Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in Forbes.
My new mantra is “Focus and Finish.” I frequently say these three words out loud to remind myself to focus on getting the job done. As management guru Peter Drucker said, “Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it’s managed, nothing else can be managed.” No matter who you are, each day has 24 hours, 1,440 minutes. Every day we have the choice to use it or lose it, as time cannot be saved.
How are you investing your time this year? Now is the perfect time to think about priorities and values. As literary legend Goethe said, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”
Does it seem that there are now more distractions than ever? Distractions come in all sizes and shapes like emails, phone calls, tweets, texts, pings, computer glitches, pets and people. How often do you ask yourself, “Now, where was I?” One glance at an email can rob you of precious time, and it can take more than 20 minutes to get back on track! For example, while writing this article, whenever I am interrupted, I stop, change my focus to the interruption, act on the interruption and then re-submerge myself into this article. Some people admit to wasting up to 80% of their time on insignificant things. How much time do you waste each day? It is important to train yourself to see the high value of time and the value of every moment.
Then, does it ever feel like you’re helping everyone else and not focusing on your own goals? I struggle in finding a balance so there can be a win-win for reaching my goals and helping others reach theirs.
So, how can we make our time productive, less stressful and more joyful? A lesson can be found in a story from 1918 when Charles M. Schwab was president of the Bethlehem Steele Corporation. Schwab was known for being competitive and was even called the “Master Hustler” by Thomas Edison. As the story goes, Schwab wanted to increase the efficiency of his senior executive team. So, he hired Ivy Lee, a productivity consultant, to work with him to get more senior team productivity. When Schwab asked about the cost of the assignment, Ivy Lee said, “Nothing unless it works. After three months, you can send me a check for whatever you feel it’s worth to you.”
Lee recommended a simple daily routine. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. No more than six. Prioritize these six items in order of importance. When you start your workday, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task. Complete the second task and move to the third. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day. Repeat this process every working day. After three months, Schwab wrote Ivy Lee a check for $25,000. In 1918, that check would be equivalent to $400,000 today. Warren Buffet uses this system today by creating a daily list of five important tasks to complete.
Another way to focus and finish is to realize that “tidying” is different from “organizing.” Does this sound familiar? You’re carrying clean, folded laundry to put away and pass the dishwasher full of clean dishes. You think to yourself, “Hmmm. It will take me 5 minutes to put the dishes away.” You put down the clothes basket and empty the dishwasher. As you put the dishes away, you notice your silverware drawer is in disarray. Once again you think, “It will take just a few moments to sort the knives, forks and spoons into the correct slots. I’ve got this.” Next, you notice the drawer for dishtowels needs organizing – 15 more minutes gone. Decide whether it’s best to tidy up or organize. These are two different activities.
As you begin to create the habit of focus and finishing, it’s crucial to act deliberately to deal with distractions. Deliberately choose where to spend your time. See if this sounds familiar. Driving home from an appointment, you remember you are out of eggs, so you make a quick decision to stop by the grocery store for a dozen eggs. Once in the store, you think, “Gosh, while I’m here, let me pick up a few more items.” One hour and three bags of groceries later, you leave the store. When you return home, you need another 30 minutes to put the groceries away. Suddenly it’s 3 pm and your priority list for the day has not been touched. How did you invest your 1,440 minutes?
Tips to help you focus and finish:
- Say “focus and finish” out loud when you feel distracted.
- Practice the Lee Ivy method. Write down your most important tasks in order of priority and focus on completing each task before moving to the next one. “Put First Things First” is one of author Stephen Covey’s habits of highly effective people.
- Beware of interruptions that are time-robbers. Turn off social media notification settings. Practice self-control! When you receive non-urgent calls and messages, wait to respond. Your time is a precious commodity.
- Try the Pomodoro Method of time management. Using your priorities list of projects, set your alarm for 25 minutes. Take a 5-minute break between segments and then re-focus on your priority project. Take a 15–30-minute break after four segments. Then focus and finish!
- My favorite time management question is, “What is the best use of my time right now?” Try it! Ask yourself this throughout your day.
- Remember that tidying and organizing are two different tasks. After tidying, make a deliberate decision whether you want to organize, too.
- Be deliberate. To focus and finish takes discipline. Successful people place a high value on their time.
I invite you to embrace tomorrow as a new day where you can live your values, act deliberately, prioritize tasks and focus and finish!
Dr. Susan Murphy is a best-selling author, business consultant and speaker specializing in relationships, conflict, leadership, and goal-achievement. She is co-author of LifeQ: How To Make Your Life Your Most Important Business and In the Company of Women. She can be reached at [email protected]