There are three rules that might help you maintain focus and get the essential things done in the today’s hectic environment where 24/7 connectivity is the norm and your office is more a state of mind than a specific place. They involve the three essential strategies of goal setting, planning and scheduling.
The 90-day rule for goal-setting.
Short-range goals are more realistic in this digital age of speed – for example, 90-day goals instead of annual goals. This allows for an ever-changing environment, the rapid advances in technology, and the instantaneous influence of social media and so on. Priorities also seem to change more quickly in this digital age of speed.
90 days – three months – provide enough time to accomplish something significant, yet not so short as to be seen as a glorified “To do” list. Your 90-day goal could very well lead to an annual goal, while having measurable results in itself. But if we work on annual goals, we could deceive ourselves into thinking that a last-minute rush near the end of the year would enable us to achieve the goal.
With shorter goals we are able to adjust or even discover that the goal is impossible or impractical – and we would still have most of the year available to re-evaluate and reset our goals.
Many goals don’t take 12 months in the first place, and Parkinson’s Law could take place as the time it takes to achieve the goal expands to fill the time we have available. Many important goals such as product launches or sales promotions are time sensitive. If you don’t act now you lose much of their benefit. If you can’t make significant progress in 90 days, you probably wouldn’t do much better in 365 days anyway.
Deciding in advance that you will do something and actually planning when you will do it increases your commitment to get it done. There is no real commitment to complete any tasks on a “To do” list with no time frame, and your brain picks up on that.
The 90-hour rule for planning.
You must get your own priorities into your planner first – before your planner is filled with other people’s priorities. This necessitates that you schedule blocks of time for both business and personal activities, tasks and projects at least 90 hours – or about 4 to 5 days – in advance.
That’s why I prefer a week at a glance planner – so I can see my plan for the entire week. People normally ask if you are busy tomorrow or the next day or the next when looking for a time to meet with you. If you don’t have anything scheduled in your planner for the next few days, you can easily give up your valuable prime time to others, leaving only scraps of time to work on your own projects. It’s a lot easier to say no when you see a commitment in your planner at the time slot being requested.
Choose times when you are the most mentally alert and creative to work on your ongoing projects and important tasks. Leave other times blank so you can schedule other people into these time slots or work on the lower priority activities. How much of your week you actually schedule will depend on the nature of your job. If your main job is to trouble shoot or fight fires, you will block off less time. But schedule at least 20% of each day for your own priorities. If you don’t have fires one morning, you want to be committed in advance to work on one of your top priorities. Most people can block off at least the equivalent of 3 or 4 hours each day to get to get the really important work done.
The 90-minute rule for scheduling.
The probability of a scheduled task or project being completed as planned is increased immensely if the time to work on it is scheduled in 90-minute blocks of time.
One of the biggest problems for most people is sustained attention. Working for shorter periods of time is generally more efficient since the longer you work on a project, the more difficult it is to maintain focus, and the more susceptible you are to interruptions – either by yourself or others.
For most of my adult life I have scheduled projects and tasks in 90 minute chunks of time, including the writing of books. Originally, this was simply due to the fact that I found I had to allow about 50% more time than I thought a task would take due to the interruptions that invariably occurred in a corporate office. But since that time, I have accumulated a whole series of reasons why working in 90-minute chunks of time is more effective. And the experiences of other people as well as recent brain research seem to confirm this.
Concentration and energy rises and falls in 90 minute cycles. This is a continuation of the sleep cycles where we go through stages of non-REM and REM sleep that in total last about 90 minutes before the cycle begins again. During the evening we are more easily awakened about every 90 minutes, and during the day we tend to get sleepy about every 90 minutes. So it makes sense to schedule work sessions of about 90 minutes with brief breaks in between to rejuvenate.
In addition, 90 minutes is an acceptable wait time for most people before they receive an answer to their e-mail, text message or phone call. Of course a few people expect instant replies, but those people are simply being unrealistic. 90 minutes isn’t an unrealistic period of time to be unavailable to staff members either.
90-minute segments allow at least two major projects to be worked on each day – possibly both in the morning if that’s your prime time (when you are the most mentally alert and energetic), leaving the balance of the time for other people and less important tasks.
90 minutes is about the minimum length of “working time” before “make-ready” time becomes a factor and starts having a negative impact on your efficiency. If you select too brief a period of time, you spend as much time getting your materials and your mind ready as you spend working on the project.
I recommend you actually schedule these 90-minute “appointments with yourself” in ink if you use a paper planner – since you have every intention of keeping those appointments.
When we react to something, a different part of the brain is being activated than if we plan to do something. Writing down what we intend to do switches us to a more rational mode of thinking. When an interruption does occur, either something you think of or a remark someone else makes, jot it down so you can deal with it later. But continue with your planned activity.
Use “batching” for shorter tasks.
For brief tasks, batch together those tasks that are similar in nature and require the same resources and mental acuity. For example, I might have a 90 minute block of time scheduled for writing articles for both my newsletter and blog, material for my teleseminars, courses or website – all requiring writing, creativity, voice activated software, reference books, notes, my journal and so on.
A batching session could also involve contacting various people by phone, text or email or reading magazines, blogs, websites, books and other resources in search of information on a specific topic.
Batching consumes less energy and causes less mental fatigue since you are using the same areas of the brain and not switching back and forth from one task to another or putting demands on your energy supply by having to make frequent and unrelated decisions. It also increases productivity since you are wasting less time locating materials, interrupting yourself or deciding what to do next.
There is fourth strategy that could be called the “90-second rule.” When interrupted from your train of thought by a drop-in visitor or other incident, if it takes 90 seconds or less to handle it, do it right then before continuing with your work. Otherwise agree on a future time to discuss the matter. Also, when checking email, text messages or voice mail, if you can reply in 90 seconds or less, do it right away. Otherwise just add it to your “To do” list or schedule a time in your planner to do it later. Do everything you can to maintain focus.
Next blog article: 7 ways to maintain focus at the office.