Time Management or Attention Management?

Time can’t be managed—it just is.

So time management is really about managing our attention.

Flickr/Darron Berginheier

Staying focused on the task at hand is more difficult than it ever was, with open work spaces and an infinite number of media sources vying for our wandering attention. Of course, some people are naturally goal- driven and can more easily stay focused in spite of distractions. While others are “interrupt driven”, in other words, their mind gives priority to external distractions, making it very difficult to stay focused in today’s “twitterverse”.

For those who are easily distracted, it’s important to put some kind of structure in place to help maintain focus when necessary.

And then there are those who seem to operate in crisis management mode all the time. While this pattern might be a product of their external working reality, crisis can often be managed more effectively with a little forethought and prevention.

Of course, allowing something to become a crisis before addressing it can provide a rush—and some people thrive on being the troubleshooter who comes in at the last minute to save the day. It’s important to remember that a lot of damage can be done when things are allowed to get to a critical state; after all, if you are always putting out fires, something has already burned! Fire prevention in the form of planning and monitoring may not be quite as exciting, but it minimizes damage and reduces stress (for you and those around you!).

Regardless of your working style, the Time Management Matrix, popularized by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, will help you prioritize and determine which activities best warrant your attention and resources:

Urgent = in your face, vying for your immediate attention.
Important = Critical to the success of your role. Essential to the business or organization.

The judgement as to whether activities are urgent, important, both or neither, is crucial for good time management.

Most inexperienced people, and people who are not good at managing their time, attention, or their environment, tend to spend most of their time in quadrants 1 and 3.

Poor time managers tend to prioritize tasks (and thereby their time), according to who shouted last and loudest (interestingly, loudness normally correlates to seniority, which discourages most people from questioning and probing the real importance and urgency of tasks received from bosses and senior managers).

Any spare time is typically spent in quadrant 4, which comprises only aimless and non-productive activities. Most people spend the least time of all in quadrant 2, which is the most critical area for success, development and proactive self-determination.

What to Do

Consider the many circumstances, activities and demands that vie for your time and attention during a typical workday, and fit them into the appropriate quadrant. Then act on them as appropriate.

Q1 – Urgent and Important: DO NOW
(vying for immediate attention and critical to your success and/or that of the organization).

These are real major emergencies and crisis issues , significant demands for information from superiors or customers, project work with imminent deadline, meetings and appointments, reports and other submissions, staff issues or needs, problem resolution, fire-fighting, fixes, serious urgent complaints

  • Subject to confirming the importance and the urgency of these tasks, do them now.
  • Prioritise tasks that fall into this category according to their relative urgency.
  • If two or more tasks appear equally urgent, discuss and probe the actual requirements and deadlines with the task originators or with the people dependent on the task outcomes.
  • Help the originators of these demands to re-assess the real urgency and priority of these tasks if necessary.
  • These tasks should include activities that you’ve previously planned in box 2, which move into box 1 when the time-slot arrives.
  • Look for ways to break a task into two stages if it's an unplanned demand – often an initial 'holding' response or acknowledgment, with a commitment to resolve or complete at a later date, will let you resume other planned tasks.

Q2 – Not Urgent, but Important: PLAN TO DO
(not “in-your face” but critical to your success and/or that of your organization)

Activities that fall into this quadrant include: planning and preparation; project planning and scheduling; research and investigation; networking, relationship building, thinking and creating; modelling, designing, and testing; systems and process development; anticipative, preventative activities or communication; identifying the need for change and new direction, and developing strategy.

These tasks are most critical to success, and yet commonly are the most neglected. These activities include planning, strategic thinking, deciding direction and aims, etc., and are all crucial for success and development.

  • Plan time-slots for doing these tasks, and if necessary plan where you will do them free from interruptions, or 'urgent' matters from quadrant 1 and 3 will take precedence.
  • Work from home or elsewhere if your normal place of work cannot provide you with a quiet situation and protection from interruption.
  • Break big tasks down into separate logical stages and plan time-slots for each stage.
  • Use project management tools and methods.
  • Inform other people of your planned time-slots and schedules. 
  • Having a visible schedule is the key to being able to protect these vital time-slots. 

Q3 – Urgent, but not important: REJECT ( Diplomatically)
(in your face – but not important to your success and/or that of the organization)

This quadrant houses trivial and 'off-loaded' requests from others, apparent emergencies, ad-hoc interruptions, misunderstandings appearing as complaints , irrelevant distractions , pointless routines or activities , dealing with accumulated unresolved trivia , duplicated effort, unnecessary double-checking, and the boss's whims or tantrums.Scrutinize these demands ruthlessly, and help originators—even your boss and your senior managers—to re-assess the real importance of these tasks.

  • Practice and develop your ability to explain and justify to task originators why you cannot do these tasks. 
  • Where possible reject and avoid these tasks immediately, informing and managing people's expectations and sensitivities accordingly; explain why you cannot do these tasks and help the originator find another way of achieving what they need, which might involve delegation to another person, or re-shaping the demand to be more strategic, with a more sustainable solution.
  • Look for causes of repeating demands in this area and seek to prevent re-occurrence.
  • Educate and train others, including customers, suppliers, fellow staff and superiors, to identify long-term remedies, not just quick fixes. 
  • For repeating demands in this area, create a project to resolve cause, which will be a quadrant 2 task.
  • Challenge habitual systems, processes, procedures and expectations, eg “we've always done it this way”.
  • Help others to manage their own time and priorities, so they don't bounce their pressures onto you.
  • Question old policies and assumptions to see if they are still appropriate.

Q4 – Neither Urgent nor Important – RESIST AND CEASE
(the real time wasters – not vying for immediate attention and not important to success)

Finally, Q4 contains the many unnecessary and unchallenged routines ,'comfort' activities; computer games, net surfing, excessive cigarette breaks, chat and gossip (face-to-face and phone); social and domestic communications; silly emails and text messages; daydreaming and doodling; interrupting others; reading nonsense or irrelevant material; unnecessary adjusting, tidying, updating equipment, systems, screensavers, etc.; over-long breaks; embellishment and over-production; internet and YouTube surfing; drink and drug abuse; aimless travel and driving

  • These activities are not tasks; they are habitual comforters, which provide a refuge from the effort of discipline and pro-activity.
  • These activities affirm the same 'comfort-seeking' tendencies in other people; a group or whole department all doing a lot of this quadrant 4 activity creates a non-productive and ineffective organizational culture.
  • These activities have no positive outcomes, and are therefore demotivating when they become a regular occurrence.
  • Often they may be stress related, so consider why you (or your employees) do these things and if there's a deeper root cause address it.
  • The best method for ceasing these activities, and for removing temptation to gravitate back to them, is to have a clear structure or schedule of tasks for each day, which you can create in quadrant 2.

Your job is to assess and prioritize! While you can't manage time itself, you can focus on managing your attention and activities for exceptional results.

Use TribeHR’s goals tracking and company values to help your team prioritize activities and enhance performance.

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