This article was based on episode 008 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher.
Is it possible that prevailing perceptions about productivity don’t work for everyone? Dorie Clark, productivity expert, strategy consultant, author, and professional speaker decided to put them to the test. Through her month-long time-tracking experiment, she was able to further optimize her time, and what she learned might surprise you. In episode 008 of my podcast, The Modern Manager, Dorie and I discuss misconceptions about multitasking, methods for better email management, and getting out of meetings you don’t need to attend.
Optimize Your Time Through Time-Tracking and Strategic Multitasking
Dorie has discovered how to “squeeze more hours” out of the day while still taking good care of herself. Her approach challenges popular opinion about multitasking, which currently advises doing only one activity at a time. Dorie conducted a month-long experiment in which she time-tracked her activities in 30 minute increments. She wanted to know exactly how she was spending her time and if it aligned with her stated goals and her perception of how she was spending her time. As tedious as time-tracking can be, Dorie emerged with some important learnings which now inform her productivity habits and how she consults with her clients.
Learning #1: Certain kinds of multitasking are OK, even desirable.
Dorie discovered she spent more time consuming content that she had thought, through reading and/or listening to audiobooks and podcasts while commuting, exercising, or cooking. It is possible to do these kinds of activities in tandem without compromising the quality of either one, unlike other kinds of multitasking such as task switching between writing, email, reading, researching, etc. The latter taxes attention and requires a mental recovery period between tasks; the former involves automatic activities which require fewer mental resources. When engaging in dual activities, Dorie recorded both in her tracker - eg commuting and listening to a podcast or exercising and catching up with friends - thereby getting more done with the same hours each day. If you have a goal of reading more, listening to an audiobook while performing other tasks is a great way to consume an additional book a week.
Dorie has also found a way to oblige people’s desire to meet her individually. Instead of having coffee one on one with every person who reaches out to her, she organizes a low pressure group dinner where she can get to know multiple people at once and also introduce them to each other. It’s a win-win for everyone, and from there, she can decide who to spend more time with individually. This is another form of strategic multitasking - networking and creating value for others.
Optimize Your Time Through Intelligent Email Management
Dorie again bucks tradition with her philosophy of checking email. Many in the productivity world advise against checking email first thing in the morning to save mental resources for more important tasks. Dorie says you should check email first thing in the morning and respond to important inquiries at that time. Why? Again, the time-tracking exercise provides the answer. Before the exercise, Dorie thought she was spending 3-4 hours a day dealing with email. After the exercise, she realized she was spending less than 1.5 hours a day on it. Why was her perception so different from reality? The answer lies in Dorie’s psychological relationship to email, which was one of feeling “pathologically and chronically oppressed” by its never-ending nature.
Learning #2: It's not about time. It's about stress.
Dories realized by following the popular opinion of checking email later in the day, she had fewer mental resources to deal efficiently with important email requests. She began to procrastinate replying to some of these emails, creating a mental burden that she didn’t know she was carrying. She realized “the amount of time you spend on something and the psychological weight or pressure that it carries are not necessarily correlated.”
Dorie also uses other techniques in managing email that speak to her ability to set clear boundaries and trust in her expertise and experience. She avoids sending the same message multiple times and if an email doesn’t require a response, she may not send one. She sometimes picks up the phone to resolve an issue in order to avoid too much back and forth by email. She uses apps like Boomerang to schedule emails for the future and Unroll.me to bundle newsletters. She also has an assistant who takes care of standard requests like changing a recipient’s email address in her newsletter service.
There are many technology tools to support more efficient and effective use of email. To get the most out of them, you need to determine what aspect of email is burdening you, what tools and features can solve those problems, and what processes or behaviors you need to adjust to realize the benefits.
Optimize Your Time by Eliminating or Reducing Non-Essential Meetings
Dorie has also learned to manage clients’ expectations regarding meetings. For example, if she is preparing for a speaking event, she only needs one planning meeting to see what the client wants her to cover, whereas the client may think multiple meetings are necessary.
Learning #3: The customer is not always right when it comes to meetings.
As a professional, Dorie trusts her ability to prepare for her speaking engagements and knows she will reach out to the client with questions. Her client, though, may have some anxiety about the success of the event which they try to resolve by scheduling more meetings with her. Dorie says, “You have to push back on that, otherwise if you defer to other people, they will meeting you to death.” While this goes against prevailing capitalist wisdom that “the customer is always right,” Dorie explains that “if you're going to really give value to your clients, you need to be the expert,” and not allow clients to treat you as a contractor. You cannot “create the highest and best value for that client or for that employer” by attending meeting after meeting, but rather by doing other kinds of deep work. She continues, “I think that forward-thinking leaders recognize that and would see [pushing back on so many meetings] as a positive.” At times her vision has come at the expense of renewing a contract with a client who might not agree. And that’s OK, she says, especially for someone who has the flexibility to turn down clients or is established in their career.
For managers and other employees, the same learning applies. Not everything needs to be done in a meeting. Before asking for a meeting, consider if an alternative form of communication or collaboration will work. For example, if you have a list of questions, send them as a document for the recipients to fill in. Then only have a meeting if there is need for discussion given the responses. Or, if you want to check in on progress, create a dashboard or project plan that tracks key metrics and/or activities. Again, have team members update it before deciding if there is a reason to meet.
How might you attempt to optimize your time and increase your satisfaction through Dorie’s learnings? Or, even better, conduct your own time-tracking experiment and see what works for you. Download my free time-tracking tool and listen to the full interview with Dorie.
This article was based on episode 008 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter. Join the Modern Manager community on Patreon and get additional exclusive resources and services.
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