No matter how good the plan, you still must play offense and defense to apply it [Real-World Time Management, Part 3]
[Download PDF version]: Li #186 Executing Your Sculpted Schedule
A FAMOUS MILITARY maxim states, “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.” No matter how brilliant the strategy or how meticulous the plans, those plans are out the window once the shooting starts. Soldiers must improvise to meet unforeseen realities.
The same holds true for your personal plan to pursue effectiveness. Each day brings unforeseen challenges, personnel problems, and coworkers who need you or something from you “right now.” You must be on your toes to meet those challenges and still accomplish your most important objectives.
Carrying out your plan requires both an attitude and a strategy. Just as in sports, you need to play both offense and defense.
Your offensive game plan
The good news is that simply having a plan positions you above average. The chief enemy is an attitude called “passive-reactivity.” It is why so many feel they are working hard every day with little to show for it. They are spending their days reacting to circumstances and other people’s urgencies.
By first doing the hard thinking work of defining what constitutes effectiveness in your role — identifying “the top of your license” plus “important but not urgent” activities — then identifying the “prime time” appropriate for each, you are on your way to Schedule Sculpting.
Playing offense regarding your schedule begins with an attitude adjustment from passive reactivity to empowered agent, accepting responsibility for self-management. Consider:
You know the answers once they’re asked. You and you alone are responsible to manage your investments of time and energy toward your most important functions. No one is going to ride in on a stallion to take control for you.
This is why the preliminary thinking time is so important. You must not only know what the right things are that you should be doing; you must also believe them as firm convictions. It takes determination and purpose to stand firm against the strong current of demands.
Having identified your purposes and the blocks of time you want to pursue, the next step is to wall them off and defend them.
Your defensive game plan
You can expect your plan to be challenged every day. What should you do? Playing defense means applying techniques to protect those units of uninterrupted time dedicated to your priorities. Suggestions:
1. Block them on your calendar
This demonstrates your resolve to treat them as priorities as you would any other commitment. This is especially important in companies where individual calendars are public. Otherwise, people can pull yours up, see that you are “free,” and commit you to meetings.
2. Be “unavailable” during your prime time
No one can read your mind. You have no obligation to explain to others why you are unavailable. Just state it tactfully and offer an alternative time to meet their request.
We all know that the boss can play the ultimate trump card over our schedule at any time. But remember: She or he wants you to accomplish your most important functions. You can often explain what your plan is and find the boss is fine about flexing with your schedule. When you’re on the same page, your superior can be your greatest ally in working your plan.
3. Learn to say no
Saying no is amazingly hard for many people. It’s understandable, though, if you remember how they achieved success in the first place. They have advanced in their careers by responding to needs and getting things done. They are now hard-wired to continue doing so. They fail to recognize that the higher they rise in knowledge work, the more they must manage themselves toward results.
It seems that some need a reason to say no. In other words, they have a vague assumption that if they have time available to do their own work, that isn’t good enough to turn down a request for their time. They feel guilty about it.
You must challenge that assumption. Time to do your own work in pursuit of your most important functions is what you are being paid to do. It needs no other justification.
4. Rethink the meaning of “team player”
In today’s business environment, gaining a reputation as “not a team player” is lethal. Fear of being thus labeled aggravates people’s inability to say no to or redirect a request.
As a leader, I am a committed proponent of teamwork. But, like the concept of a “servant’s attitude,” being a team player requires careful definition. Neither concept means you will do anything anyone asks you to do when they ask. You are still responsible to fulfill the primary roles for which the company hired you. You still must manage yourself toward those ends.
An article in The Wall Street Journal addressed this issue just three days ago: “You Could Be Too Much of a Team Player,” Sue Shellenbarger (July 24, 2018), A9. Subtitle: “Offices demand collaboration like never before, but you can hurt your organization by not saying no enough to requests for help.” It’s worth checking out.
5. Get out of the office
Sometimes you can find time to work by making yourself scarce. Go to a neutral work space, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a bookstore. Getting out solves the common problem of people who tend to interrupt you on impulse. There’s no real reason they need your attention right now, but you are just a few feet away and you’re always nice and accommodating.
You also may discover that a change of scenery jump-starts your creativity, and you get even more done in less time.
6. Get over “being indispensable”
Let’s be honest. One of the reasons so many have trouble saying no is the unspoken belief that they can’t — everything will come crashing down if they aren’t instantly available!
This is the delusion of being indispensable. Not long ago, I was getting this attitude from a coaching client, Kate, who had recently returned from a two-week vacation. She was defending her constant availability with, “They need me! What else could I do?”
I asked, “What happened while you were on your cruise and you weren’t available?”
“Oh, they went to Murray or Suzie” (assistant directors).
“Were there any crises while you gone?” Yes. “Did they handle it?” Yes. “Then what do you think would happen if something went wrong this week when you’re not available?” Of course, it would be handled.
If you want to pursue greater effectiveness, the last thing you want is helpless followers. You want the highest-functioning team you can get. Developing autonomous, initiative-taking people, therefore, is one of the most strategic and wise investments of time you can make.
The reality of demands on your time
Demands for your time and attention are not going to stop. You can’t avoid them all. They are like a river. If you try to dam up a river, you end up with a huge mess. You can, however, channel a river to a more productive course. Demands on your time are the same. You still want to serve others’ needs. You want to serve them, however, when you want to be available.
Let’s say you have identified 10:30-noon as your prime time for important work. Someone calls: “I need help with this. Can you meet with me at 11 am?” What can you say? I recommend, “I’m sorry, I can’t meet at 11, but I can later. How about 3 pm?” You’ll find that others are usually fine with it.
If people are in the habit of interrupting you on impulse, retraining is in order. By applying the redirecting technique in the paragraphs above, they will get used to you being available at the times you specify. Make certain, though, that you do respond later. Otherwise, they will continue to believe they must act on impulse to get your attention.
All this is to enable you to accomplish the highest and best results for which you are responsible — the top of your license. Li