October 3, 2011 | last updated January 12, 2012 1:14 pm
Advice Squad

Are decision-making habits robbing you of productivity?

"Advice Squad" is written by members of the Maine chapter of the Association for Consulting Expertise, a trade organization of 88 consultants around the state. This issue's column is written by Jim Milliken, a Portland-based consultant who specializes in project management, communication skills and organizational process improvement.

Too busy. Too much to do. Too little time. Workload overload. You know the feeling.

But what's keeping us so busy? Is it real work? Is it important work? Worthwhile work? Is it the right work?

Ask yourself what was the most important thing you accomplished last month. Or last week. Or yesterday. What made it the most important?

Equally serious questions: What was the second most-important thing you did yesterday? How long did it take? And the third? How long did it take, and why did it take that long? In fact, what exactly did you do all day? And what about the stuff you didn't do, maybe didn't get to, that you had intended to work on?

Hold on there, you say. Who has time to think about all that, much less figure out the answers? Who even has any idea of where to start? And therein lies the problem: We don't have time to manage our time.

Why is that? Two main reasons: First, we don't really know how, even if we think we do. Second, we don't really want to, even if we think we do.

Start with attitude, our predisposition toward certain kinds of decision-making. We do what we want to do, even when it demonstrably robs us of something else we want, maybe something a lot more important. For example, I might allow a talkative coworker to engage me in a 15-minute conversation about last night's ballgame, just as I was about to start on research for an important proposal I want to make. Then, my concentration shot by the interruption, I catch up on my email instead of returning to the proposal with the half-hour I have left.

Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I really want to waste the 15 minutes, then let it turn into a 45-minute black hole?

Well, yes. I did what I wanted to do, what I preferred to do. The conversation was fun, and it was immediate. The proposal, at this point, looks like a long chore, and there really is no deadline — it's entirely up to me.

Each time I do something like this, it reinforces unproductive behavior and my unspoken conviction that this is the way I am and nothing can be done about it. My attitudes, my predisposition toward certain ways of behaving, are the bedrock of my daily decision-making.

If I believe deep down that I'm a creature of routine, then my possibilities on any given day will be limited. If I'm convinced, conversely, that I'm imaginative, energetic and efficient, I'll act that way. The running commentary in the back of my mind is feeding me the choices, coloring them to bias me in favor of established preferences.

Finding time

All this sounds New Age and fatuous to some people. To test it out for yourself, try to surface your thinking process sometime when a decision is before you. Identify what usually is the prevailing choice, and think through why that is so.

Then turn to what you might prefer it to be. Remember, every second you expend is one you'll never get back. Whatever time you're going to have, especially fertile time, is not limitless. Waiting around to get serious sometime later is a wasting disease, and it becomes a predisposition. Unproductive behavior won't go away by itself. You're the one in charge of your predispositions.

Interestingly, the most practical way to start changing a predisposition is not to attempt full transformation all at once. It is to act, to change a single decision. You decide one day to start becoming more productive. Then you pick an immediate situation, or maybe one tomorrow morning, and establish a clear idea of how you're going to do something useful with it.

It might be some medium-level task you've been kicking down the road for a while. No big deal, not too important, but worth doing or maybe necessary. You make a little plan, probably just mentally, of what you're going to do and when. Think also about the benefits you can earn. Once it's done, spend a couple of minutes consciously enjoying the warm feeling. Then do it again with another modest item.

This non-intrusive tinkering with habits can and will grow, particularly if you continue to invest the minor amount of willpower and discipline it takes. You're changing your predisposition.

Once you have adjusted your direction, it will become possible to stick a crowbar in your days and open up a little time to work on a personal time-management system, enabling a quantum leap in productivity. Or maybe not — you might already have grown one organically.

Jim Milliken can be reached through his website, Read more Advice Squad here.


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