The Working With… Podcast

The Time Delusion.

March 23, 2020

On this week’s podcast, why do we delude ourselves about what we can do each day?



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David Sparks' Article on the time delusion

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Episode 125

Hello and welcome to episode 125 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

So how many tasks on average are you rescheduling each day? If you find yourself rescheduling tasks you are likely deluding yourself about how much you can do each day and it’s a problem I find in many people’s productivity systems and often causes people to falsely believe to-do lists and time management is not for them. The good news is once you accept reality, it is a problem you can fix very easily and that is what I will be talking about today.

Now, before we get into this week’s answer, I just want to give you a gentle reminder that many of my courses are on a very special offer this month and you have a chance to pick up four of my all-time best courses for just $40.00 (or for as little as $10.00 each) Time is running out as this very special offer will be ending soon so head over to my learning centre and get your bundle today. You will not be disappointed. All the details are in the show notes. 

Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question. 

This week’s question comes from Frederic. Frederic asks: Hi Carl, I have trouble completing all my tasks most days. I find I am having to reschedule sometimes half of the tasks I set for myself. Is this normal or am I doing something wrong? 

WOW! Thank you, Frederic. I’ve been reading quite a few articles recently on this problem myself and it seems you are not alone. One article, in particular, caught my attention which I will link to in the show notes. David Sparks of the MacSparky podcast wrote about the delusion we have about how much we think we can do and the reality of what we actually can do each day. High expectations and hope rarely lead to a good outcome. What we need is to reduce those expectations and remove hope from the equation when we plan our day. The question is, how do we do that? 

Firstly, understand you have a limited amount of time each day and with that time limit you also have limited resources of focus and concentration. What this means is as the day goes by your ability to focus and concentrate diminishes too. Your brain has a limited capacity to stay focused. And so while it might be easy to keep adding tasks to your daily to-do list, it becomes much harder to stay focused on completing those tasks as the day goes by. That’s why most people hit a mid-afternoon slump. 

However, there are more complications here too. Another factor is when are you at your most focused? Here we are all very different. Some people are at their most focused first thing in the morning—the early birds. Others find they can focus better in the evening—the night owls. And there are a rare few who find they focus most in the afternoons. Those people are so rare, though, we don’t have a name for them. 

So, one of the first things to do is to find out which type of person you are. Are you an early bird or a night owl? This is important because once you know your type you can start scheduling the work that needs your most focus at your best time. 

Now this can be more difficult than you think. When I was in my twenties, I always felt I was a night owl. I hated mornings and really only came alive as the sun set. As I have matured I find I now focus best in the mornings - between 7 AM and 9 AM. Yet, I also find I can be very creative in the evenings between 11 PM and 1 AM. I experience a mental slump in the afternoons, so I schedule my exercise for 2 PM. Now I know many of you cannot do that as 2 PM is in the middle of your working day. That said, though, monitoring your days and learning when you feel at your most focused and when not is an essential first step to becoming more productive. 

One of the least productive things you can do is to push through on a task that requires high levels of focus and concentration when you are in a mental slump. It would be far better to stop doing the task and spend some time working on your email replies and phone calls. Generally, your communications require less focus than pouring over a spreadsheet doing due diligence on a company’s financial status. 

According to Daniel Pink in his book, When, most people are at their most focused first thing in the morning. So for most of you the best time to schedule work that requires the most concentration is when you arrive at work. This is why you should not start your day with email. Email requires low levels of concentration so you would be better off working on your email replies towards the end of the morning—say 11:30 AM. This is one of the best times to hit reply too because as most people are heading off to lunch around that time you are less likely to get replies coming in as you reply. (That’s a secret bonus tip for you—please keep it to yourself!)

Okay, so now you have established your best times for focus and concentration, how do you manage the number of tasks you have for the day? Good question.

