One of the exercises we did was particularly revealing. We tracked how we spent our time over the course of a work week, recording our activities in 15-minute intervals. One of the goals of the program was to do a better job of blocking time for specific tasks. We had learned that multitasking results in a net loss of productivity. The time tracking exercise would show how far we had to go.
That week was an atypical one for me, and I initially feared it would skew the results of the exercise. Out of the 63 hours I recorded at work that week, 42 were spent on a single task—a major proposal. But to my amazement, I only had one block as long as two hours on a task (the proposal). There were several one-hour blocks, mostly after hours. But the bulk of my time was expended in blocks of less than an hour, despite the fact that two-thirds of it was on a single task!
Most of my colleagues had similar results, as have my clients who have since taken my advice to conduct the exercise themselves. We are all prone to multitasking—switching back and forth between tasks in a short time period—and it costs us, not only in productivity but in mental acuity. So it not only takes longer to complete tasks, but we don't perform them as well.
For this reason, I strongly encourage you to inventory how you spend your time at work. I have developed the Time Tracker to help you record your time. I conceded to 30-minute intervals, which doesn't capture task switching as well, but is easier to keep track of. I also added another element—assigning your tasks to Stephen Covey's Time Management Matrix.
Covey researched how managers in various organizations spent their time. Those in the top performing organizations spent most of their time in Quadrant II, activities that are important but not urgent. Those in typical organizations spent the bulk of their time in Quadrant III, activities that are urgent but not important. Do you know where you spend most of your time?
The difference between the two groups reflects the natural tendency to be controlled by urgency. The most successful managers resist the pull, focusing most of their time on what matters most. Typical managers are so influenced by urgency that they end of spending most of their time on things that aren't important. Any wonder that there's a difference in how their respective organizations perform?
The pull of urgency no doubt inhibits our ability to block time as well. We are constantly yielding to whatever tasks are most urgent, at the cost of those that are less so (and often more important).
So how do you decide what is important? It's often not an easy question to answer. If something needs to be done, does that make it important? If it needs to be done now, does that make it more important? Not necessarily. Let me suggest a few guidelines on how to distinguish between Quadrant II and Quadrant III activities:
- Quadrant II activities typically have a future, long-term payoff. They are the things you know you should be doing but keeping putting off. Quadrant III payoffs are more immediate, which is why we're attracted to them.
- Quadrant II activities are often tasks that you can't delegate. Quadrant III activities, by contrast, may seem to demand your immediate attention, but could probably be handed off to someone else.
- Quadrant III tasks are usually imposed on you by others or by circumstance. Quadrant II tasks are more often something you undertake of your own volition. Saying no is key to preserving time for Quadrant II activities.