By Scott Abel | STC Associate Fellow
In the digital age, change happens quickly. This column features interviews with the movers and shakers—the folks behind new ideas, standards, methods, products, and amazing technologies that are changing the way we live and interact in our modern world. Got questions, suggestions, or feedback? Email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like most knowledge workers today, technical communication professionals often complain that they don’t have enough time to do the work they need to. This is especially true when they are challenged to learn new tools and technologies—or adopt new ways of working—that are, ironically, designed to make them more efficient and effective communicators.
After being convinced that there’s a better way to do their work, it’s not unusual for a frustrated and time-crunched technical writer to ask, “When (in my copious amount of free time) am I supposed to find the hours I need to adopt this new approach? I can’t seem to complete the work I already have on my plate!”
In this month’s installment of “Meet the Change Agents,” I interview professional time management and productivity strategist, Alexis Haselberger, about the top reasons we aren’t as effective as we could be.
Scott Abel: Alexis, thanks for taking the time to speak with me about time management and productivity. You’re called on by Silicon Valley firms to help their workers become more productive—to find the time they claim isn’t available but actually is. I appreciate your willingness to share your lessons learned with our audience, and I really enjoyed your presentation at Technical Documentation RoundUp 2019 (see Resources). For our readers who may be unfamiliar, can you tell us a little bit about yourself—who you are, what you do, and why you do it?
Alexis Haselberger: Thanks so much for having me; I’m happy to share a bit about me. As you mentioned, I’m a productivity, time-management, and efficiency expert—although I like the word “strategist,” I might start using that! In terms of background, I spent the first 15+ years of my career managing operations and HR at several early stage startups, where there was always way more work to do than people to do it. I saw people working very hard, too hard, but not necessarily accomplishing more. I saw a lot of burnout. I was always really productive, but I wasn’t working crazy hours or burning out, because balance was super important to me. I think it’s totally possible to achieve your professional goals AND to have a personal life you enjoy.
As a result of working in these high-pressure environments and this fundamental belief of mine, I began to develop and implement productivity systems in the companies I worked for, and in my life, to ensure that goals were met, balls were not dropped, and, most importantly, everyone stayed sane. And I started helping others achieve the same goals. In short, I help people figure out how to do more of what they want, less of what they don’t, and reduce stress at the same time.
SA: You’ve written a lot about productivity—and our inability to see the three over-arching reasons that we struggle with time management. The first reason you cite is “attempting to rely on memory.”
For someone who struggles with memory and has endured brain surgery and subsequent chemotherapy treatments (both of which can dramatically impact memory), I understand why I should not rely on my memory for a wide variety of things.
But my personal brain challenges aside, why is it that relying on memory causes us to struggle with time management?
AH: In short, attempting to use our memories to keep track of what we need to do isn’t very useful, and it actually increases stress. We want to use our brains for thinking about, and focusing on, the task at hand, not for remembering that you need to pick up milk, or call back your mom, or write that report.
If we sometimes feel like we are not present (at work, at home, on the phone), it’s often because our brains are working overtime trying to hang onto all that stuff we know we have to do. And when our minds are trying to hold onto all that stuff, it’s tough to focus on the present.
Your partner, or roommate, texts you in the middle of the day and asks you to pick up milk on the way home. You say, “Ok,” and store that in your memory. An hour later, you’re writing an email, when a thought pops into your head, “Remember the milk.” You are momentarily distracted from what you are doing. Two hours later, you’re in an important meeting with your boss, and that same thought pops into your head, “Remember the milk.” Now you’ve just missed the last sentence your boss just spoke.
In any case, you get where I’m going here. Our memories are not a great place to keep track of the stuff we have to do. When we get all of this stuff out of our heads and into a system, we can use our brains in the moment, on the thing we are trying to do, instead of getting stuck in the future or the past.
SA: It makes perfect sense that we leverage our brain power to think about and focus on solving problems, not on remembering the nitty gritty details of our family, work, and personal lives.
In your productivity workshops, you point out that not having a system is the second reason that we struggle with time management. As a content strategist who spends a considerable amount of time arguing that my clients must have a formal, repeatable, systematic way of doing things, the requirement for a system to manage the tasks associated with creating, managing, and delivering content makes sense to me.
Why is it that you believe that the lack of a system prevents us from managing our time efficiently? What are some of the symptoms that help you pinpoint this as the cause of time management difficulties?
