Managing your Time & Work Distractions

What did you do yesterday during your working hours? You probably would answer "worked" but some would disagree. Managing your time is more than just planning, it's follow-up as well. Can you give a minute-by-minute account of what you do in the day? Here's why you want to!

Early in my pre-entrepreneur career, a wise person suggested that I give an account of all of my time. I was just starting out in the business world and eager to learn from this pseudo-mentor so I tried to do as he suggested.

I already was in the good habit of planning the night before what I needed to do the following day. I would write down a list, schedule the tasks that could be scheduled, and prioritized the other tasks that weren’t associated with a time-frame. If you polled most people about what they do to manage their time, I was already ahead of the game. But don’t congratulate me just yet.

I took this wise person’s advice and tracked my time the next day. While I wrote my planned schedule in blue, I wrote my real schedule in red.

I must confess that I did not see blue lines and red lines mix to become purple lines on the page. Instead, I saw a big chunk of time in blue in which I planned to sit down and finish some work on a project. The red showed what really happened: I sat down about five minutes later than I planned, checked my emails for five minutes, worked for ten minutes, got up and went to the water cooler, then stopped at a colleague’s desk to chat.

I had blocked an hour to work. I could have gotten the project done in that time. Instead I really only worked about twenty-five minutes and, as you can imagine, had to schedule it again the very next day.

I am not alone.

Studies have shown that it can take between ten and twenty minutes of “ramp-up” time each time you start a new project and my personal experience has shown that most people don’t have an attention span longer than 15 minutes at work. Can you imagine what could get done if we needed less ramp-up time and could focus for longer periods?

That was my experience in the corporate world. I’ve learned that it’s not that different in the world of entrepreneurs. Yes, we work very hard and have more on the line, but if you work at home you know the temptation to make more coffee, take another bathroom break, call a friend, walk the dog, or see who’s on Oprah.

This is a great exercise to do for a week. Each day or each week (however you plan your time) mark it out in one color: schedule tasks, estimate how long you think it will take to perform the things you need to do. Be detailed, right down to how long you think it takes you to drive somewhere.

Then, in another color, monitor your progress through the week. When I do this exercise periodically (yes, I still do), I use one of those sports watches with a stopwatch function. That way, I start a project I have planned for an hour and I can pause it if I have a must-answer phone call. Then, I can see how long the total one hour project took me (usually longer) and how much time I actually spent on the project itself compared to distractions.

As you’re tracking your time, remember this: you’re probably realizing how often you let distractions get in the way of your projects…how much more did they get in the way before you started paying attention to them?!

What can you do with this information? Just like any productivity metric, it’s easy to be wowed by the number and ignore it. Or you can use it as a motivator to improve your efficiency. You can learn that it really takes 20 minutes to get somewhere (if all the lights are green) instead of the 15 minutes you used to allot yourself.

And you’ll learn this, too: Projects that you used to schedule (for example) an hour to do will suddenly only take 45 minutes. Why? Because you’re training yourself to focus on those projects more clearly. That means more time in the day.

It pays to know the value of your time. If you plan your day, you’re a top ten performer. If you track your day as it progresses, you’ll leave everyone in the dust.

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