To better understand marketers' challenges and how to address them, we need to step back first and take an in-depth look at how results change with time when we work on a task. Then we will examine our recent survey results that illustrate the unique marketers' challenges and why it has been difficult, if not impossible, for many to succeed at time management in today's digital overload.
But fear not! There is light at the end of the tunnel. I will present some exceptional but practical methods (or practices) that will shatter these obstacles and lead you to the haven of being accomplished while feeling less stressed.
How results change with time: The Results Curve™
As shown in the chart below, when we start to work on a task, we start to get results, and as we continue, we get more and more results. But at some point, the results level off and then diminish because either we get mentally tired and no longer productive or we need someone else to do their part before we can continue -- or maybe before we can complete the task.
This is all good in theory, but what happens in reality is that a few minutes after we start to work on a task, we get interrupted (email, phone, a chatty colleague from the sales team stops by, etc.). When we get interrupted, our results go down to zero. A few minutes later, we start again, and we start to make progress, but we get interrupted again. This time it's an instant message, our boss calling, or a Twitter notification popping up. Our results go down to zero again -- this happens again and again and again. This is our life in today's work environment!
This is devastating for our overall results. Working this way, we only get a small fraction (maybe 5 to 10 percent) of the potential results that we could be getting if we were to stay focused. In addition, when we are working a few minutes here and a few minutes there, we are staying at a superficial level and not getting deep into anything.
The big insight here is that we need to stay focused long enough to achieve in-depth thinking and creative problem solving and to get meaningful things accomplished.
This can be 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or several hours, depending on the task. Then once we have accomplished something meaningful, it is time to stop our focused session and switch to being collaborative -- handle email, make phone calls, have live discussions, and maybe check the latest social media trends. This is the "collaborative" work where we get the most of our team productivity and therefore substantial results:
Then, after the collaborative session, it is time to take a break. Not just a break, but do something that gets us reenergized and ready for the next focused session. This is what we call play time -- an essential cycle in the productivity formula.
Why most marketers fail at time management, and why you won't
Seventy-seven percent of marketers indicated that it is difficult for them to manage their time. The top two reasons they indicated were constant interruptions and changing priorities. Other reasons included managing email, workload being too high, and changing scope of work.
When we asked them, "What is it that you are doing that is preventing you from better managing your time?" the top two reasons were, "Interrupting myself unnecessarily (email, social media, social conversations, etc.)" and "Saying 'yes' when I should say 'no' to incoming requests."
When we asked whether they are currently experiencing any symptoms of burnout (lack of interest/satisfaction in work, decreased job performance, etc.), 58 percent indicated that they believe they may be experiencing a few symptoms, while 18 percent indicated that they are experiencing many symptoms.
So, what can you do to succeed at managing your time, and therefore not fall into the traps of interruptions, be a victim of changing priorities, and experience burnout? Keep on reading.
No. 1: Work in "bursts" and play often
As demonstrated by the Results Curve™ above, the best results are accomplished by working in bursts. This means alternating between bursts of focused effort, bursts of collaborative effort, and bursts of play time.
The burst of focused effort means no email, no social media, and no chit-chatting. Tell people around you that for the next hour, you are now focused on this RFP or email campaign or whatever your task is. If it is too noisy around you or if people won't leave you alone, put a headset on or find a conference room or corner cubicle someplace and disappear. Then comes the collaborative burst. This means being open to interactions of all kinds. Ask questions, answer questions, share information, brainstorm, and collaborate to your heart's content. Then comes the play burst.
The play burst may seem secondary at first, but it is actually indispensable. It is the catalyst for renewal and engagement. It is also the antidote for stress and burnout. Don't let 30 to 45 minutes go by without some form of play (stretching, walking, breathing, exercise, journaling, listening to music, socializing). By the way, the duration and order of these bursts need to be fluid. These depend on your role, your style, and the task or project at hand.
Schedule 30 minutes on your calendar to tackle an important task on which you have been procrastinating. During this time, shut down email, let the phone go to voice mail, and, if necessary, find a place where you can't be easily interrupted by others. When you are done, check email and handle important messages. Then stop and take a break that includes some movement such as a walk around the block. You just practiced working in bursts. Do this again and again, and turn it into a habit.