AH: All that stuff that we’re not going to rely on our memory for has to go somewhere if we want to get it done. So, having a system is imperative. By system, I just mean a method for capturing, organizing, prioritizing, and documenting your tasks. But here’s the catch: a list is not a system (yet). Most people use lists that get out of control quickly. Everything in a list carries the same visual weight. In my opinion, the key to a successful system is the concept of a “next action date.” You want to ensure that not only do you know the next action you need to take on each task or project, but that you also know WHEN you are going to take that next step. This allows you to realistically compare your tasks to the time you have on your calendar. When we don’t have a full picture of what we have to do, and we don’t have a clear idea of the time we have available, we start to get overwhelmed and attack our tasks in a haphazard way, with a lot of context switching. Using a system that tracks everything allows us to prioritize appropriately so that we know what we can accomplish and where we might need to seek out help. Creating a system that works for you, and filtering all of your input through it, is one of the best ways you can take back control of your time and ensure that you’re on top of it all. You’ll spend less time thinking about what you have to do, and more time actually doing it.
The symptoms that I see when people are not using a system are overwhelming anxiety, forgetting/dropping balls, a vague sense of dread, and way too much context switching. I also see people valuing immediacy over priority. It’s a form of shiny object syndrome. If you don’t have everything you need to do prioritized all in one place, it’s tough to figure out if that new “urgent” email is actually more important than what you are working on right now. So, people find themselves jumping from one “urgent” thing to another and losing sight of what’s essential. We could spend our whole day reacting in this way, and never get anything important done. A system helps ensure that we know what the important stuff is and make time to get it done.
SA: I’m a list maker. I make so many lists that sometimes I lose track of them. But when I manage to keep track of and use them, I find a sense of comfort and calm. Lists—especially when they pile up—can add to my anxiety, however, making it harder for me to focus on the work at hand. This is particularly true when overdue tasks make themselves known to me.
I’ve learned from my involvement in an entrepreneurial leadership program called Strategic Coach that many everyday distractions—things that make themselves known to us (notifications on our smartphones and computers, noise from people sitting nearby, announcements over the public address system)—are detrimental to focus. You’ve written that distractions are a huge issue—and the third reason that we are not as productive as we could be at work.
Can you talk a bit about what we know, scientifically speaking, about distractions and their impact on our ability to focus?
AH: Recent studies show that when we are distracted or interrupted, it takes, on average, ٢٣ minutes to refocus on what we are doing. Other studies show that we are distracted every 11 minutes in a modern office. When you do the math, it’s easy to see why so many people feel like they’ve been busy all day long yet didn’t cross anything off their lists. It’s a losing battle. Of course, we can’t eliminate all distractions, because we live in the real world. But if we want to get stuff done, to increase our capacity for focus, then we really need to take control of our environment and adjust the default settings. Turn off those notifications and answer email and other messages on your own schedule. Use noise-canceling headphones when you’re in deep work mode. Set yourself up for success, because the world is here to sabotage us by default (at least in terms of focus).
SA: Keeping lists seems to create a sense of comfort, but discomfort and anxiety can creep in the minute we realize that we didn’t accomplish everything we set out to.
In your effort to help us to get more done without increasing the stress level, what lessons have you learned about list-making and prioritization of tasks? And what advice can you provide to those of us looking to improve our ability to estimate the amount of work we can accomplish in a day?
AH: Being realistic about what we can accomplish is the first step. And to do that, we need to accept the fact that our to-do list will never be done. Never. It will always grow. We will die someday with a big list of all the stuff we never finished. And that is A-OK. That’s just reality. This also means that whether you work until 6:00 PM tonight, or until 11:00 PM, you’ll still have a full day of work to do tomorrow. It’s essential to make time for ourselves, to know when to stop and to actually enjoy the life that we are working for.
What this also means is that prioritization is hugely important. We want to make sure that the stuff we don’t get to was less important than the things we do get to.
You’re also right that it can be a bit demoralizing to keep moving stuff from one list to another, one day to the next. To avoid this, you need to be more realistic about what you can accomplish. And to do this, you need to look at your calendar and your task system at the same time and only assign stuff to yourself on a particular day where you actually have time to do it. For instance, if you’re in back to back meetings tomorrow, then don’t expect to get anything else done. At best, you’ll be able to check your email between meetings. Don’t set yourself up for failure by thinking that somehow, you’ll magically make some significant headway on that big project you are working on. You won’t, and you’ll be much less stressed if you just accept that reality and plan to work on the project on a day that you actually have a few hours between meetings.
