Eugenia (Kena) Flores-Figueroa. Oncological Research Unit at the Mexican Institute of Social Health, Mexico City, Mexico.
“… You may or may not realize it yet, but how you use or don’t use your time is going to be the best indication of where your future is going to take you.”
We live in a world where we are continuously asked to do more. We have new technology that was created to make our lives easier and “optimize” our time, but we ended up full of duties and it looks like we even have less time available than 30 years ago. Time is our most valuable asset; as we master the skill of time management, the greater our success will be.
There are many strategies to learn how to manage our time, but in this article I will focus on one discipline called “Essentialism”. I read about this discipline in a book by Greg McKeown (1) a couple months ago. It has changed my perspective and has helped me prioritize my projects and be in control of my agenda and my life.
Step 1: Prioritize
The first step of essentialism is to focus on the essential and to avoid the non-essential. We have to learn how to discriminate the essential from the non-essential. In order to find what is essential to you, Greg advises to audit our activities. Think which activities are essential and contributing to your career, and which ones are just noise (don´t be surprised if you find that most of your activities are noise).
It is important to note that what is essential for you right now may not be essential in a couple of months or years, so be sure to replace, not add, more activities to your essential list. When you have to give up one activity in order to do a new one, you must be sure that you are not starting a new activity that is less valuable to the ones you already have.
The author warns us about the risk of over-evaluating our activities, and offer Tomm Stafford´s advice to ask ourselves, “if I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?”.
In order to prioritize our activities or projects we have to analyze them, so that we can engage in activities with the most value for our actual and long-term goals. It is also important to consider the time we have to spend and the consequences if we don't do that activity or project.
The “gating strategy” can be visualized as a plot (similar to a flow cytometry dot plot). In graph A the x-axis represents the value of the project (less valuable projects are at the left and most valuable projects far right) and the y-axis represents the contribution to your long-term goals (projects with less contribution will be plot closer to the x-axis). After plotting your projects, choose “Gate A” projects, which offer the most value and the most contribution to your long term goals. From the projects that fall in that category, analyze the time and effort you have to spend in order to finish them, and the consequences of not doing those projects. In this analogy, projects selected from Gate E will have the highest priority as they are projects with the most value and contribution to your long term goals, you have to invest less time, and will have the greater consequences if you don't do them. Therefore they will be essential projects or activities. Try to avoid projects gated on D and H, as they will have the lowest value and will consume most of your time. It is easy to fall for those projects, because they may look attractive or because it is hard to say NO to a colleague. My personal advice is to “forgive” yourself for “being mortal” and not to do every project.
Remember, as Greg warns: if you do not prioritize you time, someone will do it for you.
Step 2: Focus
Once you have mastered the skill of choosing your projects (and activities), you have to stay focused in order to complete them. There are many distractions in our daily lives. Those can be external, like noise (from colleagues, doors opening and closing, loud music), or “internal”, when the source of the distraction is within our minds, like reading e-mail, checking social media, or disperse thoughts.
According to Greg´s book of Essentialism, in order to focus, we need to escape, and to make ourselves unavailable. For those who are lucky enough to have a quiet office, you need to avoid internal distractions; so analyze what is distracting you and try to avoid it, from shutting down the internet or silence your phone, to resting and having a snack, as an empty stomach could also be a distraction. When you do not have a space to “retreat” inside the lab, the library is always a guaranteed “sanctuary”. A coffee shop (if you are not too distracted by others), or working at home can work for some, especially when you do not have children or if you work after they go to bed. If you have to work and there is no option but work at your bench, try listening to music. Researchers have found that sounds of nature can enhance cognitive function (http://www.sciencealert.com/the-best-music-to-listen-to-for-optimal-productivity-according-to-science). Also by wearing your headphones people may not interrupt you.
These strategies can work for short term activities, like finishing a paper or writing a proposal. But sometimes it is also necessary to escape in order to be creative and to plan. So book in your calendar some time to think and plan, even in the busiest months.
Step 3: Create a plan of action
Escape and think about your priorities, and identify the essential projects and activities for your career. Greg advises to start immediately, and to “write down your top six priorities for tomorrow on a post-it note before you leave the office. Then, cross off the bottom five. Write down your top priority on a post-it note and put it on your computer. Schedule a 90-minute window to work on your top priority – preferably the first thing of the day. Every time you are about to check email, Facebook, Twitter, etc., write down what you are about to do (so you realize that you are about to engage on a non essential activity).” I will add to his advice to categorize all your projects and activities into the eight gates (A-H), and write down all your daily activities for a week, according to your gates. Then you can analyze the time you spend on each activity and the category of that activity. And when you find yourself spending too much time on activities outside gate A and E, re-double your efforts to focus on the essentials.
Finally, you will have to learn to say no. The consequence of prioritizing what is essential is that you will be more effective and be in control of your career and life. Unfortunately there is a small inconvenience, and that is that you will have to say NO and reject many projects and invitations. Greg McKeon also offers his advice on how to say no. He says that when rejecting an invitation, we first need to affirm the relationship, then thank the person sincerely for the opportunity and then decline firmly and politely. He also warns that saying NO is an ability we need to master with time.
Time is our most valuable asset and we have to be in control of it. The way we use our time will not only have repercussions on our work but also on our life. In order to be more productive and effective we need to value the time we spend at work but also, our personal time. Time we spend on a hobby and with the family. Our telomeres are getting shorter daily, and unless our colleagues find the secret for immortality we must value and care for our time.
I want to thank Peter van Galen and Konstantinos Kokkaliaris for their advice and the editing of this article; Ayako Nakamura and Michael Milson for sharing their experiences and advice. I also want to thank Dr. José María Zas who gave the Essentialism book to my husband, and that I stole from his drawer. When you buy a book for someone, you are not just giving a gift, you may be changing someone else's life.
Reference and resources
1.- McKeown Greg. Essentialism, the disciplined pursuit of less. First edition. 2014. Crown publishing Group. United States. ISBN 978-0-8041-3738-6.