No. 2: Work in iterations and use a timer
Whatever your task or project is, if you are suffering from overwhelmingness -- or maybe procrastination or perfectionism -- and therefore feel hindered or even stuck, working in iterations and using a countdown timer to keep you focused are likely to do wonders. Depending on the scope and complexity of the task or project, these iterations can be short and conducted one right after the other, with some collaborative time and play time in between, or longer and spread over a period of time:
- Iteration 1: Describe (describe the problem or purpose and related parameters)
- Iteration 2: Brainstorm (let the ideas flow freely, include others if need be)
- Iteration 3: Research (research, collect data, engage your stakeholders)
- Iteration 4: Organize (organize your findings, identify solutions, compare options)
- Iteration 5: Refine (review, edit, finalize)
"Iteration 1" helps you clarify your objectives and provide direction for the following iterations. "Iteration 2" gives you the permission to be creative and to approach the work from a problem-solving perspective. "Iteration 3" allows you to fill in the gaps and address the issues in more depth so you are ready for "iteration 4," where you identify solutions and shape your finished product. Finally, "iteration 5" allows you to refine and finalize your product.
Choose a task or a project that you are about to engage in, and instead of working on it in one chunk or randomly jumping in and out, follow the iteration method. Start by identifying the necessary iterations, and then time yourself as you work on each iteration. You may, for instance, give yourself 30 minutes to "describe" the task. You may find out that you need more time and therefore spend an additional 15 minutes on this iteration and then move to brainstorming.
No. 3: Schedule your important priorities on your calendar
To-do lists just won't do it. Your calendar is the only visual representation of time. When you block time for your important priorities on your calendar, you are making them visible, not just to you but to others as well. Prepare a list of your priorities for the next week or two and block time for the important ones.
This also enables you to notice tasks that can't be completed in time and therefore set expectations and negotiate as needed: "I won't be able to have the campaign ready by Tuesday as originally planned, but I will be able to have it by Thursday." Or if this campaign is critical and the Tuesday deadline is inflexible, it's time for negotiation. Effective negotiation involves presenting the facts, engaging in creative problem solving, identifying options, and working collaboratively at finding a mutually agreeable solution. Setting expectations and negotiation builds trust.
Don't forget to block time for creative and/or strategic work, and periodically incorporate activities for personal and professional development and renewal, like attending a retreat, participating in a conference, or maybe joining a design-thinking workshop.
List your important priorities for the next week or two, and block time for them on your calendar. Share this list with your manager or key stakeholders and get their support. Set expectations on items that can't be done in the desired timeframe and negotiate alternatives.
No. 4: Manage email before it manages you
Email seems to be the No. 1 interruption for marketers (68 percent reported that email is the main reason for interruptions).
Stop checking emails as they come in! If they (your stakeholders) need an immediate response, ask them to call you or text you. Email is not meant to be for urgent matters, unless your job is to monitor email all the time -- which may be the case for a customer service representative, but are you a customer service representative?
In addition, email needs to be handled in chunks and not one at a time. The email "chunk" belongs to the collaboration burst. As soon as you are finished with your focused burst, go through your email inbox and respond to urgent messages and other messages that you can handle right away, while categorizing (or labeling or moving to designated email folders) the messages that you can't handle right away, according to designated categories (or labels or email folders).
Use the following three categories: "Today," "Tomorrow," and "Waiting For." Assign the "Today" category to messages that you can't handle right away but need to be handled today. Assign the "Tomorrow" category for messages that you can't handle right away but can wait until tomorrow or later. Assign the "Waiting For" category to messages that you delegate to others. Then later in the day, make time for the "Today" messages to ensure that you will handle them by the end of the day.
Create the "Today," "Tomorrow," and "Waiting For" categories (or labels or email folders). When you go to process your email inbox (after your focused burst, and right at the beginning of your collaboration burst), either handle the email right away, or if you can't handle it right away, assign to it the appropriate category so you are clear on when you need to go back to it.
