Documenting the Coming Singularity

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Get Your Life Back

I live in Florida. As it turns out a significant portion of my State is what’s known as “reclaimed land.” That means, apparently, that some kind of water, either sea, lake or swamp, at some time, came and took our land. Just stole it, right out from under us. Well, we weren’t having any of that. So we went in with our heavy machinery and low-wage labor and flat took it back. We reclaimed what was rightfully ours! No, that’s not what happened. It would be more accurate to call it “claimed” land. In fact, if the global warming folks turn out to be right, that water is going to come and reclaim it from us. And it will take back more than what we took from it. Teach us to mess with the oceans.

Our lives can be like that. We wage a constant battle against external (and sometimes internal) forces that are trying to claim whole sections of our lives. We feel besieged, under assault, claustrophobic. We no longer have control of our lives, and everybody wants more of us. Our employer isn’t happy with our efforts; our families feel cheated; we feel cheated. Not a pretty picture.

In the fight over our time, the two combatants are usually family and work. Neither one will cede and inch, or a second. And so we often make the mistake of seeing our choice as giving more time to one or the other, which obviously can never please both because it’s a zero sum game: giving more to one takes away from the other. Then what’s the answer? The answer is not some complex magic formula for dividing 24 hours to make everyone happy. The answer is being more effective with the time you do have.

So I want to give you a few tips on being more effective with the time you put in at work, so you can get everything done well in a shorter amount of time. A recent survey showed that people who work in offices get distracted from what they’re doing every 11 minutes on average. The Productivity Institute estimates that 20 percent of the workday is spent on “crucial” or “important” things, and 80 percent is spent on things that have “little” or “no value.” There are countless ways that your time at work can be frittered away on things that keep you from what you really need to get done. If you can identify what these time-stealers are, and learn how to eliminate, or at least severely curtail them, you can begin to reclaim your life.

If you’re feeling the pressure to get things done at work, it’s unlikely that you are the chatterbox, but you are probably the target of one or more of them. If you added up the actual time you spend, on average, every day, in social interactions with coworkers, what do you think would be the grand total? Do you think you could use that time to get more done? Do you want to reclaim it? The trick is to find a friendly, inoffensive way to cut these conversations short, or better yet, keep the chatterboxes at bay altogether. One very creative office worker came up with this method:

Very early in my career I learned the trick of creating a folder for each person I had regular contact with (i.e., boss, peers, direct reports, suppliers and others). Items I needed to discuss with these folks (but which were not urgent) got tossed in their file along with a list of commitments they had made to me in terms of future deliverables. I used the files to prepare for one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, etc. A side benefit was that if someone arrived on my doorstep uninvited and unwelcome, all I had to do was grab their folder and start to ask them about the work they owed me and like magic they would remember somewhere else they had to be!

Some other ideas:

Say this: “I can’t talk right now because I’m right in the middle of something that’s due soon. Let’s talk later.”

Do this: When you see them coming, pick up your phone and pretend to be speaking to someone.

Whatever you come up with, the most important thing is to decide that you cannot afford to let chatterboxes steal time from you or the people you care about.

Please check back for more tips to come!

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