Why cats manage their time better than you do
Ever looked into a cat's eyes and quickly understood that it would allow you no closer than a certain boundary? Corporate speaker and trainer Fred Kniggendorf says there's a certain genius to that brand of iciness. Cats tend to draw lines in the sand, cast a baleful eye at unwelcome intrusion and cling steadfast to their top priorities. When it comes to time management, you could do worse than emulating the way they set norms and adhere to them.
Even now someone is approaching your office with a problem—it's either going to be a productive 12-second conversation or a 12-minute infinite loop. Will you put up boundaries like a cat would, or will you watch the minutes just tick away while emails mount and another time-eating problem without a solution is laid at your feet?
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Establish and protect your norm
Time management begins with deciding what you want normal to look like, then visualizing it. Write out a wish list on paper. It might read:
- "I wish Accounting would know how to do some of the things I do."
- "I wish Everett would respect my privacy."
- "I wish I could stop accepting roles on committees that don't do much of anything."
When your list is done, it's time to go into "full warrior mode." Announce your decision to start streamlining your time to anyone who might be affected by it; this way they understand the importance of what you're trying to do, plus you're more likely to adhere to a program you've broadcast to the world. The arc of your lifestyle change begins here. Imagine what your typical day will look like when the transformation is complete: That's the arc's end, the ideal to keep in mind throughout this journey.
Now, back to that wish list: One by one, identify the source of each problem. Chances are, you know exactly who's to blame, even if sometimes it's yourself. To begin with, stop letting the office be a giant game of Whack-a-Mole, with you quashing every little issue that springs up. Thinking in terms of "If this happens, here is what I'm going to do," decide on a strong default position to adopt when a minor problem is dropped at your door. Make those who drop it embrace a very clunky but very useful acronym: DBMPBMS — Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions. It looks great on a sign; try it.
"Teach people to fish," Kniggendorf says, "because control breeds dependency." The more you solve things for others, the more comfortable they become never having to think about them. Don't patch a problem just to get through until next month; create a solution for it so it will never haunt you again. If you solve the same problem for two different people on two different days, you should hear a giant buzzer go off in your mind. Behavior tolerated is behavior approved.
After deciding how you're going to thwart your co-workers from stealing your time, examine what else is slowing you down. Sit at your desk and look around you. "Clutter breeds confusion," Kniggendorf explains; to beat it, try sometime to literally move everything out of your office. As each object tries to get back in, examine it heartlessly and make it justify itself to your workday.
Abandon sentimentality. We all have sacred cows we hate to get rid of, but as Kniggendorf likes to say, "Sacred cows often make the best burgers." If that giant procedures binder you worked for three years to complete has no actual use anymore, kiss it goodbye. You can talk about those three years fondly around a campfire sometime, but the binder is now clutter.
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Save your steps
If you've ever been on crutches, you're familiar with the concept of grouping your tasks when you're challenged to hobble from the living room to the kitchen. In the office life, this doesn't just mean asking the right questions at meetings so you don't have to suffer through another one. Think of your emails, and how in trying to provide information, you can leave the conversation open to creating long chains of thank-yous or clarifications. Take the lead and let people know exactly what you intend to do about an issue, and by what time, if you don't hear back from them.
Think even of your voice mail message—does it demand what you really want to know from people? "Please leave your name, number, the reason you're calling, what you need and when you'll be available for a call-back." That's assertive, clear and resolute, as is "No reply needed" on an email message. Eliminate terms like "urgent" and "ASAP"; get specific and steps will be saved. You might even try an (eom) in a subject line, meaning "end of message." If it's visible in a pop-up when the email comes through, you just saved someone the trouble of even having to open it.
Beat your soft addictions
"Stop glorifying the concept of "busy," Kniggendorf advises. There are many ways to feel like you're doing something when you're really not. LinkedIn, email, Twitter, shopping online for stuff you really don't need … those are the easy targets to hone in on. But consider also whether you've become someone else's soft addiction. Do you listen too much to co-workers' stories? Do you allow them to triangulate their complaints, acting as a sympathetic sounding board for them rather than insisting they take their issue directly to the one person who can actually help them?
Are you doing the same thing at home, wasting time by making your family listen to work problems they can't possibly solve, because you've become addicted to their empathy? Office drama itself can make us feel busy even as it produces nothing, so lose it.
Massage your to-do lists
To-do lists truly are an excellent daily snapshot of what you need to get done, and it can feel mighty fine to cross out each item. An efficient list should consist of three simple categories:
- Important AND urgent
- Important but NOT urgent
Nice to do (Ah ha! A category of items you should be delegating to your interrupters—those folks who likely popped up on your original wish list.)
And with any to-do list, remember the Two-Minute Rule: If something will take less than two minutes to complete, do it now rather than making the list longer. Never feed the beast if you don't have to.
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- The one skill you must have to fly through your day quickly
- 5 realistic guidelines for striking the right balance between work and life
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- 5 secrets to reduce clutter and organize every piece of paper that comes across your desk
- The secrets to working with any type of boss
- 10 ways to master office politics
- 3 clever strategies for being politely disagreeable
- 12 simple strategies to increase your value
- A 5-step plan to get the raise you want