Distractions are the leaks in our commitment to intentional living. They cause us to leak time, energy and influence. Someone has said that if the evil one cannot convince us to sin he will tie us up with distractions. Distractions either manage us or we manage them. And unless actively managed, they will manage us.
Managing distractions is the realization that our attention can easily be diverted from what we really need to do. And, distractions can be a secretly welcomed diversion from doing more difficult or important things. In fact, some people will go find a distraction if one does not find them first. Managing distractions is not about avoiding people or being unresponsive to real situations that may demand our attention. It is about having a plan to manage what otherwise becomes a deadly leak to the priorities we must fulfill.
Cell phones have voice mail
For many of us our primary number is our cell number. Few people call my office number (only those who don’t know me) and no one calls my home number (I don’t have a land line). Welcome to the efficiency of communication and one of the greatest distractions of all.
Fortunately, we have voice mail and caller ID. When spending focused time, avoid answering the phone unless the person calling is on your “can disturb” list (I have about 20 of those). Chances are that when you listen to the VM you will be glad you did.
Schedule phone appointments
I am accessible to anyone who has a valid reason to talk to me. What I am not available for are random phone calls (unless one is on the “can disturb” list). I intentionally set aside time in my week for phone appointments which are scheduled by my administrative assistant, Rene, for a specific time and a specific amount of time. That way I am accessible but I have control over the time of the appointment and how long it lasts.
Use a gate keeper
Not everyone has this luxury but if you have an assistant, use them to vet the calls that come in or the requests for appointments. Here is the truth: many people want a piece of a leader but not everyone should get the face time. If someone calls, Rene will find out who they are and why they are calling. She will often know whether I should take the call or someone else. If someone else, she will route them to the right person. If in doubt she will talk to me and then schedule either a personal or phone appointment accordingly.
Because my assistant knows my personal priorities I give her permission to push into me if she thinks that I don’t need to be in a meeting or say yes to a request. I have always been blessed with confident, assertive and helpful assistants who speak their mind and “manage up” very well. I am far better for each of them.
I receive in excess of one hundred emails on a given day. Since I am committed to responding to any email from my world wide staff I need to schedule specific time when I pay attention to email and times when I ignore it in order to get something else done. I also give my assistant access to my email account so that she can respond to issues that don’t need my response. Generally I will schedule email time during the periods of the day when I will not be as productive – afternoons – so that I save the best hours for the most significant activity.
The “open” door
Sometimes my door is not open! I may be in a meeting, or, engaged in something that requires my focus. Open door policies are nice but not very effective – if the result is that there are constant interruptions. I am always available to my senior team if they really need me but scheduling appointments is usually the way we meet. It can be a five minute appointment or an hour or longer but scheduling them helps.
Travel is a time killer and I travel a lot. But, I am also realizing that there are times when an Internet meeting will be as effective as when one is physically face to face. On the Internet one can be face to face and it saves money, energy and time. That money, energy and time can be invested elsewhere. I still travel but I now ask the question, is there an alternative way to have this meeting?
The coffee shop
For many of us the “office” is the last place where we get our work done. I schedule days when my assistant, Rene, can put appointments on my calendar. When I am in the office I am pretty accessible. I then schedule blocks of time, entire days and sometimes a set of days when I work either from home, the coffee shop or a remote office. It allows me to concentrate on issues that I need to concentrate on.
Block scheduling is a simple tool that can help us manage distractions. Rather than doing five things at once and allowing phone, email and people to constantly interrupt, blocking several hours (or longer) for one task that allows us to focus without interruptions. Block scheduling takes more discipline but it is far more productive than juggling numerous issues at once.
Communication with your team on what works well for you
As part of playing to your strengths is it always helpful to have a dialogue with your team on what works best for you in terms of your productivity. I have found that teams I led have been very flexible and even encouraging of those things that allow me to lead better, use my time wisely and serve them well. They will help you if they know what you need in order to be effective.
