3 Ways to Regain Control of Your Day

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Nov 9, 2018

You may have great instincts — a knack for spotting talent, a drive for self-improvement, and a talent for empowering people — but unless you can get your priorities in order, you’re not likely to be much help to anyone, much less yourself. With incessant demands on our time and attention, it’s not easy beating the distractions coming at us from all directions.

If you want to achieve your goals and bring value to the work you do and people you serve, it’s crucial that you take a proactive approach to prioritizing your time — before it’s gone. Here’s how.

Be selective

Granted, not everyone has autonomy over their time, but most people can control certain parts of their day — whether that’s after hours or during lull periods at work. Prioritize and protect that time carefully.

Be selective about the projects, meetings and requests for coffee you choose to accept, because every “yes” means saying no to something else. There are dozens of prioritization tools available on the market, so keeping track of your day-to-day goals is easier than ever.

I’m partial to the Tasks feature in Gmail, which allows me to create a list of core goals I want to accomplish for the week — writing my Inc. column, for example, or rehearsing the TEDx talk I’m giving next month — right from the sidebar of my inbox, where many of these time suckers originate. The list acts as a filter for everything else, helping me sort and rank other tasks and goals for future scheduling.

At the heart of all of this is a simple truth attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower: “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” (The “Eisenhower box” is a great tool for prioritizing used by our 34th president.) Treating time as a fixed commodity — something that cannot be replenished once it is spent — will make you reconsider many of the “quick” asks that end up becoming goal-killers and drags on your day.

Be strategic

Making yourself less prone to distraction is hard, but there are strategic shortcuts right at our fingertips. To create time buffers, try Google Calendar’s new “Working Hours” function (which automatically rejects meeting invites or call requests during set time windows) or Apple’s “Do Not Disturb” feature in iOS 12 (which blocks notifications for a set time or while you’re at a set place).

If you’re using Slack to manage workplace communications, you can customize your status to let others know when you won’t be available. And for an old-school hack, try an auto-responder to handle incoming email. Something as simple as, “I’m trying to get something important done right now, but will get back to you starting at 2:30 p.m.” sends a clear message about your ability to prioritize — and may even reassure others that when they come calling on you, they’ll be sure to get your full attention, too.

Be supportive

Staying vigilant about your time doesn’t mean you can’t be generous with it. As Adam Grant has shown, giving to others can drive our own success, not to mention boost our health and happiness.

Instead of saying yes to every request, choose the ones where you are in a unique position to help or have specialized knowledge to share. Knowing that your gesture is likely to make an impact brightens the afterglow of giving. Even if you decide that extending yourself may not serve your interests or theirs, find ways to avoid leaving others empty-handed. Introduce them to people who are better positioned to help, suggest a useful resource, or deliver a promising lead.

When I was writing The Feedback Fix, I approached a C-level executive at a major financial services firm for his endorsement. Due to some company red tape, he declined — but not before putting me in touch with another influencer, who loved the book and offered a blurb of her own. Showing others that you care costs us little but can mean a lot to others.

All told, setting our priorities allows us to do more and do the most good. As I’ve said before, letting go of certain tasks isn’t driven by what we give up, but what we give. Because when we give ourselves the gift of clarity, not much can stand in our way.