Stop the Time-Suck

Overwhelmed by email, texts and other distractions? Here’s how to keep your weekly work on track for maximum productivity.
Stop the Time-Suck
Hugh Culver

Odds are that if you’re reading this at work, you’re going to be interrupted before you finish the article. As surely as rainwater infiltrates a leaky manhole or lateral, your cellphone will ring, a text alert will sound, an email will arrive (flagged “urgent,” no doubt), a colleague will duck into your office or truck to chat or a supervisor will call an impromptu meeting.

Let’s face it: Getting things done at work is an increasingly daunting task — especially if your organization faces the double whammy of short-staffing coupled with increased workloads. And more often than not, the culprit is advanced communication technologies that leave us endlessly accessible and continually distracted. Ironically enough, the very technologies that prognosticators jubilantly predicted would make our lives easier and more efficient have backfired. It’s enough to make you LOL — if you had the time.

Take email, for instance. A 2012 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, a well-known consulting firm, estimates that the average worker spends about 28 percent of each work week managing email. Do the math and it gets even scarier: That means we’re spending almost 45 hours a month opening, digesting and deleting emails.

“We’re connected 24/7,” says consultant Hugh Culver (, a time-management consultant and the author of Give Me a Break: The Art of Making Time Work for You. “I read somewhere that people on average use 13 different ways to keep track of their work days, between apps, shared work calendars, journals, personal calendars, Post-its, smartphone notes and so forth. When we come out of a meeting, we literally don’t know where to record the information or what we need to do.”

Since adding more hours to the 24-hour day isn’t an option, something must change. So what’s a time-challenged supervisor or employee to do? Culver suggests a multipronged approach that centers on a weekly “flight plan” that makes achieving core objectives the ultimate priority, along with taking an honest look at whether your direct reports can pick up some of the slack.

“I encourage people to plan like a pilot because pilots are great project managers,” he explains. “They develop a flight plan, take off, fly the plane, land safely and they’re done. So you need to ask yourself, ‘What is my flight plan for the week — where do I need to be by Friday?’ When you start thinking in that increment of time, you’re more tuned into what’s important and what to get rid of.”

Then it’s time to assess how you can delegate work to others, provided they’re properly trained, empowered and held accountable. Look around and see which employees are what Culver calls “under-employed,” in that they always seem to have time to take breaks or are joined at the hip with social media. Or if certain employees need constant hand-holding to do their work, get them better training; self-sufficient employees can free up your time.

In addition, Culver says supervisors can both coach employees and make them more self-sufficient by using a technique he calls leading with questions. In other words, when employees ask questions, don’t automatically provide the answer, even though you think it’s faster and easier to do so.

“The ultimate goal is for employees to own their jobs,” he says. “To do that, you need to develop a habit of pausing when they ask a question and ask them what they think. If an employee just cleaned a sewer line and asks you how it looks, ask him or her how it looks to them. Then you become a coach instead of an instructor, and push accountability back on that person. In the long run, that, in turn, frees up more time for you to do other things. Moreover, more often than not, you’ll pull some pretty good ideas out of your employees.”

A third component is decidedly simple but more difficult, as any dieter knows: Summon up self-discipline. Too often, the plethora of distractions at work — especially email — invites us on what Culver calls an ongoing path of least resistance that, in the end, distracts us from our flight plan. Think of it this way: How can you achieve any of your core objectives, such as staff scheduling or coaching employees, when you’re distracted by voice mails, emails and the like?

“Say you have a sewer-inspection report to finish, but you first decide to answer emails for a few minutes,” Culver says. “Then 15 minutes later, you’re still at it. That’s because answering emails is easier than the actual work we’re supposed to do. But no one gets an award for answering the most emails or being the most distracted employee. We get rewarded for getting stuff done.”

The fourth aspect of this time-management plan is establishing in your mind a tangible reward that will keep you motivated to stay on track.

“People do things if there’s a reward,” he explains. “That’s why email is so addictive; it gives you an immediate reward and feeling of accomplishment. But there’s no immediate reward for staff scheduling or strategic planning or coaching an employee. In fact, some of those tasks may make you uncomfortable. So the only way to change the pattern is to understand that there’s a bigger reward for the new strategy than what you received from old one.”

For some people, a good motivator might be a better work/life balance, achieved through higher productivity at work that reduces, say, a 55-hour workweek to 45 hours.

Of course, if all of this was easy to do, we wouldn’t be so crunched for time. “It’s human nature,” Culver suggests. “People have a hard time changing because it involves making decisions, and it’s much easier to be reactive than proactive. Or they think that by buying a book or attending a conference, their life will change. But along with the information, they need the motivation … understand the payoff.”

Culver says that after two weeks of using these techniques and ingraining new habits, most people can gain as much as an hour a day. “I’ve seen it work,” he notes.

And as you gain even more time, you’ll be amazed at how your new tactics and strategies allow you to pay attention to otherwise-neglected areas. Maybe coach up one of your employees a little more. Finish a report on time — for once. Actually do some strategic planning, instead of winging it every day.

Or maybe even finish this article without any interruptions.


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