How to Thief-Proof Your Time
Thomas Thompson
April 12, 2022
min read

Where did your time go?

You start the day with a fresh to-do list, a booked Google Calendar, and the goal to get it all done.  So why do we arrive at the end of the day looking at the pile (physical and digital) left undone?  Somehow, our to-do list became our to-don't list.

If you are like me, you often spend the end of your day playing "Schedule shuffler," where you try to Tetris what you didn't get done today into tomorrow's cracks and crevices.

In my work with leaders, we almost always examine their daily calendar.  I tell them that if a budget is you telling your money where you want it to go, then your daily schedule you telling your time where you want it to go.  Good principle.  But the problem is we have enemies at the gates.  Your time has been stolen.  Thieves have crept in throughout your day and taken your time.

Who are these thieves and how do we thief-proof our time?

Time Thief #1:  Emails

The notification dings...we have an email.  Since we are super productive, we pause what we are doing, scan the subject line, and then respond.  a few minutes spent, and we have proved our multitasking prowess, right?

Wrong.  We have fallen into the Email Error:  Letting emails lead us, instead of us leading them.  

We have become reactive with our leadership, instead of proactive.  We have trained those around us to expect a quick response, meaning they get to dictate our priorities and focus.  Emails trick us into a false sense of accomplishment because they give us an immediate sense of accomplishment (like that mouse tabbing the lever to get the treat).

But was that accomplishment the MOST important thing we could have gotten done?  Was it more important than the conversation we were having, the project we were deep diving into, or the space we had dedicated to something else?

Most of the time, emails are the urgent that crowd out the important.  Years ago, I read an article by David Allen about getting our email under control.   It was revolutionary.  No longer was my email my to-do list.  No longer was it driving me.  I regained control over my email and began to use it on my time, not its time.

Action Step:  Read David Allen's article HERE.  Also, schedule a time each day when YOU will handle email (end of day works best). Make sure your team knows something like, “I am leading myself to steward my time better, so I will be responding to all emails today at _____________. If you have an urgent need, be sure to text/phone me.”   Then   discipline yourself to not open emails until that daily dive--no matter the notification

Speaking of notifications, they are sneaky sons of guns...

Time Thief #2:  Notifications

The Ding.  The Pop Up.  The Buzz.  Something IMPORTANT Is Happening And I Must Respond.  We have trained our brains to grab the phone, click the popup.  There was a time in my life where I had every notification I could think of turned on.  Texts, emails, Fantasy Football updates, everything.  My work and home life blurred into one notification nexus.

We justify this by saying, "It's only a few seconds...I am maximizing my time...I need to be available to my clients."  But these seconds add up.  And distracted time is not maximized.  And we must steward our availability so we remain focused on who and what matters most each day.

How many times has this happened to me:  I am in the middle of a conversation and a notification pops up on my phone, conveniently placed on the table where I can see the screen.  I can see it's Suzanne, and the scrap of headline I can read says, "We have a Problem..."  I try to shift my focus back to the person across the table, but I cannot help myself.  What is the problem?  How big of a deal is it?  It's Suzanne, so is this an issue with our meeting today at 4?  My attempt to refocus fails just as spectacularly as my instruction to you to not think about pink elephants.

We cannot help it.  Notifications steal out time because they steal our focus. And again, they turn us into reactive leaders, not proactive ones.

What's the solution?  It's simple, but you are not going to like it:

Action Step:  Turn.  All.  Notifications.  Off.  All of them.  On your phone, your computer, your tablet, your smartwatch.  Do this for ten days.

Look, you are not Batman and your phone is not the Bat Signal.  99% of notifications do not demand immediate attention.  They can wait until you decide to check them. If you need to, make sure your team/family know that urgent situations mean a phone call, but other than that, texts get responded to in a few hours, emails within a day.

At the end of ten days, evaluate.  Have you discovered you have time given back to you in your schedule?  How are you more focused and present in the meetings and work you are in?

Time Thief #3:  Lack of Margin

I read a book years ago by Richard Swenson called Margins.  His premise was that our advances in technology have reduced margins in our lives...and this is to our detriment.  The cross-Atlantic trip that used to take weeks by boat now takes hours by plane.  The car ride to work that used to be filled with music or silence now is crammed with dictated emails and phone calls.

What have we lost?  The ability to chew on thoughts.  To review what just happened.  To prepare for what's next.  To allow our brains to shift. Margins.

I noticed this years ago when I lived 5 minutes from work (this is in the age before cell phones).   My five minute drive found me arriving at home still in work mode, still mindful of the day and not ready for my family at home.  When we moved 20 minutes away, I found a new rhythm.  That 20 minutes was a decompression of my day.  I was able to think about my day, plan for tomorrow, and start to slow down from work speed to family speed.

We think we are productive when we cram every moment with meetings, every tick of the clock with conversations.  But we miss the margins.  I often tell clients when they schedule time with me to allow for 10-15 minutes after our session.  That time is fried gold.  It is when they debrief with themselves, ponder the true takeaways, decide on action steps.  Important as they discovered in our time together can get lost in the rush when the next meeting is seconds away.

There is a reason why, when God was outlining the ten most important expectations of his people, that respecting the margin (Sabbath) made the top 4.  Somehow, we are more effective leaders with limits.  We need Sabbath weekly, and we need margins daily.

Action Step: Schedule some margins in your day.  It might start with staggering meetings so there is ten minutes in between for a reset, a comfort break, or simply standing and stretching.  I used to schedule two 10 minute walks each day around my office property, to get me outside and off the grid.  A friend of mine taught me the simple trick of parking farther away from the office or restaurant.  That extra 2 minute walk not only got me moving, it got me margin.

Each one of us has the exact same number of hours in our week--168.  We have not figured out yet how to squeeze more hours into our week. But we can squeeze more out of the hours we have.  And we do this when we steward our time well and thief-proof our time from those thieves.

Which action step do you need to take today? I'd love to talk with you more about that. Shoot me an email and let's start thief-proofing your schedule today.

I founded Thompson Leadership to come alongside leaders like you. Together, we will unpack your unique leadership, unearth your biggest challenge, and create an action plan to close the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
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