Recently, I did a conference for a group of millennial entrepreneurs. In the morning, I visited various workshops and generally interacted with my fellow organizers. The day culminated in a luncheon in the morning. In the afternoon, I participated in three workshops about what the upcoming year might bring for the group. After lunch, we headed to a dinner at a trendy Washington, D.C., restaurant, where I mingled with a small group of attendees. I then headed back to my hotel for a small meeting and read a few books before running through the night with my colleagues. As I wrote in "Adam Grant: How Great People Get Things Done," my morning hours, day and week were busy, but in my mind, most of what I did was in the first three. That is, I gave myself more opportunity to get focused in the mornings before the day began.
This pattern was repeated after breakfast and then throughout the rest of the day. It was about breaking down the previous days' activities and simplifying them to simplify my task list. For example, I was able to take a few timeouts and re-organize my thoughts and then spend a morning clicking through the five or six social media profiles that I was following. I also cleared my calendar for one hour before I headed to meet up with my colleagues to make sure I had several opportunities to get going. Later, when I was dealing with real problems and deadlines, I could execute a batch of those tasks and then plan and execute on the remaining ones.
The same management tactics that are applicable for starting a project, rebuilding customer relationships or replacing management processes apply to planning one’s entire day. I break the day into “single-use” timeframes that are similar to the ones I outlined above. After assigning my activities, then I build them into a weekly schedule that I stick to each week. It's no different than what many successful people do. Rather than attacking a project or situation from every direction, I create a single approach and do most of my work in that context. It’s also useful to shorten your workday by creating a weekly schedule that only brings you into work in the mornings.
I gave myself a practice to incorporate into my day that also freed up time during my busy week. Each morning, I work on a single, external item on my team’s “insane” to-do list.
If I come across a task, I commit to it first and then tend to the rest of my work during the rest of the day. Some days are more productive than others. It’s a relatively simple practice that’s easy to accomplish. When I find myself occupying my time in the last few hours of the day with another task, I tell myself, “This is not being productive.” I tell myself to use this time to focus on the external task I just committed to.
Although this particular project proved to be time consuming, I still finished it despite the workload. In the past week, I completed a small nonprofit initiative at work. I still finished my assignment, but within a much shorter period of time than normal.
These are powerful tools to help manage your day. Although I keep them in a drawer, there was one time I accidentally grabbed the wrong one from my drawer. While going through a task list, I suddenly found myself running the tasks that had just happened to be in the category next to the one I had just closed. That allowed me to quickly revert back to the main tasks listed at the top. As you move through the day, you’ll likely see that you can time out activities before the day begins and then use that time to step back and see how you get more done.
Adam Grant is a professor of management at Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and a co-author of "The Obstacle Is the Way: How We Can Get Anything done."