What smart lessons you can learn from small children! One day I was watching two youngsters, ages 3 and 5, playing with "bricks" made of heavy cardboard. The brick blocks came in three sizes: a 10-by-16-inch rectangle, a 10-inch square, and the standard 3-by-10-inch brick size. They spent hours creating structures.
When they first started, they didn't understand that larger pieces provided a stronger foundation for the smaller pieces, so their constructions would come tumbling down before they'd used all their bricks. With lots of trial and error, the children discovered that if they started with the biggest size, they were more likely to be able to use all their bricks.
An effective daily schedule can also be constructed with blocks of three sizes. How much you can pile on--or how productive you are each day--depends on how well you organize your "blocks" of time.
Large Blocks: Your Day's Foundation
Make your day's foundation an uninterrupted block of time where you can focus on difficult, involved projects. The ideal length is an hour and a half, or approximately 20 percent of an eight-hour day. If you can't possibly find that much time, try for at least an hour. But even with 45 minutes of uninterrupted time, you can get a significant amount of work completed because you won't waste additional minutes after each interruption to get back into your flow.
During this uninterrupted block of time, don't answer every phone call and turn off your general e-mail alerts. If you want to be sure that a certain person or message gets through immediately, set up your software rules to notify you of that specific message. When you can block 20 percent of your time to focus on what's really important, I guarantee you'll accomplish about 80 percent of your work for the day.
Having uninterrupted time is easy when you arrive at work an hour early or stay for a few extra hours at the end of a day, knowing you'll have some quiet time. But why not become more productive by scheduling that quiet time within your day instead of adding extra hours to get the same amount of work done?
Medium Blocks: Multitasking Isn't Always the Best Option
When determining what tasks to work on each day, group as many like activities together as possible, such as returning non-urgent phone calls, processing your e-mail, filing or reading. You're actually four times more productive when you can focus on one type of task rather than switching among varied tasks--multitasking slows you down.
The length of each session of "like" tasks depends on the exact type of work you'll be doing. If you need to make five short phone calls, you may only need to block out 10 to 15 minutes to complete them. For responding to e-mail, you might need as much as 30 minutes. Any of these medium blocks can be repeated throughout the day. For instance, you might spend 10 minutes checking your e-mail first thing in the morning to handle urgent issues, then spend 30 minutes before lunch and 30 minutes again later in the afternoon. And be sure to stick to the amount of time you originally allotted rather than letting your activity trail on. That'll keep you focused on the task at hand and increase your productivity. Move any tasks you don't complete to the next block of time.
Small Blocks: New Items and Lower Priority Tasks
New items and lower priority tasks can be worked on between the other blocks throughout the day. These might include requests for help from an employee, quick answers to questions, and other project components that didn't fit into your major blocks but are still necessary.
Structuring each day starts with locating a space for that large block, followed by several medium blocks of grouped activities. Small blocks then fill in the gaps. If you do the reverse and clear out the small items before you find time for your most important work, you may wrap up the workday without ever handling your priorities.