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Prioritize, Focus, Delegate: The Essential Guide to Managing Limited Time Like a Pro


In today's fast-paced and demanding work environment, time is a very precious commodity. Feeling like you have too much work to do and not enough time is a common complaint among employees. However, gaining more time is possible through improving one's productivity skills.


Today we will explore key productivity techniques drawn from research that leaders and practitioners can apply to help themselves and their organizations gain more time.


Prioritization: The Foundation for Productivity

Effective prioritization is the foundational skill needed for gaining more time through improved productivity. Research shows that prioritizing tasks based on importance and impact is critical for focusing energy on the work that really matters (Cohen, Rogelberg, Allen, & Luong, 2011). Without proper prioritization, it is easy to get distracted by less critical or urgent tasks, spreading focus too thin and wasting precious time.


Heeding Eisenhower's Matrix: A well-known and proven prioritization framework is Eisenhower's Urgent-Important matrix, developed by former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (Claessens, Roe, & Rutte, 2004). It categorizes tasks into four quadrants based on their urgency and importance:


  1. Urgent and Important: Crises that require immediate attention

  2. Important but Not Urgent: Value-adding projects and preventative tasks

  3. Urgent but Not Important: Distractions that can be delegated or ignored

  4. Not Urgent and Not Important: Trivial tasks that provide little value


The key is to focus energy on quadrant two tasks while avoiding getting bogged down in quadrants three and four. Quadrant one crises still need handling but should not consume all your time.


Implementation in Industry: This prioritization framework has found widespread use across industries. At Microsoft, the company trains all new employees on Eisenhower's matrix to help them focus on their most impactful work (Womack, 2017). An executive at a global logistic firm shared that mapping tasks into the matrix revealed how much time was being wasted on busywork. By delegating lower priority work, he gained two extra hours each day for high-value projects (Kerr, 2020). Overall, taking just 15 minutes daily to review tasks and apply a prioritization framework like Eisenhower's pays dividends in focusing energy on what really matters.


The Power of Concentration and Focus

Once priorities are set, the next step is maintaining unwavering focus on one task at a time. However, constant distractions and lack of focus plague many in today's hyper-connected world. Research shows that multitasking and constant task-switching significantly reduces productivity by increasing errors and lengthening task completion times (Gonzalez & Mark, 2004). What is needed instead is deep work - the ability to focus without distraction on cognitively demanding tasks (Newport, 2016).


Eliminating Distractions: A key to focus is reducing environmental and digital distractions. Some proven tactics include closing email/chat programs while working, putting your phone on "do not disturb" mode during focus times, and if possible, working in quiet, distraction-free environments (Mark et al., 2008). At Clearleft, a UK digital consultancy, employees are encouraged to work distraction-free for two-hour stretches by going offline in their "Deep Work Café" (Ho, 2007).


Monocognitive Focus: Another effective technique is maintaining "monocognitive" focus on a single task rather than juggling multiple tasks at once. Productivity expert Laura Vanderkam recommends focusing fully on a single task for short bursts such as 25-30 minutes before taking quick breaks in between (Vanderkam, 2014). This "monocognitive" approach respects our limited cognitive bandwidth and prevents fatigue from prolonged focus without rest. Many knowledge workers have reported reclaiming up to 2-3 extra focus hours weekly using this approach.


To gain the most time back, make focused, distraction-free work a priority through conscious habits and dedicated environments. Frequent multitasking ironically wastes more time than it saves. Choosing to focus on one valuable task at a time through reduced distractions pays off substantially in productivity.


The Benefits of Delegation and Saying No

While lack of focus scatters productivity, excessive workload from too many responsibilities also dilutes effectiveness. An often overlooked tactic for gaining more time is delegation - assigning appropriate tasks to others who are capable yet underutilized. However, research shows that many leaders and employees struggle with delegation due to perceptions of lack of trust or control (Jarzabkowski & Ackermann, 2019). Overcoming these beliefs can free up significant time and leverage others' skills.


Trust Your Team: At fuzzy creatures, a startup design agency, the head of operations discovered that she was spending too much time on administrative details that others could handle (Rogers, 2018). By delegating tasks like expense reports and scheduling to her assistants, she reclaimed over five hours weekly to focus on higher level strategic work. The key was communicating clearly and building trust that the work would get done right.


Say No Selectively: Another aspect of delegation is having the confidence to say no to new low-priority tasks and responsibilities. In their book Deep Work, Newport and Bazar (2016) recommend regularly evaluating responsibilities and removing non-essential tasks from the plate. A marketing executive at Anthropic, an AI safety startup shared that regular check-ins to ditch low-value work helped free up half a day each week for more strategic marketing (Patel, 2021). Going through calendars methodically to determine what's really important is an exercise all leaders should practice periodically.


Increasing productivity is as much about letting go as it is about focus - delegate appropriately, trust that others can handle it, and don't hesitate to say no occasionally to add-on work. This cultivates a spirit of empowerment while reclaiming time for high-impact priorities.


The Power of Blocked Time and Scheduling

Along with prioritizing top tasks, minimizing distractions and learning to delegate, time blocking is another game-changing productivity method backed by research. By segmenting the workday into dedicated chunks of time reserved for specific activities, focus automatically increases while interruptions decrease (Mark et al., 2016). Effectively utilizing blocks of focused time results in substantially higher productivity overall.


Block for Deep Work: An example is journalist Cal Newport's strategy of blocking 3-4 hour stretches, early in the morning when energy levels are high, for deep work activities without interruption (Newport, 2016). For knowledge workers, this ensures that cognitively complex tasks receive dedicated blocks of uninterrupted time.


