I was recently asked about the productivity tools, handy tips or other strategies I have used over the years to help me stay on course--focused on my most important goals and primary objectives-- in the midst of the messy multitude of ongoing emergencies, unavoidable distractions and regular interruptions that make up my typical day. I wish I had a good answer. Or a magic wand to solve the problem. But I've yet to find a single approach or solution that works even most of the time. Scheduling and time management is a constant battle and it only gets more difficult as your business and your responsibilities grow.
I do think that it helps to ask yourself a simple question, multiple times a day: Is what I'm doing, or about to do, moving my business forward? If not, do something else. And I also think that it can be destructive and a very bad idea to ask yourself a different question: Is what I'm being asked to do in the moment the highest and best use of my time? Be forewarned--that question is an ego trap. It becomes way too easy to quickly convince yourself that you're too good or too busy or too important to do some of the very mundane tasks that need to be done.
Some things may not be your specific job and they may not be the best use of your time in some purely economic sense, but they just need to get done and it's important that people feel that you're more than happy and prepared to pitch in. This is not solely because critical work can't be left undone. The bigger risk is about the message that this kind of bad and arrogant behavior often sends--it's a culture killer. I pick up the trash all day long. I run the lion's share of my own errands. I answer my own phone. If I'm too good to do these kinds of things, why should anyone else care about getting them done?
Now I do think it would be nice to be King and simply get to set my inviolable schedule and stick to it like clockwork, but my business life is really no different than anyone else's and that's just not the way an entrepreneur's world ever works.
The best entrepreneurs try to steer a steady course forward through constantly changing and challenging circumstances. They are fiercely protective of their time and they try to keep anyone else from controlling their calendar or their inbox. (See Slow Down, It Might Save Your Business.) And they do have one more trick in their bags that makes all the difference. They know that they don't have to finish what they start. And you don't either-- at least for right now.
That's rank heresy, you say. Even the Bible insists that we finish what we started (2 Corinthians 8:11) and I'm sure Shakespeare and Ben Franklin had a thought or two on the subject as well. Bear with me for a moment and think about the most productive people you know. They're absolute masters of constant triage-- re-prioritizing things all the time and on the fly-- and that's what keeps them rolling in the right direction.
They don't worry so much about square corners, neat piles and getting everything done exactly on time and to a T-- they're focused on paying attention to what's most important for the business in the moment and that always taking precedence even if other tasks get left undone. Punctuality is much less important most of the time than productivity. It's a given that there's never enough time to get everything done and done well. Part of the trick is to understand that not everything worth doing needs to be done to perfection. Good enough is often good enough and some things, left to their own devices, will even take care of themselves.
Now I'm sure that it's more than a little frustrating to all those folks waiting in the wings or right outside the office-- hoping that their request or project is still on the top of the pile-- or worse yet, getting ready to dump some new problem in their boss's lap. But they're not the ones driving the train or setting the schedule and the best bosses make that distinction abundantly clear, early and often. It's OK to ask and it's even OK to push once in a while, but nagging is a no-no. For the moment, it is what it is. Down the line, we'll make it into whatever it will be. It's all about doing the right things and not worrying about doing things right.
So if you find yourself in a fix from time to time and feel a little like you're drowning in too many tasks, give yourself permission to give yourself a break and put the things that can wait to the side (even if they're not finished) so you can focus your energies and attention on the things that matter most at the moment.