It’s a joy and a challenge to work with a whip smart client who has tried it all and looks to me for some out-of-the-ordinary advice. I knew she and I would be working on her email last week. She didn’t want someone else to tell her to create more email folders and just reply to things on time. In addition to agreeing to turn off notifications and check email far less on her phone, she selected a pair of systems from my smorgasbord of ideas that elicited this email two days later:
Hi Kacy - I’m so sorry to bother you but this technique is making me into a new person. In case you are interested, I completed three pretty big tasks after my rough start this morning. See my diary below……I promise you I won’t be sending you my diary to read all the time but I was just so proud of myself and I’m going to keep using this timer and diary! It actually works and made me realize that I’m a lost cause without it! I’m also completely time blind so always think I can do more than is possible and then feel like a failure when I can’t pull everything off! Where has this timer been all my life???? Thanks so much!
I sensed that she had a false sense of email mastery because she eyed her email easily dozens of times per day. (Who else is guilty of the same thing? I’m also raising my hand.) But, she was also to the point of asking people for information that they had already sent. This was more of a focus problem than anything. She was rarely allowing herself time to focus on email for more than a couple of minutes at the most - just enough for it to stress her out, but not enough time to thoroughly take inventory and prioritize replies.
Having been inside of hundreds of homes, offices, and inboxes, I’ve come to realize that all organizing projects are more than meet the eye. The potential rewards of finally organizing that thing often expand far beyond the square feet of clear space, a shorter daily to do list, or waking up to fewer fires to put out. To solve any organizing problem is to potentially free you form much more than the stuff in front of you.
Turns out, her inbox problem was a Trojan horse. She began to see her inbox for what it was: a scattered focus emergency. I wanted her to spend less time in email, starting yesterday, not more time shuffling it all around. We had a great opportunity! What if by pacifying her screaming inbox we could simultaneously help her to actually work smarter, and therefore, less?
Here are the two solutions she picked from my bag of tricks:
1. Use a timer on your computer screen to hyper focus in substantial blocks.
Part of my reply to her email above was:
I’m thrilled that it’s helping so much and so quickly. I’ve been using a menubar timer for so long and it’s become such a part of me, that I probably don’t recommend it as much as I should! Isn’t it eye-opening?
Seeing how she was mindlessly checking email on the elevator and countless times mid-writing project at her desk, even to focus for 15 minutes at a time is quite a substantial block. She quickly realized that though 15 minutes can be hard to find (especially when working from home), she can move mountains in that amount of time. Her goal is to train her focus to the point of checking email only 4-5x/day, but giving each email check 15 minutes. No more peeking out of reflex. It may not sound like much, but that is an hour and a quarter of focused email time each day. She’s a PhD who was hired for her brain, not to be a switchboard that’s always on!
Other things I use my timer for:
It’s set right now for 15 minutes because I should be able to finish this post in that amount of time.
Most often, I set it for 25 minutes since I’m an avid user of the Pomodoro technique.
Getting through a “tough” email that, once finally getting to it, should only take a couple of minutes.
As a Mac user, I’ve bee using Menubar Countdown (pictured here) for well over 5 years. Unfortunately, it’s no longer available for download, but Thyme looks like the next best thing. Windows users like my client will need to download Hourglass. Both are free.
2. Keep a time diary.
Admittedly, this is something I haven’t done yet. When mentioning that she might want to keep a time diary the way some people keep a food diary when wanting to eat better, she jumped on it - and started the very next day. She wrote:
Hi Kacy – the diary was the best advice I’ve ever received/taken! Look at this! And without this I would have probably thought “I’m working so hard on all things that need to be done. I just have too much work to get anything done!”:
Saturday October 13, 2018
I timed myself to start working on the Timor paper, giving myself 30 minutes. The clock had come down to 15 minutes when I actually got around to starting. I got distracted with other things that I had not intended to do but were still work related. It will be useful to apply the “let’s finish this first”. Clock is now at 14 minutes and 30 seconds!
Ok, I then got carried away doing some emails that came in. I am opening the document now, with 2 minutes, 15 sec remaining on clock!
Timer just rang and I am just opening the doc I set out to read! I had to find the format we used from last year so I could make my comments! reading now!
Starting timer again for 15 minutes…..but then I have to go to birthday party! So much for fitting this activity into one half hour that I had available! The other things were necessary too but probably not the highest priority and now I have no sense of satisfaction because I didn’t finish what I set out to do.
2 minutes into my new timer….
Ok, I started but then in the same document where I was supposed to be reading about Timor, I got side-tracked and started writing someone else about Congo Republic.
“Let’s finish this first!” 46 minutes later I still have not started! Although I did open the document! 😊
Now I have to leave for the birthday party!
I need to breathe. Who can’t relate to this!? How does 30 minutes become two rushed minutes? My hope is that anyone reading this will also unravel the mystery of why so little gets done in seemingly so much time.
Both of these exercises keep you honest.
The timer can both track your work (as she did by coupling it with the diary) and, grant you, laser focus. The diary, tedious as it is, pulls back the curtain on where the time and valuable moments of focus are truly spent. In the beginning it may startlingly reveal how fractured your time is. For those of you who love to track, it can become a part of every day. Eventually you’ll look back on your time diary to reveal a clean list of both focused bursts and longer stretches of time.
Download a timer for your computer screen. Again, Thyme is for Macs and Hourglass is for Windows. No, a phone timer is just not the same. I don’t want your focus moving from screen to screen. Start using it to time yourself on completing tasks anywhere from 2 - 25 minutes.
As an advanced move, keep a time diary. Just commit to one day. As we can see in the example here, it’s enough to scare you straight into working smarter to work less!
In time, and perhaps even on day one, you’ll shock yourself at how much time has been wasted, but also how much time you’re suddenly saving! Time is right under our noses for the picking. As a side effect, that inbox might just evaporate along the way.
Can you relate to my client? Have you ever kept a time diary? If so, what did it reveal? Do you work off of a timer? Have you worked off of a screen timer like the ones shared here? What percentage of your “work” time do you think is spent not really focusing at all? What will you do differently now? Please share in the comments!