Decision fatigue, affective forecasting, and multitasking are continually working against our day. Any attempt to improve our time use must begin by addressing these powerful obstacles. To summarize, an effective time management approach will:
- Use the first hour of the day to plan the day’s priorities and make important decisions, before mental fatigue has the opportunity to set in.
- Employ techniques to accurately predict and plan for the duration of a task.
- Purposefully incorporate breaks to reset the clock on decision fatigue.
- Incorporate tools for minimizing distractions so the brain can remain as single-threaded as possible.
- Balance “best practice” with the reality of a project manager’s day—maintaining her ability to stay available to the team, accessible to stakeholders, and adaptable to the day’s demands.
The following are some tools and techniques that can be taken alone—or in combination—to achieve the above objectives:
Plan Your Day Using the Five Boxes Technique
The Five Boxes technique (Gallagher, 2013) is a “visual to-do list” that helps to combat affective forecasting (by visualizing and forcing realistic priorities) and decision fatigue (by giving your brain a “default” to revert to when making decisions about what to work on next).
It is recommended that the Five Boxes technique be done on a physical sheet of paper; while it’s possible to do this electronically, it is important that your priorities be always visible. In electronic format, it’s easy for your Five Boxes to be hidden by other programs and windows. It is also important to do the Five Boxes early in the morning when your mind is fresh and at peak capacity for executive judgment.
To do the Five Boxes, draw five boxes on a sheet of paper. In the first box, you will write the day’s most important priority. In the second box, you will write the day’s second most important priority. In the third box, you will write the day’s final priority. In the fourth box, you will note any non-negotiable constraints in the day (e.g., meetings, phone calls, deadlines). Finally, you will use the fifth box as a “data dump” for anything else (personal or professional) that needs to be completed. As the day goes on, you may add to this fifth box.
Your goal throughout the day is to focus as much of your discretionary time as possible on the first three boxes. You may tackle items in the fifth box on breaks if you wish, but less than 5% of your time should be spent completing items on this list.
This technique is a powerful planning tool that will give your brain a clear point of reference as your energy decreases and “crises” threaten to distract your focus. Although it is highly effective when employed daily, the Five Boxes can be adapted as a weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annual planning exercise.
Utilize the Pomodoro Technique® for increased focus.
The Pomodoro Technique®, developed by Francisco Cirillo (no affiliation), is enormously effective for minimizing distractions, combating procrastination, and balancing focus with accessibility. What follows is an adapted version of this technique, which is easy to implement quickly with maximum benefit.
What Is a Pomodoro?
A Pomodoro is a 25-minute increment of time. It is small enough to maintain intense focus and large enough to achieve peak productivity and flow. When using the Pomodoro technique, the goal is to choose a task and focus exclusively on it for one Pomodoro, or 25 minutes. During this time, you are to minimize all distractions—this includes checking email, answering the phone, or switching to a different task.
After a Pomodoro is complete, take a five minute break. During the break, stand up and walk around. Get a snack. Talk to a co-worker. Follow up on emails if you wish. When the break is over, begin another Pomodoro. If you did not finish the task in the first Pomodoro, continue the same task in the second.
Every four to five Pomodoros, take a thirty-minute break. This is an excellent time to knock out tasks in Box Five, or follow up with co-workers who may have needed to discuss something with you while you were focused on the task at hand.
Although beneficial, it is not necessary to use the Pomodoro technique all the time. For project managers, substantial benefit can be achieved just by using the technique for a few hours at a time. In particular, the Pomodoro technique is useful when:
- You struggle with staying focused on a task.
- You would like to document how you spend time in order to improve.
- You need to hit a deadline on a task, but you aren’t able to check out completely from your team.
- You feel yourself losing steam on a difficult task.
- You lose your sense of how long tasks take you to complete.
Utilizing this technique will help to enhance awareness of your time management decisions. The act of writing down the time we spend on an activity is a powerful motivator and an even more powerful tool of self-discovery. In addition, the Pomodoro technique establishes a rhythm to the day so that productivity can be sustained for long periods of time. Finally, the Pomodoro technique minimizes the impact of technology overload—a key contributor to mental fatigue (Richtel, 2010, para. 9–13).
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© 2015, Sara Gallagher
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando, Florida, USA