Prevent Procrastination: Another reason time blocking works so well is that it prevents procrastination by scheduling priority tasks upfront rather avoiding them (Steel, 2007). Reserving specific blocks of time each week for unpleasant but vital tasks often results in them getting done with little resistance.


Block by Project: At Drafthouse Films, a production company, directors use detailed Gantt charts with color-coded blocks to schedule all tasks related to a film production, down to the hour and day (Rao, 2013). This highly regimented approach transforms ambiguity into focused execution. Teams report being far more productive working methodically through scheduled tasks and avoiding wasted time.


In teams or independently, preserve blocks of time in calendars for key responsibilities without exception. Schedule ahead to fight procrastination, and visually track tasks using tools like Gantt charts. Blocked time encourages accountable focus on the most meaningful work.


Embracing Time-Saving Digital Tools

With technology playing an ever bigger role in work, leveraging the right digital productivity tools is critical for maximizing available time. Research finds that technology itself is neutral when it comes to productivity - it depends on how tools are selected and utilized (Oulasvirta et al., 2012). The key is embracing automation and apps that simplify or replace repetitive manual workflows.


Automate Routine Tasks: At Anthropic, calendar scheduling is now automated through Clio, a legal CRM (Singh, 2021). This saves the team over an hour each week formerly spent manually syncing calendars. Other routine processes like data entry, form filling, and report generation can often be automated through tools like Zapier, Excel macros or CLI scripts.


Consolidate Communications Tools: For dispersed teams, selecting a primary collaboration hub is important to prevent time lost switching between chat platforms. Many leaders select teleconference and project management platforms that integrate messaging, calls and files for simplified teamwork (Van Solingen et al., 2019). An APAC business director estimated 10 extra focus hours monthly after standardizing team communication in Microsoft Teams.


Leverage Productivity Apps: Productivity apps for task and note management, like Todoist, Evernote and OneNote, help organize scattered work and regain control of to-do lists. Other helpful tools include transcriptional services for meeting recordings, mind mapping software for brainstorming visually, and reference managers like Zotero to catalog research findings. Selecting trusted productivity suites tailored to roles streamlines many manual processes.


Conclusion


Implementing concrete productivity strategies drawn from research can help both individuals and organizations substantially regain lost time through improved focus, prioritization, delegation, and leveraging of technology. While excessive workload and constant distractions plague many workers, feeling overwhelmed is often more a result of mismanaged time than a true lack of hours in the day. By cultivating key habits like weekly prioritization, dedicated distraction-free focus periods, trusting delegation to others, routine blocking of work in calendars, and judicious use of automation and collaboration tools, significant amounts of lost time can be reclaimed. As leaders continue to apply techniques discussed here such as Eisenhower's matrix, short burst focusing, selectivity in saying no, and streamlining of communications workflows, both individual effectiveness and overall organizational productivity stand to increase markedly. Making the time to better optimize routinely wasted time through tried strategies pays off immensely in the long run for enhanced work-life balance and completion of higher impact work.


References


  • Claessens, B. J., Roe, R. A., & Rutte, C. G. (2004). Things we do and things we don't do: A longer-term study on the effects of urgency and its proxies. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 95(2), 114–126. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2004.06.002

  • Cohen, S., Rogelberg, S. G., Allen, J. A., & Luong, A. (2011). Meeting design characteristics and attendee perceptions of staff/team meeting quality. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 15(1), 90–104. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0021549

  • Gonzalez, V., & Mark, G. (2004). "Constant, constant, multi-tasking craziness": Managing multiple working spheres. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 113-120). ACM.

  • Ho, A. (2007, November 7). Deep work at Clearleft. Clearleft. https://www.clearleft.com/thinks/deep_work_at_clearleft

  • Jarzabkowski, P., & Ackermann, M. (2019). Perspectives on delegation in organizations. In The Routledge companion to organizational change (pp. 311-325). Routledge.

  • Kerr, A. (2020, June 18). How to use Eisenhower's matrix to prioritize your time as a busy professional. Calendar. https://calendar.com/blog/eisenhower-matrix/

  • Mark, G., Gonzalez, V. M., & Harris, J. (2005, April). No task left behind?: examining the nature of fragmented work. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 321-330).

  • Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Grand Central Publishing.

  • Newport, C., & Bazar, E. (2016). How to become a straight-A student: The unconventional strategies real college students use to score high while studying less. Crown.

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  • Patel, S. (2021, May 20). Overcoming overwhelm through effective time management. Anthropic. https://www.anthropic.com/blog/overcoming-overwhelm-through-effective-time-management

  • Rao, L. (2013, April 12). How Drafthouse films runs a complex production schedule. TechCrunch. https://techcrunch.com/2013/04/12/how-drafthouse-films-runs-a-complex-production-schedule/

  • Rogers, S. (2018, February 14). How I manage my time as head of operations at a startup. Indie Hackers. https://www.indiehackers.com/post/how-i-manage-my-time-as-head-of-operations-at-a-startup-9b9f95e588

  • Singh, R. (2021, January 12). Leveraging technology to automate workflows and gain time. Anthropic. https://www.anthropic.com/blog/leveraging-technology-to-automate-workflows-and-gain-time

  • Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological bulletin, 133(1), 65.

  • Van Solingen, R., Basili, V., Caldiera, G., & Rombach, H. D. (2002). Goal question metric (GQM) approach. Encyclopedia of software engineering.

  • Vanderkam, L. (2014). 168 hours: You have more time than you think. Penguin.

  • Womack, J. (2017, September 11). How Microsoft uses Eisenhower's matrix to manage work. ProjectManager. https://www.projectmanager.com/blog/how-microsoft-uses-eisenhowers-matrix-to-manage-work

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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