3 Steps to Victory Over Tyranny of the Urgent

What’s Killing YOUR Productivity?

As more people come to me for advice on productivity, the most common issue I’m asked about is this:
“urgent things keep intruding on important things” a.k.a., “distractions & interruptions”
My best response is God’s response:
“Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds. (Prov. 27:23a)”
Not the answer you were looking for? I’ll elaborate…

Meet Your Sheep

You’ve got stuff to do… That’s your flock.

You may not have actual sheep like Solomon’s audience 2,500 years ago. But, you do have a flock of “P.R.I.O.R.” commitments: Projects, Responsibilities, Ideas, Opportunities, and Relationships. For these God will hold you accountable and reward you (2 Cor. 5:10). Therefore, “knowing the condition of your flocks and giving careful attention to your herds” is of critical importance to you.

Gut Check:

Some translations even render this phrase “be diligent to know the state of your flocks”.  So…
On a scale of 1 to 10, how diligent are you right now in knowing your state of flock?

You’re Free. Don’t be a Slave

Most aren’t happy with their answer, eluding to the tyranny of the urgent: “I’m too busy doing my work to consider the condition of my flock”, to which I reply “Repent. Immediately.” Getting in touch with the condition of your flock will provide you priceless data on how to stay on top of that flock’s condition. Furthermore, failure to assess the condition of your flock enslaves you to the tyranny of urgent sheep when there are more important sheep for which to care.
The goal of our Clean Slate Workshops – Gospel Driven Productivity – is to help people keep the main thing the main thing. One concept it covers extensively is creating a “Distraction Recovery Plan (DRP)”. This is purposely a play on the term “disaster recovery plan” because the many distractions that take us off task truly create disastrous results. If interruptions are a constant, planning to mitigate them must not be a variable. Develop a DRP.

Distraction mitigation: a never ending game of “Whack a Mole”.

Victory is Temporary. But, Worth It.

In Genesis 3 world, we must understand the tyranny of the urgent as a tension to be managed rather than a problem to be solved. Distraction isn’t going away.

Until Christ returns, interruptions will remain ubiquitous. “In this life, you will have trouble. (John 16:33)” But, defining what the trouble is, is half the battle. Keep thinking you’re going to finally and fully win the game of “whack-a-mole” and you’re bound for endless disappointment. Think “manage the tension” rather than “solve the problem”.
Get comfy with the facts: while your victories in this arena will be temporary,
they’re also repeatable and possible, in God’s order.

 

Bottom Line, Bullet Point Strategy:

Here’s the cut to the chase version – in 3 steps. I detail them below. But, start here.

Since we’ll never live in a distraction free world, our battle plan must at minimum contain this three pronged attack:

  1. Work from a prayerful plan
  2. Mind the flock AND the field
  3. Adjust the real based on the ideal

1 – Plan Your Day in Advance

Carve out time in the “alone zone” for planning. You can’t plan for everything, but you’re accountable for planning something, and good planning always saves time in execution over “winging it”. The most non-negotiable time in my day, everyday is my “Focus Block”, where I go from prayer to bible to silence to reviewing my daily dashboard.
Ultimately, the best distraction recovery plan is having a plan in the first place. As Jews or Christians, we know “in his heart a man makes his plans, but the Lord determines his steps. (Prov. 16:9)” Plan prayerfully, but hold those plans with open hands.
Scenario: Phone rings. Unexpected “urgent!” email. Your boss dumps a new project on your desk. Or, all three at once. Gale force winds just scattered your flock across the countryside. If you know your flock and have planned your work, you have a map providing landmarks for course correction. Now, you can handle the project AND reassemble your flock. No map? No way back. And, stuff falls through the cracks.
My friend, John Woodall plans each day out the night before (see Gen 1:5). I do the same, with special emphasis on tweaking each day the morning of, in order to take into account the unforeseen. I use a modified version of Donald Miller’s daily productivity schedule to plan my day. Donald is a whiz at explaining how to install this trick into your life. 

Some folk have a “live and die by the calendar” mindset, others work from a revisable plan, I use a little of both:

  • Daily: I work from a dashboard, not a calendar. It’s my roadmap for each day (here’s a PDF of my version).
    • I prepare it the day before – specifically choosing my top 3 MUST do’s,
    • I adjust it first thing for changes in the wind, and
    • I revise it on the fly as the day moves on;
    • I migrate incomplete/interrupted tasks at the end of every day to the next day or next appropriate, open slot in my calendar. Daily “sheep migration” is non-negotiable in preventing the “it fell through the cracks” phenomenon.
  • Weekly & Monthly: calendars (Google Calendar, Outlook, or paper) are prayerfully wielded yardsticks for decisions about the on the fly changes.
  • For professional help integrating Evernote, contact Aarron Pina, Evernote Certified Consultant

    Evernote: As an Evernote Certified Consultant, I use this app as a “digital file cabinet” to store evvverything, but also as a daily and weekly queue for upcoming tasks, checklists, project plans, and supporting/reference material related to each project.
    For a 5 minute tutorial on how I set up and optimize Evernote, contact me. We’re producing an “Evernote Setup Video” for Clean Slate late 2nd quarter, 2017. Both Evernote and Microsoft’s One Note are available for Android, IOS, desktop and web, so there’s no excuse for not using one of these other than “I just didn’t know.” And… now you know. No excuses, mkay?