SA: Task prioritization can be challenging, especially when you are overwhelmed with work and feel as if you never have enough time. I try to practice a “do, delegate, or delete” approach to work, meaning that when a task makes itself known, I ask myself is the task essential for me to do, or is it something I should delegate to another person, or should I just delete it and forget about it. Can you talk a bit about our false sense of priority and its impact on productivity? What guidance can you provide to technical communicators attempting to prioritize tasks?
AH: You’re right; prioritization is hard. I tend to use the important/urgent matrix or the impact/difficulty matrix. These frameworks help you to decide the relative timeframes (priorities) for your tasks. For instance, if you have two tasks of equal importance, ask yourself, “Which is more urgent?” Do that one first. Or if you have two big projects of similar impact, ask yourself, “Which of these is less difficult (in terms of time, effort, and complexity)?” Do that one first. For those items that are urgent but not super important, delegate them. I like your “do, delegate, delete” method, Scott, because you are accepting that there are some things that we just shouldn’t do. If it’s not essential, impactful, or urgent, will it ever be prioritized above the other stuff? Nope. So just take it off the list.
SA: One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my career is the importance of being able to say no. In your experience, why do you think so many people have a problem saying no. Do you have any advice for technical communication pros who have difficulty doing so?
AH: I totally agree. I think that in general, we find it difficult to say no, because we don’t want to feel like we are letting people down. Most of us say yes without thinking about it a lot of the time. We feel pressure to say yes, to be liked, to be helpful, because it seems like a good thing to do or something that we should do. It comes from a good place, but we’re not always thinking about our time and priorities, and that’s often how we get stretched too thin.
The ability to say no to the things that don’t serve us, so that we have the available time and energy to say yes to the things that do, is critical. A caveat is that at work we often have less leeway to decide what we want to do and what we don’t.
For technical communication pros, having a fully prioritized task system helps us to say no. If we have that system, we can show our boss or colleagues our real-time priorities and ask them what they think we’d need to push back to make room for a new project. Having the data allows us to have “no” conversations in a way that feels more collaborative and less like we are not team players.
In terms of ensuring that we don’t say yes without thinking of the consequences, here are a few steps I recommend:
- First, take a breath and… don’t immediately say yes. Say you’ll need to look at your schedule and get back to them. Then sleep on it.
- Then ask yourself, “Is this a ‘heck, yes’ situation?” If not, say no.
- And if it is a “heck, yes” situation, think to yourself “if this were tomorrow, would it still be a “heck, yes?” If not, say no.
- Finally, look at your priorities and your schedule. If it’s a “heck, yes,” and you would do it in a heartbeat tomorrow, do you have time for this? If you don’t have time, is it important enough that you’d replace something else that you are doing? If not, it’s still a no.
The Muse has an excellent resource (see References) for how to communicate a “no.”
Saying no is hard. Extricating yourself from obligations is hard. But the reward is knowing that you’re spending your most valuable resource—your time—on the activities that support your goals. Once you start doing it, you’ll be at the beginning of a virtuous cycle.
SA: Science is often most valuable when it helps us debunk myths. The big myth I’d like you to address today is one that many of our readers likely believe is the truth. Can you address our belief in multitasking and help our readers understand how things like context switching can tire our brains and damage our ability to be as productive as we might otherwise be?
AH: Yes! Let’s say it together: “Multitasking is a myth!” Our brains can’t do it. Multitasking is just super-quick context switching, and context switching depletes our energy and our willpower. When we attempt to multitask, we make more mistakes, and worst of all, it’s not actually faster. (We all know you’re not paying attention to that conference call; we can hear you typing!)
Single-tasking is the antithesis to this. Just do one thing at a time. Once you start doing this, your accuracy will improve, you’ll get things done faster, and your stress will reduce.
SA: I like your “Don’t let the day happen to you” adage. I think it’s a goal we should all have plastered on notes above our computer screens and that we should program our talking devices to remind us about daily. Can you shine a light on the challenges associated with being dragged into other people’s priorities and help us avoid the concerns of others dictating how we’ll spend our time?
