Productivity is a key area of focus for any business, but tackling your own and your team’s to-do list effectively is easier said than done. So we invited Ben Hawkes, a business psychologist with over 10 years’ experience, to offer his words of wisdom on how to channel the most productive version of yourself.
Ben Hawkes, Business Psychologist and founder of Mindsight
Kensington’s Voice of IT Report 2016 confirms that IT professionals identify most with the role of ‘firefighter’ (32%). Is it some comfort to know that many of your colleagues outside of IT – from HR to Marketing to Finance – often feel the same way in their roles? Maybe not. But at least, with firefighting being so common, it does mean that there are already a number of tried and trusted techniques to help manage urgent tasks in order to better focus on longer term, proactive or strategic exercises. Here’s one technique: five steps to take control of your schedule.
- Decide what’s important and what’s urgent.
Here’s a 2×2 matrix with urgency along the bottom and importance up the side. Where do you spend most of your time? If you’re firefighting, you’re probably spending a lot more time in that top right quadrant on High Importance/High Urgency (HIHU) tasks.
How much time do you spend on High Important/Low Urgency (HILU) tasks in the top left? That’s where strategy, planning and other proactive duties sit. Sure they’re important, but because they’re not urgent, they get shoved aside while the important and urgent responsibilities get taken care of.
- Triage your tasks.
Do you begin the day with a to-do list? If you don’t then start now. Block out at least 15 minutes at the beginning of the day, and a little more time on Monday mornings. But instead of just writing a list, dump everything you have to do into a blank version of this matrix, assigning each task to one of the Important/Urgent quadrants.
- Create your schedule.
Now you have your To-Do Matrix, start clockwise from the top left. Schedule those HILU tasks before anything else.
Then focus on the top right quadrant. Schedule what you can, but allow contingency time for new urgent duties that might come in during the day.
Then look at the bottom right. Do you need to do those Low Importance/High Urgency tasks or can they be delegated or off-loaded?
Finally, the bottom left. Low Urgency, and Low Importance tasks: do they really need to be done at all? If not, then dump them. Your time is too valuable.
- Carve out HILU time.
The To-Do Matrix will set you up for the day. But being proactive and strategic is about more than just the day-to-day. So regularly carve out time to focus on the long-term. Schedule a block of time every week – or every day if possible – to focus on long-term projects, strategy and other HILU tasks. And don’t stop there. Set aside time in meetings and in your conversations with your manager to focus on HILU tasks.
- Stick to your guns.
You control your schedule. Or at least some of it, I hope. So as much as you can, fit the firefighting around your already scheduled blocks of HILU tasks. Treat your scheduling of HILU tasks as sacred: avoid rescheduling these unless absolutely necessary.
Following these steps will help you to keep focus on important, long-term strategy, but still allow time for the necessary firefighting. And for some people, this To-Do Matrix approach is enough. If you need something more sophisticated, there are plenty of other productivity tools out there. Getting Things Done, Zen to Done and the Pomodoro Technique are some of the methods I see used most often.