on my pomodori

Many times my mind wanders while I’m working on the pomodori and I feel inclined to check this page, to check that page, to have a glance on my emails.

The problem is that I make it very easy for me to do so. I have to limit my options. Usually, I have something like 150 tabs open. I shall seriously limit it. A few for the projects I work on, otherwise I should use bookmarks and pocket better.

9. Check my advancement more regularly

I have to follow on my yearly goals with my manager more frequently in order to have a better control of my advancement.

I’ll print my goals to have them at hands so I can easily reflect on them on a daily basis.

10. Ask for feedback

If I want to improve, I have to know where and what to change. I might not care about what others think sometimes, but asking for my immediate colleagues’ opinion can be helpful sometimes. So for better insights, I’m going to ask for feedback at 1-1s and at end of projects, sprints.

11. Use the matrix

What matrix? The one of Eisenhower. It’s about dividing my tasks into four different categories by urgency and importance.

Eiserhower Matrix taken from Versatile Humanists at Duke

Most of the people spend way too much time outside of Q2 that is for non-urgent, but important tasks.

My goals and those of and most people’s should be about reducing the time spent in the bottom two quadrants where there are non/less-important tasks and use that time for the Q2 tasks.

It’s difficult to directly reduce the amount of time we spend on urgent and important tasks, but if we keep them tackling and at the same time we spend more time on important, but non-urgent tasks, the number of Q1 tasks will inherently go down and we can spend more and more in non-firefighting mode, in Q2.

Actions to keep the workload sane

Most of the employees suffer in a disease called ATA: Automatic Task Acceptance. The cure is simple, yet very difficult. We have to say no. Gently, but firmly.

There are different techniques to do so, that I’ll explain in another article.

I don’t have the ATA, I have something worse. If I see something coordinational/administrative that I think can be done quickly, yet it’s something that might give me a competitive advantage when it comes to the yearly evaluation, I even volunteer. Then usually it turns out that if I follow my standards these tasks are not so fast to complete.

12. Clarify, Challenge, Negotiate

If someone comes to me in a highly emotional state, I should follow the CCN technique. To get him out of his emotional state, I should ask a clarifying question, so that the person will have to analyze the situation and instead of emotions he must reply with analytic facts.

Once we’re are there, it’s easier to challenge his ideas - if need to be - and then there is the possibility to negotiate.

13. Explain impact

If i.e. my boss wants me to do another thing, instead of automatically accepting or rejecting the tasks, I should explain its impacts. For example, if I have to work on a new priority right now, it’ll mean that other used-to-be priority tasks will suffer a delay. The delay will be more than the time I’d spend on the new priority because the context switching and abandoning the tasks for weeks also have their own costs.

14. Provisional acceptance

In certain situations, the good decision might be to accept the tasks but only with a certain condition. Most probably to check on that condition, you need some time. So you might say, that given your current workload, you can take on that fix if it doesn’t require the modification of a certain library but you can do the fix, right in the application.

15. Saying no, or declining is another option

The previous techniques are probably better with your bosses, but you might say no to them. There are a lot of reasons that I should consider referring more to:

  • my priorities
  • the other person’s interest
  • my current task

According to John, using the words “sorry” and “please” might be submissive, better to avoid them. Also, turning a no into a yes, is better than the other way around.

Conclusion

These days many knowledge workers try to do their job in an interruption-driven environment that can suck up even 50 per cent of their productivity. In order to keep or regain our mental health and become better in our jobs, we must take actions to limit the interruptions we face from day to day.

In this article, I’ve shared the points I’m trying to implement to take control over my job. I encourage that you do the same!