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Time Management – Evolving

As your career and your leadership roles progress, how should your Time Management evolve to keep up?

I had a very interesting coaching session this afternoon, talking with one of my clients about his time management.

Time management isn’t one of those subjects that comes up so often in my coaching sessions these days, I think because I’m more often asked to work on the less tangible but more transformational issues that help people be the best possible version of themselves as a leader.

But I still feel it’s an important topic for people to look at.

I used to run a workshop called “Creating Time”, designed for professional people who wanted to make more of themselves and their efforts at work. My opening gambit was that it isn’t actually (yet!) possible to create time and that we must instead focus on those issues around attention-control, decision-making and task-management that are part of great time management.

Some of the discussion with my client this afternoon was around how his time management system might not have evolved as his work situation had changed. We found this a really useful area to explore. We reckoned that what happens as your career progresses and the organisation grows is that:

  • the complexity of the tasks you’re working on increases
  • the number of other people involved in the chain of getting individual activities done increases
  • as you become more of a leader and less of a doer, less of your activity is about tasks themselves and more is about your relationships with others
  • the timescales of the tasks themselves lengthens, as you’re likely to be leading on work such as organisational change projects or new product developments, and these need to be tracked over much longer periods
  • the number of people you answer to actually increases, as more and more stakeholders become affected by things you are responsible for.

All of this puts a great deal of demand on your time management skills and process – so they need to evolve to keep up. What worked for you as a junior manager might not be so useful as a senior leader.

These days, I’m a big believer that one person’s great Time Management System is another person’s admin nightmare. What works for me, might be really counter-productive for you.

I really like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) approach and I’ve been using it since 2015. But, it has a really steep learning curve and requires at least a couple of dedicated days (if not more) to implement. It also needs constant attention and discipline. And, of course GTD is a task-management system, not a time-management one.  Great time-management also requires those additional aspects of attention-control and decision-making I mentioned earlier.

On the whole, I think people should experiment with their own systems and adapt them to suit  their own circumstances and preferences.

But that said, are there any principles or general rules of thumb which people should look at if they want to evolve or upgrade their own approach to Time Management? Here are a few things that might be useful to consider:

1. Do you feel in control?
If not, then you need to change part of your system so that you can clearly see where you need to take control.

2. Is your brain clear, rested and able to create solutions and face tough decisions?
There are two aspects to this, I reckon. First (and I think this is from David Allen’s book) your brain shouldn’t be your main tool for remembering stuff. It’s the best thing you’ve got for finding solutions and making decisions. Use some other system for remembering stuff.
Second, if part of your schedule doesn’t include time for you to be healthy, happy and whole, you’ll be operating at way below maximum potential – and who wants to function like that!?

3. Do you have one place, one reference point, that captures ALL of your to-do’s?
I know some systems don’t advocate this, but it’s one point I strongly recommend. Those of us who are responsible, can-do people, who want to make a difference and be at our best, should not be spending any of our attention or our ‘worry-quota’ on wondering if there’s something we’ve forgotten.

4. Do you consciously know what you’ve decided NOT to do?
This is kind of a follow-on point from 3. Having some certainty that you know everything that needs doing, can enable you to focus on what leaders should be focussing on – deciding what gets done and what doesn’t.

5. Does your system help you decide in what Sequence to do things?
For some people, sequence comes quite naturally. Actually, for about 40% of the working population, it’s one of the first things that comes to mind when deciding priorities. People who are natural sequencers need a system that allows them to work with this transparently, but which also takes into account importance – because of course the first thing that could be done isn’t necessarily the first thing that should be done.
People whose natural preference is not to work in sequence (and that’s also about 40% of the working population) need systems that give them a bit more flexibility, so that they don’t feel the time management system itself has ended-up railroading all their decisions. I personally feel that this is where a lot of time management falls down, forcing people to work in ways which run counter to their natural strengths.

