Beat the Time Bandits by Dave Neal

We all have time bandits at work and at home. These are the people and things that block us from reaching our goals and getting through our daily To-Do lists.

The usual suspects are in our lineup:

Low-To-No-Control Gang

The Low-To-No-Control Gang harbors time bandits that are outside our span of control, unless we make profound changes to the world we live and work in. At work, these miscreants might include inefficient and redundant procedures, unclear priorities, too many low-priority tasks, outdated and slow equipment, too much paperwork and red tape, too many special projects, and so on.

What can we do when cornered by members of the Low-To-No-Control Gang?

We can learn, look for alternatives and shortcuts, and deal with them as effectively and efficiently as possible. At work, our senior leaders should constantly work to reduce or eliminate the time bandits that are out of our control. Our job is to adapt to things we can't control, and remove the time bandits that are directly and indirectly in our control.

Direct-Control Gang

The Direct-Control Gang exists inside our own hearts and heads. We have direct control over our own behavior, and we can be as big a time bandit to ourselves as anyone or anything else, although it might be harder for some of us to admit. Some of the gang members include procrastination, low assertiveness, low self- discipline, low motivation, poor listening, disorganization, trying to do too much, doing unimportant things, doing things wrong the first time, and so on.

Indirect-Control Gang

The Indirect-Control Gang is made up of all the people in our lives: coworkers, bosses, friends, family, acquaintances, passersby. People are born to steal our day, just like puppies are born to chew up our favorite shoes. But whose fault is it?

It's our fault, in both cases. We shouldn't leave our shoes out because we know how puppies are. We can blame the puppy, yell at the puppy, chase the puppy around with a rolled up newspaper, but it's ultimately our fault. And if other people chew up our day, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Here is our Top 5 list for how to fend off the time bandits in the Indirect-Control Gang:

1. Don't be a bandit yourself

Just as you don't want others to "bandit" you, you should always be aware of your own 'bandit' potential. If you are true to your own self-leadership goals, this will come naturally, because you will be committed to not wasting your time or anyone else's.

2. Communicate what's important

To effectively lead yourself and others, you need to have clear priorities and clue people in to what they are. It's easier to communicate your need to stay on task when people buy in to your cause and understand the significant demands of your effort.

For example, our bosses are notorious time bandits. Why? Because their bosses are also. There are things to meet about, special projects that need people, and special functions to attend. The world ain't perfect, and we all have things to do we don't necessarily want to do or that don't fit into our definition of "important." Can we say, "No, I'm not going to attend that meeting," or "No, I won't do that special project"? Not usually. If you have issues with the type of tasks you are asked to do at work, or conflicting priorities that impact your performance, you should feel comfortable discussing them.

3. Coach and delegate

You coach people when you move them from reliance on you to reliance on themselves. Instruct and encourage people to be effective self-leaders and they will draw less and less on your time. The time you invest now will serve you well down the road when you can delegate tasks to highly capable people who don't need you looking over their shoulder.

4. Expect respect

Living your purpose and achieving your top goals are important to you and the people around you. At work, acknowledge the importance of your purpose and expect bosses and coworkers to respect that purpose. You don't have to be a killjoy to establish your expectation that people respect (if not value) your time as much as you.

If people do not respect your time - if they invite you to meetings that they didn't prepare for, send you e-mails that don't have a clear connection to you, stop by without a clear purpose -- you have three choices: (1) let them steal your day, (2) get rid of them as best you can, (3) coach them on what you expect from your business interactions.

5. Scan for the good stuff

We are constantly bombarded with information, new technology, and profound changes to how we view and function in the world. In fact, a conservative estimate by researchers suggests that business information is doubling every three years. To make sense of everything coming at us, we have to be selective about what gets our attention.

For example, we can be buried by e-mails, although they can be important and effective when used correctly. Here are some scanning-for-good-stuff tips for your e-mails and other communications you receive:

Let people know that you are overwhelmed with information and that you tend to block out messages that aren't concise, simple, or clearly relevant to you. Tell them that they can expect the same courtesy from you.

Consider reading and responding to emails only at designated times during the day, such as at the beginning of the day, before lunch, and again before you leave work.

Consider using the "10-minute rule" to work through easy e-mails; get the small and simple stuff out of the way in one 10-minute sitting rather than putting them off and allowing them to build up until you have a large, time-consuming chore ahead of you.

Consider creating an "Additional Action" folder to separate important e-mails that you need to revisit later when you have more time.

Finally, try to handle an e-mail only once (or as few times as possible). Once you read it, take action. Dump it, respond to it, print it, forward it, whatever, and then move on.

To beat the time bandits that steal our day, we must recognize who and what they are and take the lead in putting them away.

Dave Neal has helped develop thousands of employees and managers in organizations around the world for over 15 years. He is a senior partner at 4th Street Training. [ site can't be reached].

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