Flow, also known as being ‘in the zone’, is that wonderful state where we can be most productive. When in this state of flow, we get to unlock our potential. It is when we are so zoned into the task at hand and have that enjoyable feeling of being energized and focused. Time seems to disappear for a bit, and we get so much done.
Yet it’s a resource we sometimes find difficult to reach in today’s always on, instant gratification culture where everything and everyone is vying for our attention.
We get into the habit, or in the reactive spiral, where we are constantly trying to just cope, and keep on top things, putting out fires, one after the other.
We rarely get the chance – or give ourselves the opportunity – to step back, find the root causes, deal with them and set things up so that we can prevent the fires in the first place.
Time management is one of those resources that can give us this chance, a chance to turn things around, if we have developed effective ways to manage how we use our time.
The way we manage our time should ideally include strategies to be more proactive and get the most out of our time. And it should also be made up of strategies to also deal with crises as they come up – because life does happen despite our best intentions and plans.
One of the ideas I have found most useful for myself and those I coach to improve their time management skills, is to know about the different states we need to be in to be most productive for certain tasks, and the time these states deserve and require.
Paul Graham (entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and author) talks about there being two types of schedules: the Makers schedule and the Managers schedule.
I’ve come to see them as styles, or different states that we can switch between, depending on the task at hand. Certain jobs might even lean more towards one of these styles than the other.
When we are creating something – like writing an article or a piece of code, or doing graphic design work, or developing new products – then we need longer periods of time to get fully into that task.
To be productive at this type of work, we need long durations of concentration, as it often requires complex thinking or synthesising of information to create the end product. These tasks take time to get into them. When you are on a roll, if you are interrupted, it takes a long time again to get back to where you were.
Hence to be most productive, these tasks require long chunks of time – like a 4-hour slot or even a full day – in our diaries.
The other style known as Managers schedule, is very different. What is required is shorter periods of time, and the ability to shift our attention pretty quickly from the one task to the next.
People in managerial roles more often find this is how their time is broken up, often in the standard one hour “meeting slots” in their dairies.
Moving from one meeting to another can be quite disruptive to workflow, and can even take more than the hour scheduled for the meeting, as travel time can mean an entire afternoon is needed to just attend that one meeting.
Also, when our day is broken up with these scattered, shorter tasks, it is more difficult to get into the zone and focus on the Maker-type tasks that require in-depth attention.
It’s a prevalent difficulty that I have come across and that many of us find ourselves in, where we are required to deliver on a task that needs a Makers style to achieve, but our day (and sometime even the company culture) is geared towards the Managers schedule.
If you are clear though with yourself about these two styles of scheduling, and know which one is most suited for you, your role or the different tasks and responsibilities that you have, then it can be easier to carve the space in your diary to set yourself up for being more productive.
Know and Own your Time
We need to own our time, and decide what we focus on and when, taking full control of our diaries and the time slots allocated to the different tasks. This will ensure that we can be more proactive and efficient, which ultimately benefits us all.
In the words of Dr John Demartini, “any area of your life you do not empower, is an area someone else will overpower”.
With scheduling your time:
- Block times in your diary and stick to them. This would look like blocking off big chunks of time – 4 hours slots at least – for those tasks that require Makers mode, and then allowing other chunks of time for meetings and shifting between smaller tasks.
- Try to book your meetings for the same day or half day, and fit in shopping or other chores on those days too. This way you get to work with yourself (not against yourself) and keep your Maker mode days as big chunks of time with no planned interruptions.
- Set the Makers time in your diary to suit your natural rhythm or lifestyle. For example, if you are more of a morning person, put those large chunks in the morning and keep late afternoon for emails, phone calls, meetings, shorter tasks, etc.
- Don’t fall into the trap though of ‘all or nothing thinking’ with the Makers time, as this can result in procrastination and those dreaded deadline rushes. Break big projects or tasks into smaller sections, and chip away at those sections. Just give yourself larger chunks of time for each smaller section and don’t leave it all to the last minute.
- Guard, protect and fight for your choices of how you want to chunk your time. If you don’t, others will just take over your diary without you intending it.
As much as possible, set yourself up to handle or avoid interruptions where you can.
This would involve exercising your self discipline and turning off your phone and not checking social media or for emails, when you are in Makers mode.
If you share your space with others, it might mean that you ask them to respect your time and leave you alone until you have a break.
Communicating that you need a few hours to focus and can then give them your full attention, and that you would appreciate only being interrupt if there is a true emergency, can go a long way in creating a productive atmosphere.
I used to see the process I went through of cleaning up my desk, getting a cup of tea, diddle-daddling around as procrastinating and wasting time. I would berate myself and with a huff try to get into a work mode.
Since studying the cognitive behavioural sciences and neuropsychology though, I have come to understand that we shift in and out of different states continuously throughout our day, and that there are strategies to help us shift states consciously.
We also sometimes unconsciously might be doing what is necessary to get into a different state, but we label this as procrastination or avoidance. This might actually be the case that we are putting off the work (and if so don’t let yourself off the hook!), but I have found often too that we need a ritual or process to help us shift to a different mode of thinking or working.
Thus, I have come to see my routine of cleaning up my desk, getting tea and even turning on a very specific piece of music, as my ritual of getting me into the zone. I now consciously use this ritual at the times I schedule as Makers time in my diary, as it helps me shift into my flow state more quickly and enjoyably. And my productivity has increased as a result.
Create for yourself rituals, or notice your current strategies that you can use to your advantage, to help you shift into your different types of productivity states as and when you need them.
A note to those managing others:
If there is one thing I could get across to those who manage or lead others, and are wanting to improve their employee’s productivity, it would be this concept of Makers vs Managers scheduling styles.
Management are more prone to be in the Managers style, and thus assume that is how work is done. Sometimes they have forgotten what is needed to deliver work that requires a Makers mode of scheduling, and it is this work that more often than not is assigned to their employees. Our workspaces are also setup from the Managers Scheduling point of view with open plan offices, and so are counterproductive to delivering quality, in depth work.
To work with your staff and the required styles for them to deliver the work you delegate to them, here are a few pointers:
- Be cognisant of the type of work they need to do, and allow for and create time and space for those who do Makers style work. This means giving them access to rooms where they won’t be interrupted, especially if you have open plan offices.
- Speak to your team and agree on the best time of day and day of week for meetings, and then as much as is conceivable restrict meetings to those agreed days and times. If possible, try to give them one day that is meeting free every fortnight, or month.
- Allow team members to express their own styles in shifting their productivity states. That might mean allowing times when they can have earphones on, if it helps them focus and they don’t have access to a private room.
Be the Pilot
One of my favourite quotes about time is this one:
“The bad news is time flies.
The good news is you’re the pilot.”
― Michael Altshuler
When you can be proactive about scheduling your time and can set up your diary to suit the state you need to be in to do your best work, you will be the one directing where your time flies to.
You will then get to experience that flow state more often, the one that not only makes work more enjoyable, but also brings out your peak productivity.
Here’s to you becoming a pilot!