6. Does your system support your oversight of other people’s activities?
I know leaders in very senior positions who have responsibility for up to 20 other people – who themselves are leading teams too. These are big spans of control. When I’ve been in similar situations, I’ve actually really enjoyed the buzz of it, of being at the service of those people, making sure that they can do what they need to do. And I think it’s a powerful way to make a difference. And, you soon find that you need some kind of system which helps you see progress on some important tasks, but which also helps you coach, guide and support those people. The rise of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) as a way of doing this is part of an organisational response to these issues that goes back over 20 years.
Bottom-line – choose a system which supports your style of leadership, in your circumstances.

7. Do you have a way for deciding what task is most deserving of your attention right now?
And does that way of prioritising actually get the results that you want – if not, how might you need to change it?

8. Do you have ways of controlling your attention?
This is absolutely essential if you want to get the most out of your problem-solving and higher-cognitive functions. The distractions caused by email and other forms of interruptions will steal your day out from under your nose if you let them. Please find structures and ways of doing things that don’t have you working on some kind of knee-jerk autopilot, pulled all over the place by less important interruptions.

 

I’m sure we just scratched the surface of how your time management systems need to evolve as your career progresses, and of the general principles that need to support great time management. Let me know what else is important for you?


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The Die Hard Guide to Getting Stuff Done

5 killer tips from Die Hard’s John McClane for when you just have to be at your most productive

This last couple of years I’ve been getting more and more obsessed with being productive. I expect this is happening because I’m both (a) Lazy and (b) Ambitious. I just don’t see any way of combining those two (without it all ending in tears) unless I’m getting as much done with as little effort as possible.

Combine my recent productivity obsession with news that one of my favourite movie franchises, the Die Hard series, is planning a prequel-come-origin story, and there’s only one thing to do…

Buckle-up, put on your best white vest and be ready to yell “Yippee ki-yay” as we laconically dive into The Die Hard Guide to Getting Stuff Done

One slight warning, the following is absolutely full of spoilers. I can’t imagine anybody hasn’t seen these iconic movies yet, but if you haven’t, maybe rent them first. In sequence, obvs.

1. Die Hard – the original

Bad guy Hans Gruber and his psychotic side-kicks have taken over the Nakatomi tower on Christmas Eve. Intent on stealing the company’s millions of untraceable bearer-bonds, the only thing that stands between Hans Gruber and the certain death of the Nakatomi hostages is world-weary cop, John McClane.

Barefoot McClane gets shot-at, beaten-up, rejected by the authorities and has to sprint through broken glass.  His plans fail, his ammo runs out, he’s bloody, bruised and bandaged – and his white vest turns steadily dirtier and blacker. But he never, ever quits.

If there’s one productivity lesson (and one thing about John McClane) that we should learn from the original Die Hard, it’s this:

Get knocked down seven times; Stand-up eight.

2. Die Harder

Once again, we find ourselves at Christmas Eve, now at Washington Dulles Airport. This time we’re in a plot involving special forces solders trying to rescue General Ramon Esperanza, a drug lord and dictator of Val Verde, who is being extradited to the United States to stand trial on drug trafficking charges. I forget why they’re doing this; it doesn’t really matter. They’re the bad guys and John McClane is the goodie who must save estranged wife Holly and other airplane passengers from a deadly crash into the snowbound runway.

Nobody can navigate their way around the byzantine layout of the airport (or the plot…), apart from our Yippee ki-yaying hero John, who has one secret weapon on his side that is a great productivity lesson for when you’re lost and can’t see your way forward.

John takes the time to listen to and connect with janitor Marvin, who is hidden away in the bowels of the airport. Marvin’s inside knowledge helps McClane navigate his way around the airport, unseen by the bad guys. The lesson John teaches us in Die Hard 2: Die Harder, is this:

No matter how busy you are, be humble enough to take time to connect with the unseen people working away in the depths of the engine room – they know stuff that will help.

3. Die Hard with a Vengeance

This time we’re not at Christmas Eve. Never mind. A crazy bomber is threatening the city schools and John McClane must team up with shop owner Zeus Carver. The bombs are of course just a distraction, because now it’s gold that the bad guys are after. There are trucks, underground tunnels which flood, a ship, loads of explosions, and plenty of painful injuries. Thanks to the efforts of our heroes the school kids are rescued. But somehow the gold still goes missing.

