Avoid the interrupt-driven model of time management

Being the go-to guy is great for client relations and your ego, but it can cut into the time you spend working on big projects and innovating. Here are four steps for improving your time management habits.

Several years ago, I suddenly realized that my approach to time management closely resembled an interrupt-driven multitasking operating system. I'd spend most of the day responding to ad hoc requests, questions, and emergencies. Whenever I'd finally get some idle time, I'd lean back in my chair, wipe my brow, and think, "Now what was it I was supposed to be doing?" It never made sense to start the day with a to-do list, because I'd rarely be able to cross even one thing off by the evening.

I must admit, it was nice to be the go-to guy for my clients and colleagues. They always knew that whenever they'd call or e-mail, they'd get a helpful response in short order. It was a bit of an ego trip for me, and all those micro-engagements billed at half-hour or even 15-minute minimum increments added up to some real revenue. But filling that role almost full-time was turning me into a glorified tech support rep. Playing nursemaid to all the existing solutions was keeping me from exercising my full potential to create new solutions and to stay on top of the latest technologies. During the short intervals when I wasn't being driven by interruptions, I would often find it hard to get started on my big projects, knowing that I would soon be interrupted again. That was the easiest excuse in the world to procrastinate — and we procrastinators know that it doesn't take much.

I didn't want to become just "the guy who can answer all of your questions about X"... while X slowly but surely becomes obsolete. Nor did I want to be known as a really smart guy who takes forever to complete a big project. So I decided to make some changes and come up with better strategies for managing my time, which include the following four steps:

  • Make interruptions the exception rather than the rule. How often does that "emergency" actually threaten a life or a business if it isn't addressed within an hour or two? How many of those questions are asked simply because it's convenient — when the questioner could have found the same answer by spending two minutes with Google? What request for services can't wait until tomorrow for an answer? Sure, there are exceptions — but as a rule, you should deflect interruptions as much as possible when working on a project. Don't answer the phone — the client can leave a message. Turn off e-mail notification and IM — you can read it later. Allocate a specific time when you'll respond to all these communications en masse. If your client has physical access to you, make sure they know that they should reserve interruptions for true emergencies.
  • Allocate large chunks of time to individual projects. Instead of trying to work a little bit on each of your pending projects, ignore all but one or two projects each day. That allows you to concentrate deeply on each task and make real progress, and it avoids the problems associated with context switching. For instance, this morning I spent the first hour catching up on communications: e-mail, feeds, and online discussions (especially on TechRepublic, of course). The next two hours are allocated to writing this article (so far, I'm making good time!), then the entire afternoon will be devoted to a project for one of my clients. At the end of the day, I'll empty my email Inbox again — but in the meantime, I'll only scan it for real emergencies every few hours. I have other projects in progress that I'm intentionally ignoring today.
  • Don't take on too many projects. If you're not going to give attention to every project on your plate each day, then you definitely don't want to have too many projects in progress at once. Your clients are not likely to be very happy with not hearing from you for several days at a time when they're expecting you to produce something for them. If you have too much work piled up, you can also start to feel overwhelmed and find it difficult to choose what to work on next. So pick your projects well, and make sure your customers have the right expectations about how much time you'll spend on them.
  • Reserve time for self-improvement. As I mentioned above, you need to stay on top of new developments in the industry if you hope to continue to provide value to your clients well into the future. So you can't afford to be the hamster in a wheel, working like mad and not getting anywhere. You might find a paying gig on the bleeding edge, but those are rare — and dangerous. Rather than learning what not to do while working on your clients' projects, make some time to be your own consultant and teach yourself new things. I typically reserve Monday afternoons for "me time" — it makes me look forward to Mondays!

Using these steps, I've moved from an interrupt-driven model to more of a prioritized batch-processing queue. That may sound like a step backwards technologically, but it sure helps reduce thrashing for the old wet computer inside my skull. Until someone invents an AI that can do consulting, that's all I've got to work with. Hmm... sounds like an idea for a Monday project.

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Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

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