Remember the old TV game shows, where at the end they’d have a “Lightning Round?” In the “Lightning Round,” they’d put two contestants in an isolation booth, pepper them with questions, and whoever got the most questions right won the big money. The winners were almost always the person who remained calm, instead of the person who acted like a nervous wreck in the booth. There’s a lesson there.
One of the most common topics I’m asked about when it comes to training is that nebulous subject called “time management.” “There just aren’t enough hours in the day!” yell salespeople and sales managers. The truth is that there are usually enough hours in the day to get done what needs to get done, and successful people tend to use those hours to accomplish what needs to be accomplished. Here’s how.
Successful people have what I call “Schedule discipline.” Schedule discipline is that ability to make plans, appointments, and commitments, and keep them in all but the most dire of circumstances. Think back to that lightning round. The winner was nearly always the person who stayed calm, on task, and focused. If that person didn’t know the answer to a question, they passed in order to get more time with questions they might know. That’s a microcosm of schedule discipline.
I’ve found that most people are pretty good at knowing and understanding what is important in their lives and careers, and most people are pretty good at building a schedule, in advance, to address those important tasks. Not EVERYONE, of course, but most people. If I were to ask you right now what would be your priorities to accomplish next week, or the week after, you’d probably have a pretty good idea.
What separates the successful from the unsuccessful is their ability to ACCOMPLISH those priorities and KEEP those commitments. Take that hypothetical set of priorities two weeks down the road. If we were to review that set of priorities at 5 PM Friday, how many of them would you have gotten accomplished? That’s the difference.
So, what happens to interfere? Distractions. A customer calls. You see a post on Facebook. Someone walks into your office. Any number of myriad events occurs that can disrupt a plan; some are avoidable and some are not. This is where schedule discipline comes in.
“Schedule discipline” is the skill that allows someone to immediately assess a distraction from the plan and decide if it really must be handled immediately, or if it can wait. One of the biggest fables that has been taught is that we are capable of “multitasking.” We are not – study after study shows that our brains are only capable of processing one input in any particular moment, no matter what the stimuli. And when a new input is accepted, our brain must first detach from the previous task, then accept and process the new input, and then re-engage in the previous task. All of that is lost time.
Ironically, as I was typing that paragraph, an email alert came up on my screen. I didn’t read it because I’m working on this article; to read and process it would have taken time and attention away from the task at hand. I’ll get to it as soon as I’m done writing and posting this.
So, how can you implement schedule discipline in your career? It’s more than just “Plan your work, and work your plan.” The real key to working the plan is personal and team discipline.
- First of all, when you have a key task to
accomplish –whether it’s prospecting, or a coaching session, or a meeting –
schedule it as an appointment, even if it’s only an appointment with
yourself. And then keep it. And have some mechanism to inform your other
team members that you’re working on something important. As a salesperson, I used a version of the old
college “sock on the doorknob” technique; I had a yellow sign that said
“Prospecting,” and I used to hang it up to let people know not to interrupt me
unless it was really important. Which
leads us to….
- Manage interruptions wisely. Interruptions of any kind are killers to your
work. The key is to manage and
prioritize interruptions wisely.
Everything isn’t “hair on fire, have to deal with it RIGHT NOW” level,
but if you allow it to become that, it will.
Not only do YOU have to discern what’s important enough to break your
workflow, you have to help your TEAM discern as well. If it isn’t an issue that would jeopardize a
key customer relationship, or a key employee, or represent an opportunity that
would not be open if it weren’t handled RIGHT NOW, then don’t let it interrupt
your work. Again, schedule that which is
- Schedule tasks in no more than two hour blocks,
if at all possible. There are a few
reasons for this. First of all, if
you’re prospecting, I find that you get stale if you do more than a two-hour
prospecting block at a time. Secondly,
in my experience, there are few issues that can’t wait a maximum of two hours,
whether it’s email, a customer call, or an upset employee. Keeping your task-time to two hour blocks
means that nothing has to wait for an unacceptable period. Again, there are exceptions, but they are
- Allow time between blocks for the
unexpected. If you’re isolating yourself
for two-hour blocks, you’ll need time in between those blocks as a catch-all
for whatever issues might come up. This
is also time to answer emails, return calls, and other random acts of being
busy. For every two hours “in session,”
allow a half hour to an hour “off session.”
- Keep your commitments. To yourself, to internal personnel, and to external personnel. Schedule discipline is all about respecting the value of your own time, and getting others to respect the value of both your time and theirs. If you commit to a task or a meeting, keep it. You’re not only making yourself more productive, you’re also modeling behavior for the rest of your team. If you’re a manager and they see you doing this to manage your own time, they’ll use this system to manage theirs as well. On the other hand, if they see you coming in to work in the morning and waiting to run from putting out fire to putting out fire, they’ll do that too. Oddly enough, those who work under schedule discipline seem to have fewer fires to put out in the first place.
There’s more to say on this subject, of course, but you can drill down to the details as much as you want. What I’ve discovered about so many “time management” approaches is that they focus so much on the details that the big issues get lost in the shuffle. Think of each work day as your own personal “Lightning Round,” and you’ll have the schedule discipline that separates the successful from the unsuccessful.