A busy executive checks his e-mail on a PDA during a presentation of key findings from a major project. The harried head of a department texts under the table during a companywide staff meeting. A vice president of human resources takes a cell phone call and leaves the room while an important training session is taking place. Common occurrences in any company today — and all of them send the message that multitasking is to be expected and paying full attention is optional.
There’s a productivity crisis brewing, and it’s resulting in a dangerous struggle to find the time and energy to focus on critical business goals and priorities. It is, in fact, a crisis of time literacy — the ability to understand, manage, prioritize and use time within varying contexts.
In today’s 24/7, wired world, many businesspeople have lost touch with the principles and practices required to be highly productive. One study by the Families and Work Institute found that 50 percent of us are either handling too many tasks at the same time or are frequently interrupted during the workday — or both.
But, as it is with most company cultures, management sets the tone for how the rest of the organization will behave. It’s no different when it comes to time literacy. Executives and managers who model healthy productivity have staff who mirror their attitudes and actions. Those who don’t create a chaotic environment where crisis rules and stressed-out workers are the norm.
How can today’s well-meaning yet overwhelmed leaders walk the talk of time literacy and set an example? When all is said and done, the art of time literacy is really the art of decision making. It’s the courage to choose what actions you are going to take, when you are going to take them and how you will get them done. It’s about choosing your most important goals and prioritizing accordingly. As a start, managers can make sure to promote, model and train themselves and their staff in the best practices of time literacy:
1. Navigate the interruption-driven workplace. According to recent research, workers spend, on average, only 10.5 minutes on a task before being interrupted. It then takes an average of about 23 minutes for them to return to the original task — usually with their former focus having fizzled. How often would you guess that you and your staff get interrupted at work by external sources, such as e-mails, phone calls and other people? How about the self-interruptions caused by your own lack of focus? In a high-pressure workplace, learning to manage interruptions is a key habit of time literacy. The next time you are in a meeting, switch off your cell phone, curb the texting and ask your staff to do the same.
2. Manage multitasking madness. In today’s nonstop work environment — courtesy of PDAs, e-mail, instant messaging and so on — the five projects that people used to manage in a day have tripled to 15. A recent report from the University of London found that when workers are constantly juggling tasks, their IQs fall 10 points. Too much input and too little control have left us struggling with much more than we can productively handle. Make a commitment to create blocks of time to work on one high-priority project at a time, and give it all your focus.
3. Take deliberate action toward your top priorities. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, after giving voice to your goals, all you had to do was kick back and wait for the world to deliver them to you? Too often, the pull of urgent matters forces us to focus on putting out fires, while less pressing — but important — goals and strategies go ignored. A national poll by Day-Timers revealed that 86 percent of people who achieved success on a key goal or strategy noted a determination to succeed, especially when things got hard. Be a role model for prioritization by publicly talking about and taking action on your most important goals and objectives on a weekly basis.
4. Clear out the clutter. To-do lists in your brain, cabinets filled to the max, notes on napkins and paperwork piled a mile high. One study showed that the typical executive spends 4.5 hours a week looking for lost papers. Everyone needs his or her business bits and pieces, but taken to an extreme, out-of-control stuff — mental or physical — becomes clutter. And clutter saps energy and slows you down. Start by sorting out the stuff in your head and getting it down on computer or paper. Then tackle your office and reclaim your space.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? In a way, it is, but the discipline and skills necessary to create a time-literate organization take practice, commitment and, ironically, a little bit of time.
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