Peter DeMarco answers leadership questions from readers.
Question: Each day I am overwhelmed by all that I have to do.
Do you have any advice for busy leaders trying to organize themselves to get more done?
Depending on the skills, qualities and experiences of the leader, feeling overwhelmed is best addressed through two overarching, related principles: Order captures time, and disorder wastes time.
The vast majority of successful leaders are organized, which means they begin and end each day with a plan. Absent a plan, leaders have no concrete way of assessing what they or their people are doing with the time available.
STEP 1: Identify the “whats” (keep a list)
The first step of ordering yourself is to remember that you can’t choose things, you can only choose actions. So make a list of the items you have to do. These actions will serve as your critical “whats.”
Identifying these “whats” can reduce stress in many ways. In some cases, this approach helps busy people put a finger on the steps to take to accomplish their objectives, and turns vague mountains into more specific, manageable molehills. In other cases, it helps procrastinators understand that they have a lot to do, and must get going! Wherever you fall on this spectrum, a list will help.
I am still a fan of old-fashioned hand-written lists because the movement of my hand in writing the activity helps me to remember it. Writing my lists also opens the floodgates of my memory, with one task prompting me to recall others.
If you prefer to type, there are countless e-tools, as well. Trello , Wunderlist, and Xmind all present a unique method for organizing yourself, and all have free trial versions. If speaking works best for you, try leaving yourself a voicemail and getting a transcription service to email you while you’re on the go (voicemail to email transcription through Google Voice is free).
Or stick with the traditional Microsoft products: Outlook has a task manager, and OneNote is a time-tested tool. Whatever your inclination, here is a link to a simple worksheet you can use by hand or computer.
Since we can only choose actions (not things), the second step for self-organizing focuses on the form or means of activity. Define “how” you intend to do the “what.” At Priority Thinking®, we encourage our clients to place the following in front of each action:
- P = Phone the person
- R = Read or review a particular project or item
- W = Write (an email or memo or handwritten note)
- S = See someone or something; physically visit with a person or inspect a location
- L = Listen actively to a particular person or thing
- D = Do the activity identified
- T = Take time to think, because too often we are under pressure and stop at the easiest answer
STEP 3: Order your “whens”
After choosing our actions and selecting our means, the third step, sequencing, requires us to determine when we ought to get things done. My personal technique is to start with those tasks that take the least amount of time first and those that take the most time last.
The idea is to declutter my list and clear out time to focus and think about larger tasks. In fact, my team often hears me tell them to “move the monkey” (coined from the article, Who’s got the monkey ?). Order your list by two “when” variables—(1) quickest to do and (2) due dates— so that you know where to turn when you have small chunks of time come free during the day.
That said, not every what or every how can be given a when. Sometimes we don’t know when we can or ought to complete a task. The key is to capture whatneeds to be done and how it ought to be done.
Establish a parking lot for those actions you don’t know where to place in the order (at least yet). There is nothing wrong with putting off decisions on items you have time to work on, but haven’t figured out when to do them. As paradoxical as it may sound, making the conscious choice to procrastinate is a lot better than forgetting to take action altogether!
STEP 4: Remind yourself why
Sometimes we get so busy doing that we lose sight of the reason for the action in the first place. Review your actions to insure they are still relevant. On more than a few occasions, I recall over-engineering a response that ended up being barely on time or late, when a simpler answer delivered on time would have been preferred by my superiors.
Finally, sometimes, a phone call (P) or a visit to the colleague in the next cube (S) is better than a lengthy email (W) that no one will read all the way through anyway. Regardless, the more organized you are, the more you will get done and the less overwhelmed you will feel.
Send your questions via email to LeaderTime@PeterDeMarco.com, or use the submissions form at www.PeterDeMarco.com/LeaderTime .
Peter DeMarco is founder and president of Priority Thinking, an executive coaching, organizational consulting, strategy advisement, and ethics education company. He was named to the 2014 and 2015 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trust by Trust Across America.