No. 5: Say no to weak links, especially weak-link meetings
The 80/20 rule (the Pareto principle) says that 80 percent of our results come from 20 percent of our effort. This means that there are certain activities that we do (the 20 percent) that are closely connected to our results and generate most of our results (80 percent of our results). I call these activities "deltas" because they are the activities that cause change. The non-delta activities that we do, i.e. the remaining 80 percent, don't generate significant results. I call these activities "weak links" because the link between them and the results is weak.
To better manage your time, your interruptions, your email, and even your life, before undertaking any activity, ask the delta/weak-link question: "Is this activity a delta or a weak link?" If it is a delta, then do it well and reap the benefits. If it is a weak link, then stop and rethink your approach to this activity. Do it quickly and move on, or reduce its scope to its absolute minimum, or eliminate it all together.
Saying no to weak-link activities is not easy. Notably, 49 percent of marketers said they say "yes" when they should have said "no" to incoming requests. Here is a three-step formula that can help you say "no" gracefully:
- Step 1: Say "Yes" (yes, I am here to help, and not yes to the request at hand).
- Step 2: Set expectation and negotiate (this is the core step in which you negotiate a mutually agreeable solution).
- Step 3: Deliver (you need to deliver upon whatever you negotiated in step 2 -- a critical step in order to build trust and open the door for future negotiation).
Review your calendar and identify a weak-link meeting that is coming up within the next few days. This is a meeting where your contribution is minimal and the benefits for you are minimal. Negotiate your way out of this meeting. Use your list of priorities to help you negotiate effectively. Or maybe show up for the first part and excuse yourself, or not show up at all if you're ready to be bold and take ownership of your time and your accomplishments.
No. 6: Educate your stakeholders and create rapport
Educate your stakeholders about what you do and how you do it. The more they know about your function and your process, the more they will be open and willing to help rather than hinder. In other words, help them help you. You might develop an FAQ that answers many of their questions. You might hold a lunch-and-learn presentation or webinar explaining your process. You might ask them to do the same, so you know more about their business and their objectives and parameters. You might conduct a survey to better understand their views on your process and services.
Have an informal conversation with one of your stakeholders, explain your process to them, and get their input on how you can work together more efficiently. Expand this effort and turn it into a group gathering. Remember to keep it light, fun, and informative. Use it as an opportunity to create rapport and trust.
No. 7: Handle difficult people before they handle you
Twenty-three percent of the marketers surveyed indicated that one of their key challenges in managing their time and their work relates to dealing with difficult people. While all of us humans can be difficult sometimes and in some way, some are persistently difficult and devoted to creating obstacles and disagreements, rather than seeking to resolve conflicts and bring about solutions -- this is what we are referring to as difficult behavior.
While you don't have control over the difficult person's behavior, you do have control over your reactions and your behaviors. Actually, you are the one who creates your reactions and the resulting frustration and stress symptoms. You do so by holding on to unrealistic beliefs about the person or situation, such as "This person 'should' not be difficult and I 'can't stand it' that they are difficult." Try a more realistic thought, such as "Even though it is very frustrating to deal with this person, it is not the end of the world by any means, and I can manage it." Dr. Albert Ellis calls this disputing your irrational belief, and if practiced consistently, it is likely to decrease your frustration significantly.
Once you detach yourself from insisting that the difficult person shouldn't be difficult, you will feel calmer and ready to tackle the business issues at hand. If you are uncertain, get input from others who can view the situation more objectively. If this issue happens to be a "weak link" issue, then drop it all together. For "delta" issues, however, insist on a mutually agreeable solution. This is the time to step up, be bold, and leverage all the negotiation and influence skills you can put your hands on.
Make a list of difficult situations that you are facing right now. Identify any underlying beliefs that may be causing your frustration about the situation. Try replacing them with more realistic ones. Once you make this transition and are able to view the situation more objectively, identify one situation that is important and where business results are at stake. Review and analyze the situation with the help of others and come up with an approach.
In conclusion, while the marketers' challenges with time management are significant, ranging from constant interruptions to changing priorities, changing scope, high workload, and demanding and difficult stakeholders, there are effective ways to address these challenges, as described above. The secret for a successful implementation is practice. Practice, learn, adjust, and practice again. This is the road to accomplishments and happiness!
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