Moving From Firefighting To Strategic Results

     

ThinkstockPhotos-498303868.jpgDo you feel like day to day tasks make it hard to focus on long term priorities? That you’re often a bottleneck for team members? Challenged with delegating tasks, given everyone has a lot on their plates too? Well that’s me; at least it was until I started working with a business consultant on improving my time management skills this year. Although I was not always in firefighting mode,…

I did feel like I was bouncing from one task to the next, getting too into the weeds, and leaving strategic planning to last priority, if at all. Karl Sakas, agency consultant at Sakas & Company, coached me over three months and here’s what I learned.

7 Tips To Improving Your Time Management

1. Know Your Goals 

Set longer term, say one and five year, goals.  For example, my one year goal is to become more strategic. Using the 80/20 rule, I should focus on what gives me 80% of the results with 20% of the effort. Steps to meet my one year goal include:

  • Assessing where my time is going now
  • Identifying top strategic priorities
  • Committing to a target on strategic work (i.e., hours per month)
  • Including strategic priorities in my monthly goal-setting (see below)
  • Making monthly adjustments based on issues I encounter

Then set monthly goals. Include three or four baseline goals, a reach goal and pre-goals to help meet these monthly goals. For example a baseline goal for me was to review my task spreadsheet and mark items where, in an ideal world, only I can/should do versus what others could be doing. And I set a due date to review the tasks.

My pre-goal was simply to schedule time to review the task spreadsheet and mark items. Karl cautioned that the goal-setting process can help me be more strategic, but there are limits if others don’t have bandwidth to do certain less strategic things.

2. Prioritize: Chunk Your Time Into The Four D's 

Rationalize your calendar by evaluating whether to Drop, Delegate, Delay, or Do (from time-management expert, Dr. John Lee). For me I needed to determine what would make me more efficient by reorganizing my daily time to remove unecessaries. That is, what can I Drop, Delegate, or Delay? The tasks left are for the Do. Once I cleared the clutter, I blocked personal time required for follow-up after meetings. Finally, I blocked heads down time meant to focus on those strategic tasks that were always falling to the bottom of the pile. This helps me prioritize my day.

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3. Build Incentives 

Establish rewards and penalties for meeting or missing your monthly goals. For my reward I decided I would book a massage. I don’t do that often so it would be a treat. If you already have a standing massage (well, actually, you’ll probably be lying down), you’ll need to think of something else unique and motivating. Karl suggested an equally motivating penalty of having to donate $10 to a campaign or cause I don’t agree with. Let me tell you, that spurred me on even more than the massage!

4. Stop Yak Shaving And Bike Shedding

Clear out your process inefficiencies.

First: Yak shaving has to do with drifting too far away from your original goal. It comes from this story: Your home office chair is making an annoying creak because of a loose bolt. You could tighten it, except it uses a hex head and you lent your bit set to your neighbor. You can’t ask for them back, because you first need to return something to your neighbor: a special anti-allergy pillow that you borrowed for a friend. But you can’t just return the pillow because the dog ripped half the stuffing out. The next thing you know, you’re down at the local zoo, shaving a yak, all to stop a squeaky chair.

All of the decisions to get there were individually justified, but at some point you drifted too far away from the original goal for those tasks to still make sense as a whole chain. Other options? Buy a new bit set, or give him some money for a new pillow. Or both. But don’t go shaving a yak. (See Wiktionary.org’s entry on yak shaving as well as a nice synopsis by Tathan Oddie.)

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Second: Bike shedding means working on too trivial of tasks. This originates with a metaphor to explain Parkinson’s law of triviality. A committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively. (From Wikipedia’s Law of trivialty.)

5. Work On Small Improvements – They’ll Add Up

Recognize and address tool inefficiencies. Consider this. If something takes six people 10 minutes, that’s an hour of productivity. If they have to do it two times per week and three weeks per month, that’s 72 hours a year. If you bill out at $100 per hour, it would be worth spending up to $7,200 to remove what might seem like an insignificant time waster. Bottom line, it’s often worth the effort to fix the tool (or find a more efficient approach).

Working in a distributed company, our team needs to be able to communicate real-time and quickly set up meetings and share screens. We’ve been bouncing from one productivity tool to the next. From Google Chat, Circuit, Slack, to Zoom. We needed to settle on one tool internally so we don’t have to go searching for our own team mates! Leave me a comment if you want to know what we chose.

6. Empower The Team

If people keep asking you what time it is, build them a clock. If you can explain the framework they should use to consider choices, they can make better future decisions without your being involved—and they’ll know when they do need to escalate to get your help.

This goes back to properly delegating (one of the four Ds). It’s worth it to train someone. Disclaimer here. I am still working on this one. It’s hard when we’re all busy. I am going to have to make one of next month’s baseline goals a delegation goal.

7. Make It A Habit

Schedule a daily calendar review to find items that have snuck onto it or changed priority and you can now Drop, Delegate, or Defer. Karl shared a “Top 5 Daily Checklist” to help organize my day. It consists of today’s top 5 tasks to work on in order and then smaller items. After I complete one of my top fives, I take a break, and then I complete a smaller task or two. Then repeat.

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Now that I am back from my massage, I need to figure out my next set of monthly goals.

And that’s it. I haven’t perfected this but I’ve realized: only I can prevent my own fires (cue Smokey’s deep bear voice) and managing my time is a key step to turning from reaction to proaction. Do you have any other tips?
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About The Author

Anita’s role, as VP of Client Services for BlueBird, is focused on maximizing client satisfaction, building successful teams, smoothing project and communication glitches, and helping set the strategy for our demand generation agency. She can be found hiking with her dog, attending live music shows with her husband (or assigning responsibility for that honey do list), and constantly multitasking with a good audio book.