It looks like the bad guys have gotten away with it. But hold on! What’s that written on the label of this bottle of aspirin that head bad guy Peter Krieg had ironically thrown to McClane? It seems that the aspirin came from a hotel just across the border in Quebec – EXACTLY WHERE THE TRUCKS LOADED WITH GOLD WERE LAST SEEN HEADING…

This small and seemingly insignificant piece of information is the vital clue to the whole puzzle and it inevitably leads to the bad guys getting their just deserts. And that’s the productivity lesson that John McClane has for us here:

Most of the time, the key to being productive is about the big picture, about knowing where you’re going and focussing on that. But just sometimes, the real clues about how to reach your goals are in the tiny, easily-overlooked details. Know when to switch your focus from big-picture to detail.

4.0 Live Free or Die Hard

Now it’s cyber terrorists, because the internet has happened and national infrastructure like electricity, gas and financial stuff is all vulnerable to hacking.

Hard-drinking, hard-to-get-along-with cop, John McClane, is reduced to baby-sitting assignments and has to transport a hacker who is facing criminal charges. Meanwhile, the bad guys start blowing things up and taking out anybody who can identify them.

John launches a car at a helicopter, which explodes. There’s a thing called a firesale, which is about crippling the infrastructure so much that the economy collapses; John’s daughter is in peril; the bad guy turns out to be a spurned cyber-security expert who didn’t get the credit for his government work. John has to team up with the young hacker guy, because he can do that hacker-typing stuff. Oh, and there’s a VTOL jet plane (an F-35B Lightning II), which John also takes out.

There are so many lessons about how to get stuff done in Live Free or Die Hard, that it’s tough to know where to start.

You could look at how John McClane learns to trust and rely on the cyber-expertise of young hackers Matt and ‘Warlock’. McClane might not know cyber-stuff, but he knows people and he knows when to depend on them.

Or you could look at how in the final scenes McClane shoots himself THROUGH HIS OWN SHOULDER to kill the bad guy behind him. That’s getting stuff done right? No pain, no gain!

But for me, the most important lesson from Die Hard 4.0 about getting stuff done is this:

Sometimes, in order to get stuff done, you’ve got to totally disrupt what’s currently happening. It’s not enough to just do things right, you’ve got to be doing the right things. Nothing changes the game like launching a car at a helicopter. They didn’t see that one coming and it certainly cleared the way for the priorities that John really had to be getting on with.

5. A Good Day to Die Hard

It turns out that John McClane’s estranged son Jack is an undercover CIA agent. Jack is facing trumped-up charges for assassination in Russia and so John travels to Moscow to help him out.

Everybody’s after some kind of file concerning former billionaire and government whistleblower Yuri Komarov, which has evidence implicating high-ranking Russian official Viktor Chagarin. There are plenty of gun fights, more helicopters, running, leaping and exploding.

There are also red-herrings all over the place, as the file turns out to be non-existent and is actually a clue to a secret entrance to a Chernobyl vault containing €1bn worth of weapons-grade uranium. It’s this uranium that everyone (not just the bad guys) has been betraying each other in order to reach first.

A Good Day to Die Hard is a lot like trying to get stuff done in real life. You can never really be sure what’s going on. Somebody tells you that the secret file is the key, but do they really know what they’re talking about? What if they have an agenda of their own?

A pivotal point in the plot is when John and Jack meet up with Komarov’s daughter, Irina. They’re in a grand hotel in the city. Irina will provide them with a key to the vault which contains the (non-existent) file. The file will exonerate both Jack and Irina’s father Komarov, as well as incriminating Chagarin. So why is Irina acting so shifty…? John McClane trusts his instincts and just knows that Irina’s shifty behaviour is not right. That her motives must somehow be off. This gives them vital seconds to escape the devastating gunfire that rips through the hotel ballroom’s windows.

It’s this point which for me is the big lesson in getting stuff done from Die Hard 5:

When you’re trying to get stuff done, people around you will promise one thing and do another. Their motives will be different from yours. Most of the time, they’re not acting against you (unless you’re John McClane), it’s just that they’ve also got an agenda, stuff that they need to get done too. Trust your instincts to know when this is happening and deal with it in as straight-forward a way as possible.

Yippee ki-yay people; go get stuff done.


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