Step 2 – Eyes on the Flock, Keep Off the Grass

If the flock is your list of commitments, the field is what they feed on – time. Every second is both a blade of grass and a fixed commodity. You only get 86,400 each day and at least a third of them are required for rest (shepherd care). Sheep – projects, responsibilities, etc. feed on time. And, you can’t manage time. What you can manage are the decisions you make about what you do in the time. Which sheep are eating the most grass and is that the best use of resources? Further, are the sheep eating the field as they choose or as you direct?

Take Stock of Your Flock

Understanding your “field to flock ratio” – how much time you have compared to how much needs to get done – is your responsibility. Most often that happens by default. Our job will be to make it happen by design.

Yes, we should often take an exhaustive inventory of all the commitments on our field. We call this a “mindsweep”. Never done one? Contact me and in 4-1/2 minutes, I’ll help you develop an exhaustive list of every iron you have in the fire. (Or, every sheep chomping your grass, right?)

Step 3 – Measure Twice, Cut Once

Once you’ve answered the question “which sheep do I need to uncommit to?” and cut out of your herd, examine where your time is being spent. Look at your current to-do list. David Allen classifies all of his “sheep and goats” in 3 categories:

  1. Pre-defined work – projects you’ve already outlined and the action items that need to be done, phone calls or emails you need to make/send – “Write 3rd quarter marketing plan”, “Write & send quote for Marshall job”, “Generate sales report”.
  2. Work that shows up – fires that need putting out, calls to answer, customers who walk in, co-worker drive by’s (“cool story, bro/can I bother you for a minute of your time?”)
  3. Defining our work – Plans to be made, deciding who to delegate sub-projects to and what outcomes should look like. Extracting actionable items from meeting notes. “Create project plan for Mom & Dad’s 50th Anniversary”.

Real vs. Ideal

What’s most often lost in translation is the connection between tasks and time on the calendar. We all dramatically overestimate how much we’ll get done and dramatically underestimate how much time we’ll have to do this. It’s called the planning fallacy. To proceed, you need the hard data you’ve just created above. Ask yourself: what portion of your work week do these three categories represent? See below for examples. But, this is the “real” picture of how your week is going to happen.
Now, ask: what would be the ideal use of my time? In which category do I bring customers, company, clients the most value? How do I align my time and tasks with God’s longer term vision for my life?

Need Examples?

Alice – graphic designer. Most of her work is doing the creative work based on client discussions and proposed outcomes, she spends a few hours a week tweaking things based on client approvals and emails, and a few hours deciding how to approach each new client’s needs.

But, she knows her time would be best spent working on projects she’s already defined. With some prayer and planning she sees she can expand this time block (blue) by automating (green) and delegating a few admin tasks (red), capturing wildly inspiring ideas into a trusted system like Evernote (red). These changes grow her time to do the creative stuff God really wired her for and her clients absolutely rave about!


Shahid – bank customer service. This front line customer service role requires a bulk of his time for handling walk in customer needs (70%), with some time meeting with customers with whom he’s booked appointments about new or existing business (15%) and the remainder on reviewing current client accounts and finding ways to help diversify their portfolios and mitigate their investment risks (15%). He can’t become totally unavailable, but he knows he could shift a few hours from “firefighting” mode to “project” mode.

He creates an FAQ document to minimize a little “could I ask you a quick question” time, begins daily reviewing his calendar before the bank opens, and creates short blocks of “unavailable” time to research current market trends. Now he’s creating better quality solutions for his clients in less time.

Once you’ve begun paying attention to where your most precious resource is being eaten, you can then make better decisions about how you’ll spend it in the future. Hopefully, those decisions will be in line with why you’re here on planet earth and Whom you’re ultimately here to serve. You want more help in this area? Message me on Linked In!

Caveats:

I repeat, none of these steps are “one time things”. They’re processes I’ve installed in my monthly and quarterly calendars. If you don’t have at least a weekly planning block to perform a post mortem on your past week, I suggest driving that stake in the sand now for a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday “appointment with self” to do the grunt work of a faithful flock management. You will be held accountable at the bema seat, why not minimize your losses now, while there’s time and opportunity?

Parting questions:

What can you do to begin assessing the condition of your flock? What can you do to begin re-allocating your field to accommodate the flock and align it with God’s greater plan(s) for your life and calling? What are some best practices you already have in place?

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