Time Management Is Not An Option

“Be careful to make a good improvement of precious time.”  David Brainerd

As a manager, you will have many tasks and priorities vying for your attention. In order to be effective and successful, you must develop strong time management skills. It is not an option. Today I want to share with you some tips on time management and productivity that I learned from a book called Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, written by Cal Newport. Newport is an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University.

Why is time management important? It is estimated that most people spend 80% of an average workday on tasks that add no value to the business’ bottom line, and only 20% of the workday on things that matter. Everyone is given 24 hours in the day. What you do with those 24 hours, however, can impact your life in many ways, good or bad. Unless you learn how to allocate your time wisely, you will always wonder where it went. May we all repeat after the Psalmists who asked God to, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12). 

Now, let’s delve into Newport’s Deep Work.

Newport argues that everyone’s daily work can be placed into one of two categories: deep work and shallow work. Deep work includes tasks that require intense, cognitive focus and energy to complete, whereas shallow work can be done while distracted. Examples of deep work include writing a quarterly report, learning a new language or instrument, or writing computer code. Shallow work, on the other hand, involves tasks such as emails, meetings, and phone calls. I’m sure we are all intimately familiar with these.

While deep work is becoming more valuable in the economy, it is also becoming extremely rare. Given the distracted nature of our daily lives, many people have not developed the ability to focus deeply, and are thus hurting their marketability in the economy.

Why does deep work matter?

Because deep work is becoming rare, those who are able to develop this ability have a competitive advantage. Newport tells the story of a young man named Jason who was making $40,000 per year filling out spreadsheets. Bored with this work, he decided to develop more valuable skills by studying computer programming. He basically locked himself in a room with a stack of programming books and no electronics. By focusing deeply on this one task, he learned computer programming in a short period of time and then went on to get a six-figure job at a start-up.

Isn’t it amazing what our brains can accomplish when we just focus?

How to develop deep work habits

Deep work is not natural to most people; it is a skill that must be developed. Newport provides 3 tips on how to build this deep work routine into your daily work.

#1 Reserve time on your calendar for deep work. Start by evaluating the three tasks that are key indicators of success in your current role. Ask yourself, what tasks should I be doing on a regular business in order to grow my business or add value to my employer? For me, as a manager, spending time coaching and mentoring my team is important. I also need to develop skills in business, project management, and finance. Therefore, I know that I need to regularly work deeply on each of these areas.

After you have identified those key tasks that you need to focus on regularly, reserve non-negotiable blocks of time on your calendar to do deep work.  

While doing deep work, be sure to:
- put away the cell phone
- close your messaging software
- stay off entertainment and social media sites

#2 Embrace boredom. The frequent use of social media and multitasking weakens one’s ability to focus deeply. Newport calls this distraction residue. In order to reverse this negative effect of distraction, we must exercise our brains to embrace boredom. Next time you feel “bored”, don’t pick up the phone or turn on the TV. Instead, allow yourself to embrace that boredom by engaging your mind in a productive activity. For example, I outlined in my mind my first three articles for my blog while driving from New Jersey to Pennsylvania for work meetings.

By training your mind to embrace boredom, you will find that it is much easier to do deep work when the time comes.

#3 Quit social media. Many will find this third suggestion very difficult to apply, but keep in mind the amount of time you will get back if you do this.

Do a return-on-investment analysis of the social media tools that you use today. Are those tools directly tied to your core work? As a blogger, for example, I use social media to publish my work and advertise my blog, but social media is not the core of my work. The content that I produce each week is. If the content I produce is not worth reading, posting it each week on social media will be pointless. For that reason, I limit my use of social media and spend more time producing content for my blog.

As you wean yourself off of social media, find more productive things to fill that void. In the beginning, it will be difficult, but in time you will find yourself developing better focus and being more productive.

For more on this topic, pick up a copy of Cal Newport’s book. I highly recommend it.