Firstly, stop creating your daily to-do list based on hope and wishful thinking. Yes, we are all busy, yes we all have more stuff to do than available time in the day. But, we cannot change that. Instead, we need to get smart about how to manage our mental energy. If you focus better in the morning block time off to do your more difficult tasks in the morning. If you are in a leadership role, don’t schedule meetings first thing in the morning—remember most people are at their best first thing in the morning—schedule meetings for late morning or better still early afternoon. 

Next, reduce down the number of tasks you try to do each day. Now here’s a trick I use. Rather look at a what I want to accomplish on a daily basis, I find looking at the week as a whole works better. Ask yourself what do you want to get accomplished this week? Now this focuses you more on outcomes than individual tasks and helps to reduce the number of tasks you have to do each week. 

Let’s say your goal for the week is to complete a proposal and get a commitment from a potential customer to purchase your service or product. Now, most companies follow SOPs (standards of procedure) and often these just add unnecessary tasks. Instead ask the question “what do I have to do this week to get this potential customer’s business by close of business on Friday?” Asking this question may lead you to make a couple of calls and sending an email for two. This is far better than following some antiquated box-ticking system that was written five years ago that the potential customer or client does not care about. 

For me, I could ask the question “what do I have to do to get this online course update finished by Sunday evening?” When I ask that question I may decide I need to cancel my teaching assignments on Thursday so I can spend all day in my studio recording the classes. Sometimes that’s the only way you are going to get something done. As the saying goes: “if it’s important enough you’ll find way. If it’s not, you’ll find an excuse”. If I had a task such as “complete course update” I know that task is going to get rescheduled and I would likely miss completing the update. A task this big needs a lot of focussed time. It’s far better to block a day off to get it done than to keep discovering I don’t have time to do it today. 

Now, I’ve heard the excuses about not being able to block a whole day off to complete a project or a task. And I’ve worked in enough industries to know this is partially true. That said, I also know that if a project needs to be completed by the end of the week or month the successful are willing to pull out all the stops and do whatever it takes to get that project completed. Like I said if it’s important enough you will find a way. If it’s not you will find an excuse. This one is your call. Talk to your boss, talk to your customers explain the situation. Do whatever it takes to carve out the time to complete the project. 

You need to get intentional about what you want to accomplish each day. Sure, you’re going to get a lot of stuff thrown at you, that’s called life. As a productive person you need to learn to manage that stuff, prioritise the important and discard the not so important. It’s hard, it takes practice, but it’s worth it because of the productivity benefits you will get from it. 

Finally, are you practising the 2+8 Prioritisation method? This works. It works because it focuses you on deciding what is important. You have to decide what ten tasks you are going to complete today (excluding your routines). Now, this is not a rough number. It’s an intentionally precise number. You are only allowed a maximum of ten meaningful project or goal-orientated tasks per day. 

I’ve seen people try to do more than ten tasks only to end up rescheduling many of those tasks. Remember, the purpose here is to not have to reschedule. To have enough meaningful tasks to comfortably complete them all and not have to reschedule. To have flexibility built into your day so you can deal with the inevitable unknowns that will come your way every day. 

Think of it this way. If you have to reschedule a task - you failed. No excuse. You tried to do too much and you screwed up. Stop, review and ask why and then adjust accordingly. A lot of becoming better at managing your time and becoming more productive is really about making tiny adjustments until you discover your own sweet spot. The place where the number of tasks and type of work you do is manageable and has enough flexibility built in so you can deal with minor emergencies, interruptions and distractions as they come up. Most people never reach that sweet spot because they don’t stop and figure out where their sweet spot is. Instead, I find most people are better at coming up with excuses about why they are different and why something that works for billions of other people couldn’t work for them. 

If you’re having to reschedule tasks every day, then whatever you are trying to do is not working. If you find you need to reschedule once or twice a week, that’s not really a problem. Sometimes the unknowns in the day will derail you. But, for the most part, you should be organising your day so you are not rescheduling much and that takes a lot of honesty and analysis. But that honesty and analysis will free you up to make better choices about how you manage your work each day. 

Hopefully, that has helped you, Frederic. Thank you for your question and thank you to all of you for listening. It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.