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Take the Ten Minute Challenge

Sherry’s desk is covered with stacks of paper. Her in-tray is overflowing. She has a pile of filing that she can’t seem to get around to giving to her assistant. John next door is fighting fires on his files again. He is delivering a CLE next week and hasn’t even prepared the outline yet. He’s already told his wife that he is going to be in the office again all weekend working on the darned presentation.

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me, I have been in both Sherry and John’s shoes, but these days I keep my desk in tolerable order, my filing is up to date, and I am well-prepared for the CLE I am delivering in two weeks time. The secret to my now, mostly-organised life, has been a simple but powerful shift: I embrace the power of small segments of time.

Five minutes, ten minutes, on their own don’t amount to much, but when put to good use these little segments of time add up to a whole lot of accomplishment.

To weave these threads of time into golden opportunities here’s what you need to do:

  1. Have a handle on your to-do list. Include on your list the administrative tasks such as time entry, dealing with filing, preparing the CLE presentation.
  2. Next time you find yourself feeling like you need a break, or when you have a few minutes open up in your day, take a look at the list and decide what you want to tackle on it.
  3. Grab an item, such as filing, and take it as far as you can for ten minutes. If you like, you can even set a timer, and challenge yourself to get as much done as possible within the time.

The result is you grab some dead time in the office and turn it into productivity time.

What is likely to get in the way? The oh so dangerous thought: “I need to wait until I have more time for this.” Don’t be fooled. The best time you have is always now.

I was speaking with a lawyer last week who wanted to tackle a backlog of paper on his desk. He had a ten minute opportunity open up and started to work on it. Immediately he thought: “It would be better if I did this all in one go, that way it will be more efficient.” Then, remembering our conversation, of he decided to try out the ten minute strategy. The result was a big pile of papers got moved out of his office and he experienced a corresponding sense of relief and accomplishment.

What else is likely to distract you? Email. While it can be useful to work on email in blocks of time, for most of us email is already getting the majority of our attention. I notice that when I shift from email to accomplishing tasks I get recharged and refocused. I lose that cloudy mental feeling that too much time on email seems to give me.

Here are some very useful administrative tasks that can be accomplished when your energy level is low and you have only 5 or 10 minutes of time:

  1. Complete your time entry for the day.
  2. Organise some filing to give your assistant.
  3. Send an email to schedule that business development lunch you have been meaning to get around to.
  4. Update your to-do-list.
  5. Plan your top priorities for the next week.
  6. Take the business cards you have been collecting and give them to your assistant to enter into your contact list.
  7. Tidy your desk.
  8. Connect with some of your new contacts on LinkedIn.
  9. Organize the receipts you need to submit to accounting.
  10. Write up a description of your most recent transaction or file for adding to your web profile.

Ten and fifteen minute chunks of time also work great for more complicated projects. The trick is to isolate one piece to move forward. Here are some examples:

  1. The dog file that is sitting on your desk: Take fifteen minutes to organise the file and start a to-do-list of next steps on the file.
  2. The late piece of work you have been promising to get to a client: Take ten minutes to quickly figure out when you can get it done. Pick up the phone and call the client to apologise for the delay and tell them when you will have it completed.
  3. Take a look at your to-do list and your calendar for the next month. Start to work out your strategy for booking blocks of time for the big projects. Watch out for any conflicts in your schedule and resolve these.

These days it seems like most of my time comes in these small chunks. One of the big non-billable projects for me right now is a CLE presentation. Preparing for that has been on my to-do list since October. I looked at my monthly schedule for when I had some chunks of time to dedicate to it and I schedule the preparation time in. Then, as is expected, other deadlines emerged, client meetings took precedence, and on many days the two hours I had scheduled was reduced to thirty minutes and finally just ten minutes at the end of the day. Instead of simply writing off the time, I actually used the ten minutes. I reviewed my notes and planned my next steps. In one ten minute session I got half of the quiz for participants drafted. Then, because I was so far along with it, I took it home and finished it that night in another ten minutes. I then grabbed fifteen minutes one morning and quickly roughed out all the headers for my PowerPoint slides. By the time I actually found myself with an hour to dedicate to the task, I was already well along and it was easy to make swift progress.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, give it a try yourself. Next time you are spinning your wheels, instead of surfing the web or doing more email, tackle one of your outstanding tasks and see how much you can get done. You will be surprised by how much farther ahead you can get by transforming zone out time into getting things done.

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