Productivity tips from a professional

Did you resolve to get more organized in 2012? How is that working out for you so far?

Managing your time is perhaps the most difficult organizational challenge you face. You can always declutter your desk, rearrange your workspace or get your files in order. Getting control of your schedule is one of those grand intentions that suffers because it involves setting rules for others who interfere with your productivity.

A terrific resource for those of us who struggle with never having enough time is Laura Stack, president of the Productivity Pro (www.TheProductivityPro.com), a time-management training firm that specializes in productivity improvement in high-stress organizations. (Is there any other kind?) Her fifth productivity book, "What to Do When There's Too Much to Do," comes out in July.

Laura is also president of the National Speakers Association, a group to which I belong. She is the personification of the adage, "If you need something done, ask a busy person." Why is that true? Because busy people have probably figured out how to best use their time.

Even if you haven't attended one of her seminars, Laura may have helped you already. She is the designer of the Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer.

Laura shared some thoughts with me about the biggest problems people face when the clock is the enemy.

The No. 1 time-management challenge is not taking time to think, she says. People are busy putting out fires, directing day-to-day operations and dealing with distractions, but they should be spending time concentrating on strategy. They should incorporate "thinking time" on their calendars, which allows them to prepare for impending crises and deal with them proactively.

Laura recommends "strategy retreats" for leaders every few months, a weekend alone, without any e-mail, used to write, think, dream and plan. Assess mission statements and progress toward meeting goals. She acknowledges that setting aside this time is a tremendous challenge but emphasizes the importance of intense focus.

We discussed the role of technology in managing our time. I don't go anywhere without my iPhone and iPad -- I'm afraid I might miss something important. Laura admits that while most people think technology should enhance time management, she cautions that at the same time, it blurs the boundaries between our work and personal lives.

Technology can become addictive. We are slaves to our smartphones. Laura says we are conditioned to interrupt what we are doing: "You're at your desk. You're working on something critical. You need to be head down, prepping for a meeting, doing a proposal, preparing a presentation .... All of a sudden you get this e-mail alert or a ding or your cursor changes or you get some other alert, and you just can't help it. You have to check it."

"A majority of incoming technology alerts are not important, but we stop the critical task to go focus on that. This 'always on' mentality is really keeping us from having a life," she says. "You have to use technology strategically. When you're using it to improve productivity for down time, do so on purpose."

My final question for Laura focused on what she thought was the biggest waste of time.

Her reply: "Always doing what we've always done." She gave an example of a human resources vice president who, for two years, generated monthly reports indicating how much time each employee spent in training courses. When Laura asked the VP what the recipients did with the reports, the VP didn't know.

Laura advised her to survey recipients as to their usefulness. The result? They perused only the executive summary, so they decided brief quarterly reports would suffice. Time saved: nearly two workdays a quarter.

Laura says to ask if what you are doing still makes sense: "Why do we do it this way? If I didn't do this at all, would anybody notice?"

Time is a gift. If you feel like you're wasting it, invite a pro to help you assess your strategy. It will be time well spent.

Mackay's Moral: Wasting your time is wasting your opportunities.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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