Schedule proactively and ahead
Our calendars are the way we connect the compass (our priorities) with the clock (our own time management). There are a number of components that make up our schedules. First, there are ongoing obligations that we have. These would be set meetings that are part of the rhythm of the organization or team you lead. They go on first because they are non-negotiable items. For me this includes my key leadership meetings and the monthly meetings I have with those who report to me. The last are usually scheduled on “non-travel” days at the beginning of each month.
Second, there are big rocks (our priorities) that must be accomplished over the course of the next months or year. Because these are the things that must be done in order for you to be effective as a leader, they get blocked out next on your calendar so that you know you have the time to pay attention to them. Because one of my five priorities is writing, I will block days or even weeks when that is all that is on the schedule (knowing that I still need to keep up with day to day issues).
Included in this second category should be the time we need to think, read, and consider issues important to the organization, team or ministry we lead. Unless we specifically schedule think time, we will probably not get it. And this time is perhaps some of the most important time we need to be leaders of deep influence.
Just as think time is so important, those things that recharge us emotionally, physically and spiritually are also key components of a healthy life and those times need to get scheduled in so that we don’t lose our edge. For me that is time for rest, reading, chainsaw therapy on some acreage we have and fly fishing. For many years, we have simply kept the month of August completely free for rest.
Third, there are times when we just need to be available for our team or for appointments – phone or in person. I block “office days” on my calendar so that my assistant (gate keeper) can schedule those I need to have face time with. These are days or blocks of time when I am available to meet.
Fourth, comes everything else but notice that the key is scheduling is to schedule in order of priority – the most important gets scheduled before the least important. The alternative is that the less important will often crowd out the more important, to the leakage ultimately of our effectiveness and influence. While this kind of scheduling limits our options (we cannot live by the seat of our pants) it helps us use our time with greater discipline and intentionality.
Factored into our schedules should be enough margin to deal with the unexpected issues or emergencies that arise. With some margin, schedules can be rearranged when necessary without losing time for the four categories above.
Prayerfully consider your calendar – it is the checkbook of your most important resource – time.
Because our calendar is the checkbook of our time and because every time check we write is an investment, it pays to be highly intentional about what we put on the calendar – and to prayerfully consider the time checks we write. Like you I receive more opportunities and requests than I can adequately fulfill. I know that God does not want me to live a frenetic life and that He gives me the time to do what He has called me to do. It is up to me to be wise about the choices I make so that I play to my strengths, fulfill my responsibilities, lead well, set a good example to my team and live intentionally.
That is why I give my calendar so much attention. I will often think grey about requests or opportunities and pray about them as I consider the next three to six months of my schedule. Thinking grey (not making a decision) allows me to think through the ramifications of the time check I am thinking of writing and whether it is the right thing for me at this time, given the other obligations I have.
If I sense a green light I move forward and schedule it, if it is a red light I am free to decline and if a yellow light, I continue to think grey. My nemesis is saying “yes” to quickly and writing the time check too fast. When I do that too often I end up tired and depleted and what usually suffers are the most important things. Thus I am constantly looking at my calendar in order to make the very best time investment decisions possible because that is tied directly to my ability to have deep influence.
Because I know that each opportunity is an investment, I will often include my trusted colleague Gary, and my wife Mary Ann into the discussion. They will bring wisdom and perspective that is very helpful.
When present be fully present
Intentionality with our calendar means that we are not always available for everyone. This is a reality of leadership, especially as our responsibilities grow. One way to compensate for this and to continue to be seen as available and approachable is to find times when you can be present and available. For instance, a pastor of a large church whom I know stays around after the Sunday morning service until everyone who wants to see him has done so. While it may be hard to schedule a meeting with him during the week, anyone who wants to talk to him on Sunday can do so.
As the leader of a large international ministry I will never get to all the countries we work in or be able to visit all the teams we have. But I can attend meetings like the Divisional Conferences and during those days be available for anyone who wants to interact. It is an intentional way to be accessible even with a very disciplined schedule that is necessary in my leadership role.