This is a familiar scene each day. I walk into my office in the morning with a vague sense of what I want to accomplish. Then I sit down, turn on my computer, and check my email. Time moves on and a few hours later, after fire-fighting and troubleshooting, solving various problems, and dealing with whatever is flung at me through my computer and phone, I can hardly recall what I had set out to do when I first turned on my computer. I sit back, tired and forlorn, looking for a solution for such challenging situations.
This scene repeats each day and I am so consumed by these routine tasks that I start cursing the company, the environment, the people, the work assigned and so on, but lay no blame on myself. I try to reason and find justification for my actions. I retire for the day with a resolve to complete some of the tasks next day but do no better in the day that follows.
After reading a book, ‘First Things First’ by Stephen Covey, and a couple of workshops later, I realized the folly of falling into this do-loop. Starting the day with a vague sense of purpose, I understood, doesn’t get me anywhere as I start reacting to whatever scene that unfolds in front of me. I am therefore led by the events that occur rather than I determining how the day should proceed for me.
The task list
The best thing therefore is to start the day with a clear sense of purpose and lay down for yourself matters that you think are important to attend to. In simple terms what you need to do is to write out a ‘to-do’ list. Set a plan for the day. Spend five minutes before turning on your computer in the morning to write down what you want to accomplish that day. Be realistic. Schedule time in your calendar to get each thing done, putting the harder tasks at the beginning of the day.
Just preparing the list is not enough; the tasks have to be executed too. Every hour, take a minute to stop what you’re doing, look at your list, and reflect on your last hour. Was it productive? What can you do to make the next hour productive? At the end of the day, as you are closing down your work, review your day and ask yourself what you were able to accomplish. If you have been unable to achieve much of what you set out to do, ask yourself – what will you do differently tomorrow to be more productive?
Prioritize your chores
How we spend our time usefully during the day is the key strategic decision. You may end up doing a lot of unimportant tasks and leave out key tasks because you did not have time enough to execute them. It is natural to pick up simple and miscellaneous tasks thinking that once you get them out of the way, you can concentrate on the important ones that need time.
These include disposing off all pending papers, going through the inbox to read/delete/forward mails to keep the inbox clean and stopping at your colleague’s desk to exchange pleasantries. The truth is that before you realize, most of the day gets over leaving very little time to work on larger tasks that have been waiting for your attention. These tasks therefore are put off for the next day and the same routine gets carried forward.
The task list therefore needs to be split into those tasks that are large and critical and others that could be important but not urgent. It is better to address the critical jobs first and the smaller tasks can fill in during the time available in the day. Towards the end, as you prepare to wind up for the day and are relaxed, you could clear your desk and the mailbox and get back home with a good sense of having accomplished what you had targeted and come back the next day with new targets.