Time Management: How to Overcome the Tyranny of the Urgent (Tip #4)

Have you ever wondered why you spend so much time “fighting fires”, while struggling to get any preventative or strategic work done?

The obvious answer is that there are too many fires, however there are a number of other possible root causes that relate to how one is organized:

– Time to do your important work may not be reflected in your calendar

– You may be in the habit of reading and responding to e-mail throughout the day

– Your priorities may not be clear

– You may have be using a poor to-do list system

Let’s talk specifically about the habit of reading and responding to e-mail throughout the day. This very habit, in and of itself, leads one to prioritize the urgent – even someone else’s opinion of the urgent – over what may be important for you to accomplish.

We have talked previously about the systems at play that create and even potentially reward this type of behavior. Oftentimes people tell me they have to be on their e-mail all day long in case one important e-mail comes in, or that “sitting on email is expected here”.

But the problem with that thinking is, you are letting the eventual arrival of one important e-mail derail your entire focus. You are not optimizing the whole. There is a cost to leaving your e-mail up all day and “just quickly” responding to whatever comes in. The costs typically are fractured attention span and often not getting to strategic or important work.

With the exception of a few jobs where you are a front-line customer service person or you are responsible for a ticketing type customer service program, the majority of our jobs have room to allow for a 2-4 hour response time on e-mail.

My recommendation is that you batch-process your email at specific times of the day – in 2-4 hour increments and applying a method like the 4 D’s (specifics to be explained next time) to process e-mail.

The key is to re-set expectations with people around you about your new approach, so they know they will definitely have a response within 4 hours. Once people know that, typically this process works well.

With this approach, you then make the choice of when checking your e-mail is suitable, instead of letting e-mail hold you hostage and ransacking your entire work day. For this reason, I only process my emails in batches at specific times of the day. I find this is the easiest way to keep my “monkey brain” focused rather than easily distracted and moved off topic.

You know what it looks like: you get to the end of your morning and you don’t know what you accomplished. You have spent the entire morning chasing the “rabbit trails” that emerge through e-mail monitoring, rather than collapsing e-mail down and picking up that item to work on and putting in a good hour against that. Worst yet, you end all of your weeks thinking “I’ll get to that project when things quiet down”… and it never does, and that project languishes.

This way of managing your e-mails takes some discipline – start by turning your e-mail notification off, calendarizing the times of day you’ll check your eMail, and letting those who work with you know about your new process.

Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent reign over the important.

Joanne Spalton, Senior Consultant