August 7, 2012

Advisors: How Time Windows Will Change Your Life

Being a bit of a free spirit, for years I resisted any kind of unnecessary structuring of my workdays. Sure, I’d do my client calls and other appointments, but when it came to unscheduled work, I’d just look around for what needed to be done next, work on that until it was finished, take a break, and then look for the next task. 

This strategy worked fine for me, except that I never felt there were enough hours in the day, and I always felt the stress of what I thought was a heavy workload. Then, about two years ago, I made a life-changing discovery. I decided to grow my business and take on new research, publishing and client projects but started to get that familiar feeling of having too much work to and not enough time to do it. Then I noticed I was working about the same number hours as I did before adding these extra assignments. 

How was it possible that I was doing more work in the same time? When I compared my working days, with fewer versus more projects, I realized that I wasn’t really doing more work—I had simply become more efficient. 

For one thing, I grouped similar tasks together, so I didn’t have to mentally change gears between projects. I also worked in longer stretches with fewer breaks. But most importantly, I found less time-consuming ways to get things done; from emailing questions to clients rather than calling, to checking my emails at regular intervals rather than constantly, to changing or updating existing documents rather than writing everything from scratch, to name a basic few step. 

The truth is that  for years I’d been wasting my time on “fake work,” a term coined by Brent Peterson, author of the book “Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder but Accomplishing Less.”  That is, inefficient or redundant tasks were filling up my days, creating the illusion that I was busy, while preventing me from tackling new, more challenging tasks because “I just didn’t have the time.” 

This realization led me to take a hard look at exactly what I was doing during my workdays, even at my “new,” more productive level. Sure enough, I was surprised to find that I was in fact doing things more efficiently, but only efficiently enough to fill up my days with my new level of what needed to be done. 

So I started to experiment with how efficient my clients and I could become if we really put our minds to it. To do this, I divided “open” time into finite windows, which I set aside for specific tasks such as doing the follow-up work after client calls or working on my publishing projects or my website, etc. What I found was that the discipline of having a fixed window of time to get things done motivated me to get them done within that time. When I shortened my allotted time, I got them done in less time. 

Rather than cramping my “free spirit” style, I realized that working on one task for the next two hours, or whatever “window” I had, with additional time windows allotted to work on other tasks later, freed me up to completely focus on what I was doing, and find the best ways to do it. 

The net result is that I actually work fewer hours, get way more done, and best of all, my level of productivity has actually gone up. In fact, time windows have worked so well in my business that I highly recommend them to all my clients, especially those suffering from the traditional challenge faced by advisors of having way too much to do and too little time to do it.

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