Proactive, protective, and intentional: How 3 concepts changed my approach to time management

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“Would you be able to run a session on managing time and increasing efficiency? We heard that that’s your signature workshop. And honestly, we could really use some of that.” I smile. And, of course, I say yes. With all the diversity of requirements that comes with working with teams around the globe, it’s astonishing how the question of what topic or skill individuals struggle most with always evokes the same answer. It’s as simple as it is consistent: Time management. Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as the ultimate hack or system. In fact, there’s likely as many versions and opinions on effective time management as there are people on this planet. But although I cannot say that I have found the holy grail by any means, I have been complimented many times over the years on my efficiency and reliability in regards to timing.

Little do people know that my former self can’t help but smile every time I hear this. It is grounding to be reminded of a time when this used to be very different. I was a highly successful individual contributor to the company back then and had additionally just hired a junior team around me that demanded my full attention. On top of this, I had recently taken over the responsibility for the rest of the office, at a time where morale and engagement where at an all-time low. I was in way over my head! After one of several breakdowns, likely the result of a combination of anxiety and insomnia, I realized there were only two options to preserve sanity – quit my job, or learn how to become ridiculously efficient with my time and energy.

Well, I’m not a quitter, and I’m loyal to the core. So I chose to try, started taking classes, getting coaching and reading books on how to time-manage effectively. I tried out different approaches and tactics, 90% of which did not work out. But after some time, things started falling into place, and step by step my situation got better and I felt more in control. And I got what I wanted. Efficiency, and a new nickname: The “German Engineer”.

To be fair, many of the concepts and tactics I learned about turned out not to work for me, so it was certainly a process of trial and error. And although it will likely be the same for you, I want to offer you the three concepts that stuck with me most, and that have forever changed my view on time and efficiency.

Concept A: Be protective of your flow and control the detrimental power of ramp-up time! Still think multitasking is the ultimate skill to have for being time efficient? Think again! Neuroscientists have uncovered the true nature of multi-tasking, showing that the brain is actually not dividing its focus on multiple things at the same time but rather jumping in between tasks quickly and repeatedly, which is one of the most energy-consuming activities it can engage in.

To understand ramp-up time, picture a huge oven in an industrial bakery. After it is switched on, it will need significant time and energy to heat up, degree by degree, but once it is at the right temperature, it can bake loads of bread with high efficiency and only little energy for maintenance.

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The same logic applies to our brain and focus. Think about your level of effectivity when you first sit down to do your taxes. Or pick up the phone to call the first on a list of 20 customers. You can almost rely on the fact that the first 15 minutes will be the least effective, yet the most demanding energy-wise. Why? Because your brain is still heating up! And it takes a while until you’re at full performance.

Following this thought, what do you think happens when we constantly switch from task to task without every getting into a flow in either one of them? Well, I tell you what happened to me: I spent my days in a high-energy-low-output constant ramp-up situation. While I was still ramping up on dealing with a complicated client issue, I switched to ramping up on a candidate conversation, before being interrupted by and ramping up on an internal process problem. By the time I got back to the client issue, I had to ramp up again. From the bottom of the curve. At the end of the day, it felt like I had done a million things without finishing any of them, while having completely exhausted myself.

Understanding ramp-up time was one of my biggest epiphanies. Knowing this, I got very protective of the times when I am in flow. Planning my day in clear blocks has become one of the most important drivers of efficiency. If you want to read up more on this, Jilian Kramer has interviewed several CEOs for their hacks on improving their time management, and most of them involve planning and sticking to clear blocks, including for administrative and personal time, and the use of to-do lists to mitigate immediate distraction.

Concept B: Keep a proactive approach and concentrate on your “circle of control” vs. your “circle of concern”. This will not be new for any fans of Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits” – the difference between proactivity and reactivity. One of the most important concepts in my opinion. Are you running your day, or are you run by it? Are you focusing on the circle of concern, on things that admittedly have an impact on your business, but without you having control over them? Or are you concentrating on your circle of control, the actual things you can do to influence a situation and change it for the better?

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It might sound basic, but it’s one of the most fundamental questions. How much do you see yourself as a victim and an object? At the mercy of things happening to you and people messing with you? Or on the contrary, how much do you take charge of what happens in your life, your business and your relationships? Don’t get me wrong – the circle of concern exists, and it would be foolish not to acknowledge its existence. But what do you focus your actions and your thoughts on? The things you can do? Or the things being done to you? If you understand that it is perfectly within your ability to choose how you react to and go about a problem, or even life in general, you start taking “response-ability” for it. Because, frankly, every minute that you spend in the circle of concern without taking action in areas that you actually have control over is lost time and sunk opportunity.

A good way of checking whether your focus is in the circle of control or the circle of concern is setting random and recurring reminders on your calendar or your phone with pop-ups like “what circle are you in?” Alternatively, it could be a trusted colleague that asks you this question every time they pass your desk. The trick is to check yourself in unconscious situations during the course of the day in order to regain control.

Concept C: “Invest” your time intentionally by evaluating options.

We live in a world of endless opportunity. I believe that most of our limitations exist only in our heads. Technology has pushed the boundaries of almost everything we know and is continuing to do so. Yet, in all of this abundance, there’s one resource that is the same for everyone: Time! 24 hours a day is all we have to spend. The same amount for everyone on the planet. Yet, it is the resource we are sometimes least concerned about. Mel Robbins wrote a great article on how companies compete around everyone’s time and attention, with one key sentence really hitting home for me: “Remind yourself that you are the product, and your attention is being sold!” Scary, I know. But it is reality.

What if we applied the same diligence to how we spend our time maximizing our life as to how we invest our money maximizing our assets? A fun exercise is to determine what a day is worth for us. Or an hour. Even a minute. Take your salary (or your target income) and divide it by your working hours. Or by the clients you work with. Or the phone calls you make. How much are these entities worth? It will have you approach time differently, because in the end, we all want to get the maximum outcome of the time we spent on things, be it work, pleasure or relaxation.

The most important tool for me to determine what to invest my time in and concentrate on is the very simple but incredibly effective “Eisenhower Matrix” that aligns activities along the two dimensions of urgency and importance. If you look at the concept, you realize two things. Firstly, we tend to overestimate urgency and importance, giving certain tasks far too much importance or urgency. We think we need to spend our day in quadrant #1, the “fire fighting quadrant”, while spending most of our time in quadrant #2, the “quality quadrant”, would be much more effective. And secondly, we overlook the fact that a lot of important things start out to show up in quadrant #2 but move to higher urgency with time.

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Planning out your time focusing on the second quadrant, dealing with important things while they’re not yet urgent and pressing, has a significant impact on the effectiveness of your days.

No matter what you do with these concepts, and how many others you decide to look at, please don’t give up trying just because something didn’t work right away. Some strategies need time to make it into your routine, and trial-and-error sometimes ironically enough takes its sweet time.

Want more? A recent Harvard Business Review article by Paul Argenti talks about similar strategies with a focus on planning for communication – definitely worth a read!

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