Instead of better technology letting us enjoy a shrinking work week, as we’ve expected for decades, the average American work week has actually grown to nearly 60 hours!
How is it that we have less discretionary time and work harder than ever, even though technological breakthroughs have made us all incredibly productive?
To be blunt, some of it’s simple inefficiency. I’ve been a productivity expert for two decades, and I see my colleagues and clients battling the exact same dragons over and over.
Let’s take a look at the five biggest time-traps that drag down our productivity, and how to deal with them.
Trap #1: Poor prioritization
Poor prioritization comes in two flavors: either you can’t effectively juggle multiple tasks on your own, or you’re trying to please a boss who labels everything top priority. Either flavor generates the paralysis of analysis, in which nothing gets done, or the need to work longer just to keep up with the workload.
If you find yourself in this time-trap, you may soon fall prey to overwork. You may feel overwhelmed. The solution is an “easy to say, hard to do” conundrums: you have to confront the problem and wrestle it into submission before it destroys your productivity.
If your lack of organization is the problem, sit down and ruthlessly triage your daily to-do list. Reduce your must-do tasks to the few items that truly matter, based on your job requirements and whatever your supervisor assigns to you.
Drop anything you can, give misallocated tasks to the people they really belong to, and delegate whenever possible. Move “someday” tasks back to your Master List until you have time to deal with them.
If your boss considers everything he assigns you top priority, due yesterday, meet with him and respectfully ask that he realistically prioritize your projects. If he can’t or won’t, do it yourself.
Trap #2: Distractions and interruptions
Loud conversations, ringing phones, interruptions, email alerts, and our own wandering attention all shock us out of our concentration on work repeatedly during a typical workday. Occasionally we also have to deal with crises, emergencies, and communications breakdowns.
As with most time-traps, the solution boils down to the firm application of self-discipline. Rather than allow the same things to constantly interrupt you, find a way to deal with them once and for all. If noise is a problem, start wearing noise-canceling headphones and listening to music or ambient sound as you work.
If you need to focus, don’t answer emails and phone calls as soon as they come in. Turn off email alerts and let calls roll over to voice mail. Go to a quieter place to work. If you have an assistant, filter your communications through him or her first.
Trap #3: Overwork
It surprises me that this trap occupies third place on my list, but that’s where the statistics place it. I’d expect it to be No. 1, because we’ve all complained, “There’s not enough time in the day!”
And it’s just getting worse: As the American workforce stretches toward a productivity breaking point, it seems that our leaders dump more work on us than we can handle.
Time remains our most precious resource; we can give up only so much of the time we need for sleep, good health, socializing, family, and the other things that make life worth living.
You have no choice but to more firmly control your behavior. Trim away the unimportant and tightly control how you spend every minute of your workday. Firm, consistent time management and hard work are the only ways to pull out of this trap.
Trap #4. Poor self-discipline
Among those I’ve surveyed, poor self-discipline ranks fourth on the list of recognized time-traps.
Whether we’re willing admit it or not, lack of willpower gives rise to almost all of our time-traps. It’s the grandparent of lost productivity. Many of us have problems maintaining focus on work, for many reasons: interruptions and distractions, disinterest, attempts at multitasking, or an inability to concentrate. Some fail at setting or hitting goals; others fail to be punctual.
The suggestions I’ve outlined in the previous time-traps will solve these problems. Tighten up your willpower, apply draconian time-management, and take back your work day.
A secondary issue expressed by about a quarter of those who cite self-discipline as their biggest time-trap is procrastination. Fear of failure or success, dislike, disinterest, feelings of being overwhelmed, confusion, and the like cause us to drag our heels.
The only way to overcome procrastination is to force yourself to “eat the frog,” as Brian Tracy puts it. Take care of the issue immediately instead of putting it aside for later. Big, daunting tasks may require reduction into smaller subtasks with their own mile posts and deadlines you can more easily handle.
Trap #5: Poor organization
Personal chaos can also bog you down. If you don’t take a little time each day to organize your data, plan out your tasks, write to-do lists, and otherwise prepare, you may end up wasting large chunks of time looking for things, figuring out what to do next, trying to track your action items, and untangling the snarled web of your workflow.
Refuse to accept such chaos in your life. You may not be able to control how well other people organize their lives, but you can certainly control your own.
- First, set up a simple filing system for paper and electronic files. Use a logical, intuitive naming protocol, and file things as you receive them. You shouldn’t have to take more than a minute or so to find any piece of information.
- Next, adopt a system that meets the “HUG” criteria of Handy, Usable, and Garbage-free. It can be paper, electronic, or a hybrid of both. Keep all your schedules and contacts—work, personal, and family—in that organizer, carefully annotated and separated.
Make time not only to plan, but also to review your big-picture work to ensure you know what’s working and what isn’t for both you and your team. Then make repairs. The time you spend now will help you avoid train wrecks later.
The bottom line
There you have it: the five top time management traps, based on two decades of helping people boost their workplace productivity. There are others, but these are the worst of the worst.
Working your way free of any of these problems requires clamping down hard on yourself, then bringing a laser-sharp focus to bear on what truly matters—and nothing more.
It may not be easy to do, but it really is as simple as that.
Laura Stack is one of America’s premier experts on productivity, and her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides workshops around the globe on productivity, potential, and performance A version of this article first appeared on The Productivity Pro blog.