The top 5 workplace time-traps

Laura Stack — №18 with Scott Belsky

Remember the cartoon character George Jetson’s grueling two-hour workday, which earned him a deluxe apartment in the sky? Whatever happened to that future? Instead of enjoying a shrinking workweek due to better technology, according to some, the average American workweek has actually grown to nearly 60 hours!

How is it that we have less discretionary time and work harder than ever, even though technological breakthroughs have made us all incredibly productive? Seth Godin wrote in a recent blog post, “You’d think that with all the iPad productivity apps, smartphone productivity apps, productivity blogs and techniques and discussions… that we’d be more productive as a result.” You’d think, right?

To be blunt, some of it’s due to simple inefficiency. I’ve been a productivity expert for two decades, and I see my colleagues and clients battling the exact same dragons over and over again. In this month’s column, let’s take a look at the five biggest time-traps that drag down our productivity, and how to deal with them.

Trap 1: poor prioritization

Poor prioritization comes in two basic flavors: either you can’t effectively juggle multiple tasks on your own, or you’re trying to please a boss who labels everything urgent and top priority. Either flavor can generate the paralysis of analysis, in which nothing significant gets done, or in which longer hours of work are needed just to keep up with the workload.

Whatever the cause, if you find yourself in this time-trap, you may soon fall prey to overwork and overwhelm. The solution is one of those “easy to say, hard to do” conundrums: tackle your tasks in order of Return on Value (ROV).

Reduce your must-do tasks to the few items that truly matter, based on your role’s key responsibilities and job requirements. Drop anything you can, give misplaced tasks to the people they really belong to, and delegate others whenever possible. Move “someday” tasks back to your Master List until you have time to deal with them.

If your boss considers everything she assigns you top priority, due yesterday, then meet with her and respectfully ask that she realistically prioritize your projects. If she can’t or won’t, then you’ll just have to do it yourself.

Trap 2: distractions/interruptions

Loud conversations, ringing phones, unscheduled interruptions, email alerts, and our own wandering attention all drag us out of our work focus repeatedly during a typical workday. Occasionally we also have to deal with crises, emergencies, and communication breakdowns.

As with most time-traps, the solution here usually boils down to the firm application of self-discipline. Rather than allow the same things to constantly interrupt your focus, find a way to deal with them once and for all. If noise is a problem, start wearing noise-canceling headphones and listening to music or ambient sound as you work. If you need to focus, don’t answer emails and phone calls as soon as they come in. Turn off email alerts and let calls roll over to voicemail. Go to a quieter place to work. If you have an assistant, filter your communications through that person first.

Trap 3: overwork

We’ve all complained at one time or another, “There’s not enough time in the day!” And it’s just getting worst: as the American workforce stretches toward a productivity breaking point, it seems that we have more work than we can handle in a given day.

But time remains our most precious resource; given the set length of the day, we can give up only so much of the time we need for sleep, good health, socializing, family, and all the other things that make life worth living. You have no choice but to more firmly control your behavior, trimming away the unimportant and tightly controlling how you spend every minute of your workday. Firm, consistent time management and hard work are the only way to pull out of this trap.

Trap 4. poor self-discipline

Among those I’ve surveyed, poor self-discipline falls fourth on the list of recognized time traps. But whether we’re willing admit it or not, a simple lack of willpower gives rise to almost all of our time traps. It’s the grandparent of lost productivity. Many of us have problems maintaining focus on work, for a variety of reasons: interruptions and distractions, disinterest, attempts at multitasking, or a simple inability to concentrate. Some fail at setting or hitting goals, or simply being punctual. Tighten up that willpower, apply necessary time-management techniques, and take back your workday.

A secondary issue expressed by about a quarter of those who cite this as their biggest time trap is procrastination. For a variety of reasons — fear of failure or success, dislike, disinterest, overwhelm, confusion, and the like — we drag our heels on some tasks. The only way to overcome this issue is to force yourself to “eat the frog”, as Brian Tracy puts it, taking care of the issue immediately instead of putting it aside for later. Big, daunting tasks require reduction into smaller subtasks with their own mileposts and deadlines you can more easily handle.

Trap 5: poor organization

Personal chaos can also bog you down. If you don’t take a little time each day to organize your data, plan out your tasks, write to-do lists, and otherwise prepare for what’s coming up, you may end up wasting large chunks of time looking for things, figuring out what to do next, determining your action items, and in general untangling the snarled web of your workflow. Refuse to accept such chaos in your life! You may not be able to control how well other people organize their lives, but you can certainly control your own.

First, set up a simple filing system for paper and electronic files, using a logical, intuitive naming protocol, and file things as you receive them. You shouldn’t have to take more than a minute or so to find any piece of information you need. Next, adopt a C-O-R-E- organizational system: Capture, Organize, Reference, and Execute. I capture to-dos in a notebook, organize what’s left in Outlook Tasks, Reference in my smartphone with the “Touchdown” app, and Execute on my desktop. What’s your C-O-R-E method?

Make time not only to plan, but also to review your big picture work, to ensure you know what’s working and what isn’t for both you and your team. Then take steps to make any necessary repairs. The time you spend now will help you avoid train wrecks later.

The bottom line

There you have it: my list of the top five time management traps, based on two decades of helping people hone their workplace productivity. There are others, but these are the worst of the worst. Ultimately, working your way free of any of these problems comes down to determining what’s most valuable, clamping down hard on your self-discipline, and bringing a laser-sharp focus on what truly matters — and nothing more. It may not be easy to do, but it really is as simple as that.

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Photo: Flickr / Thomas Claveirole CC BY-SA 2.0

Laura stack

Laura Stack

Laura Stack is America’s premier expert in productivity. For over 20 years, her speeches have helped entrepreneurs, leaders, teams, and organizations improve output, lower stress, and save time at work and in life. Her company, The Productivity Pro®, Inc., provides time management workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®.

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