Who controls your time and energy?

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Calendar pages with text overlay: What kind of work do I need to do right now?  What kind of mental state am I in right now?  Is there something I can do to get myself into the right mental state?

Let’s pretend this is a message you found tucked inside a bagel you just pulled from the sad-looking spread on the conference room table. It comes from an escapee. Yeah, that guy who used to sit in that Herman Miller chair over there.

I’ve been over the wall for seven months now and I have a few things to report back. Don’t take this as a “dude, you should chuck it all and join me” message. Hell, I’m not sure I did the right thing yet.

But on the outside looking in, there’s one thing you gotta know. And I know you don’t see it.

You need to take charge of your time.

I no longer have a wonderful administrative assistant coloring in the blocks on my calendar, so I have had to figure out how to best use my time. I’ll first tell you the method I have discovered, then challenge you to solve this puzzle for yourself.

The first step was realizing that crossing things off the to-do list is not enough. Starting a new business, there’s no shortage of things to do. I found myself diving into the next thing on the list and running it to ground, then going on to the next thing. All the while, more things were getting added to the list. Some students who took on my business marketing plan as a class project told me, “you’ve got to set some priorities, sir.”

From the mouths of babes.

I came across an excellent post, “Mind Management (Not Time Management),” by David Kadavy. Based on sound research, he suggests you ask yourself three questions before diving in:

What kind of work do I need to do right now? 

What kind of mental state am I in right now? 

Is there something I can do to get myself into the right mental state?

I mashed this together with David Allen’s Getting Things Done (a righteous organizational system I have been trying to fit into my life for several years). The key GTD principles are to list EVERYTHING you have to do, determine a “next action” to move the ball, use some kind of system to ensure you don’t leave any “open loops” that will nag at the back of your mind, then stick to the process.

I took this mash-up and figured out how to make it work in Evernote, my electronic brain. (The Evernote puzzle pieces fell into place for me via this excellent Udemy course by James Burchill).

A few weeks into this routine, I came across this article that says the most productive people spend an average of 52 minutes in work spurts and 17 minutes in rest. The neuroscience behind the observation is that your higher-level brain burns a lot of energy and when it tires, the lower-level brain takes over. People who get a lot of things done have learned to recognize when the prefontal cortex needs a rest – and then unplug. After just a short rest, you return to your work with a full charge, ready to move efficiently forward.

I’ve been intuitively migrating to that rhythm. Without the need to punch in each hour at the next meeting, I have found that after about an hour of flowing work, I will look up from the computer and say to myself, “Let’s get up and do something.” Anything that takes me away from the computer and gets me up and moving does the trick. I’m back and at it with energy and creativity.

How to do this behind the corporate wall? I really don’t know the answer for you. I know that when I was in your shoes, I tried Big Ideas like insisting on “white space” on my calendar (never happened); declaring “meeting-free” days (never happened); limiting meetings to 45 minutes (rarely happened).

But I do know you know how to find the answer for you. What do you do whenever there’s a top priority, gotta-get-it-done, fate-of-the-company-hangs-in-the-balance moment? You set everything else aside and you focus, devote time to that one critical thing, and see it through to its conclusion. You overcome the other departments who might have different goals. You say no to things. You find new ways to do things.

You need to put this mind management thing on that same plane. It isn’t a nice to have. You have limited time on this planet and limited resources to give to the cause. There’s nothing more important to you AND TO YOUR COMPANY AND CUSTOMERS than to choose your time wisely and tend to your energy.

Chart shows my recent "Now" list. Text describes how I use it.

Steve is sole proprietor of Connected Communication, LLC, a consultancy that helps organizations develop integrated PR, communication, and marketing programs. His particular expertise is in the health industry, including insurance, health delivery systems, and digital health. Steve also is professor of public relations and journalism at Metro State University of Denver.

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