Optimizing What We Accomplish

Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow. ~Denis Waitely

  1.  Plan What You’ll Do Tomorrow Before You Leave for the Day

One of the most effective methods for optimizing our activities is the tool used by Phil Maxwell, who, when I met him, was the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Neiman Marcus.  At a time in history when CIO typically stood for Career Is Over, I visited his office to conduct our “get acquainted interview” because he’d agreed to be a guest on The Executive Toolbox and was astounded to see his office was not only pristine, but Phil was relaxed, on time for our meeting, and completely focused on our discussion.

At the time Phil’s department was implementing a new point of sale system as well as several other major initiatives.  Just before our time was up I asked him how he managed to stay so organized and focused.

The method he shared with me has become a tool that not only increased my effectivity, it’s something I’ve shared with dozens of executives and seen their effectiveness increase.

He simply scheduled the last meeting of each day as a meeting with himself and used that time to reflect on what he’d accomplished that day, prepare for the next day, and clean up anything he hadn’t finished before leaving.

As a result, when he left work each day he had not only a sense of closure, but a plan for the next day.  This allowed him to be present for his family or for whatever he was doing.

  1. The Eisenhower Method

 “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.”

                                                                                    Dwight D. Eisenhower

Another tool for optimizing what we accomplish is known as The Eisenhower Method.  Eisenhower commanded more than 2 million soldiers during World War II and developed this method of prioritizing his work.

Categorize each task on your ‘to do’ list based upon its importance and urgency and put it into the Eisenhower Box by answering the following:   (graphic and explanation from http://www.thousandinsights.files.wordpress.com)

– Is this task important or not important?

– Is this task urgent or not urgent?

Eisenhower Box 

Priority 1 tasks are tasks that are both urgent and important. These tasks need to be addressed personally and immediately. However, if we’re spending most of our time in these tasks, we’re just putting out fires. This is usually an indicator that we’re merely reactive and are not planning our work and our actions ahead of time.

Priority 2 tasks are tasks that are important but not urgent. These tasks need to be addressed personally but not immediately so they need to have a planned date. Give them a start date and a completion date. This will help us build our activity plan/calendar.  Ideally, most of our tasks should be priority 2 tasks.

Priority 3 tasks are tasks that are urgent but not important, so they require immediate attention, but not necessarily by you. These tasks are usually other people’s priorities, not ours. If possible, delegate them, if not, move them to a Priority 4.

Priority 4 tasks are tasks that are neither urgent nor important, so they are mostly a waste of time. These tasks should be dropped as they provide no value.

3.  Pomodoro Technique 

A third method is the technique developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.  It’s based upon breaking the completion of our tasks into 25 minute segments or pomodoros.

After working 25 minutes on a task, set it aside and take a 5 minute break, preferably away from the setting where you work.   After each four pomodoros you take a break of about 30 minutes.

Executives who’ve used this successfully, often use this technique to complete tasks that require intense concentration, and typically don’t use it for the full day.  They set the expectation with their teammates and direct reports that during this block of time they will be unavailable.

I’ve seen this used effectively by whole teams who set aside a specific block of time each day, or several days a week,  to allow team members focused time for completing their work.

4.  Segment Management 

Like the Pomodoro Technique, Segment Management parses a work day in time increments, however, time is segmented into 45 minute increments.

The philosophy is that the 15 minutes between segments is to handle interruptions, travel between locations, or to transition to the next activity.  This allows us more flexibility then scheduling everything for an hour, which is the typical approach in most organizations.

The segments are scheduled in the same way meetings are on a calendar and prioritized based, like most methods, on an individual’s ‘to do’ list.

We can use these four methods in concert, or we can use whatever other methods work for us.  The key is to keeping searching until we find or develop an approach that works for us.  As a wise colleague and friend commented, “At the end of each day I like to reflect how I can be more effective tomorrow.”  

Leah Ward-Lee is a management consultant and business writer based in Dallas, Texas and the author of $1,000 Start-Ups.  Her next book, The Executive’s Toolbox, will be released in early 2017.

Published by Leah Ward-Lee

Leah Ward-Lee, the author of "$1,000 Start-Ups", is a serial micro-entrepreneur. She opened her first business at ten after lobbying for and receiving a shoe shine kit for Christmas. She pulled her wagon through the neighborhood, going door-to-door, offering to shine her neighbor’s shoes for twenty-five cents a pair. Once her wagon was full, she took the shoes home and polished them. Unfortunately that business was short-lived. She hadn’t tagged the shoes and couldn’t remember whose shoes were whose, so her dad went with her to retrace the route until every pair was returned. Since then she’s had businesses developing and teaching college courses, instructing aerobic classes, owning half a plane that was rented to a flight and maintenance school, and renting homes. She’s also owned a consignment store, a gift shop, a gift basket business, a consulting firm, hosted The Executive Toolbox (a weekly radio show), and a publishing company. She also spent twenty years in the US Army, served as the Chief Information and Technical Officer for two major insurance companies, and has a second career as a management consultant. Leah resides in Dallas, TX and on Amelia Island with Sammy and Goliath, her two rescue dogs.


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