AH: Most of us start the day with email (in other words, other people’s priorities), and it just goes downhill from there. We react all day long instead of using our time intentionally, in service of our own priorities. I think everyone has had one (or more) of those days where you sit down at your computer, start responding to email, and somehow, it’s suddenly 3:00 PM, and that big project is still looming. This is another instance of allowing the immediate to overshadow our priorities. Because we live in a world where there is just so much—email, Slack, texts—we could be stuck there all the time. We need to take our heads out of the sand and actively protect the time to work on our own priorities. Practically speaking, this means carving out as much time in the morning as you can to work on your own priorities before you check email or other messages. As soon as you check those messages, your brain will be unable to put them aside. You might be working on your priorities (in the best case scenario), but in the back of your brain, the priorities of others are weighing on your mind, stealing your focus, and ensuring that you’re not as focused as you could be on the task at hand.
Even if you are using a task system and diligently prioritizing, if you start the day with email, and check email all day long, then you are likely going to be pulled in many directions that seem urgent but probably aren’t.
SA: Deadlines are part of everyday life. They’re important and needed, but not always as much of an emergency as some would have us believe. Can you talk to us about the need to understand the difference between real and perceived crises and why failing to categorize tasks can lead to unnecessary distress?
AH: Ah, deadlines. Sometimes they are real, and sometimes they are arbitrary. The first thing to do is to make sure that we don’t put deadlines around tasks that don’t actually have them. Next-action dates? Yes. Deadlines? Only where necessary.
Let’s talk about this word “emergency.” Unless you are a doctor, a first responder, or maybe a tech ops person responsible for keeping a website up, it’s unlikely that you have any true emergencies in your job. Ever. So most of what we’re talking about are perceived emergencies.
Now, if you are using a system for your tasks (as we talked about before), and you are prioritizing it appropriately, then you are very rarely, if ever, going to be experiencing a self-imposed emergency. You know the kind I’m talking about. You’re chatting with your colleague in the kitchen, and suddenly you remember that you have to get back to that client with a proposal today—in an hour!
There are other things that we deem emergencies too, and these are the things that seem urgent or are expressed as critical. Maybe they are coming from your boss, or a colleague, or a client. In all of these cases, what we perceive as emergencies often aren’t. Email, text, and Slack are terrible ways to identify tone, and people often don’t include a timeframe in their written requests, which can make requests seem urgent even when they are not.
When you do get a request that seems urgent, the first thing to do is to check on the timeline of the request. Usually, you’ll have more time than you first thought, and you can slot in the request relative to your other priorities. However, there are cases when the response will be, “I need it in an hour, sorry.” If that’s the case, then you can compare that request to your relative priorities and decide if this “emergency” bumps the other stuff on your list for the day, or if you need to get some additional resources to handle it.
SA: Some people prefer to check email first thing in the morning. While I understand this inclination, and I have been guilty of this behavior myself, you argue that setting aside some of your first hours for deep focus work is often a better strategy. Can you elaborate on why we might want to do our most important work before we check email?
AH: I think most people check email first thing by default, not because they’ve actually thought through whether that’s the best thing to do for their day. Earlier in this conversation, we talked about not letting the day happen to you, and when you start with email, that’s what happens. Even if you just check email, but don’t process it, it sits there at the back of your mind, pulling at your focus. If you can start the day with just an hour devoted to the most crucial thing you have to do that day, the likelihood that you’ll actually do it skyrockets. Email is distracting, addictive, and also necessary, but what I find is that if you respond to someone at 10:00 AM, instead of 9:00 AM, it rarely makes a difference to them, but it makes a huge difference in what you can accomplish in terms of your own goals that day.
SA: What is the one-touch rule, and how might we use that to help us accomplish more with less stress?
AH: The one-touch rule is a way of approaching email (really any messages, no matter what form). The idea is that for all incoming items, you commit to only touching them once. If you don’t have time to respond to messages, don’t even read them until you do have time. You’ll only be distracted and thinking about it, but unable to take action.
Here’s how it works: When you get an incoming message (email, text, Slack message, voicemail), there are really only three, straight-forward actions available to you, and you can simply choose and act accordingly:
- Archive/tag/file: For an informational message that you don’t need to respond to.
- Respond : If you can respond (with the information you have in your brain or at your fingertips), just do it.
- Add to your task list: If the message is relaying a project or task you need to do, or you just don’t have the information required to answer it yet, add it to your task list, prioritize it realistically, and respond to let the sender know when they should expect a full reply (or completion).
SA: Much of our work is brain work. And our brains can get clogged up, overloaded, and cluttered with debris that makes productivity and time management challenging, if not impossible. Decluttering expert Marie Kondo says, “The objective of cleaning is not just to clean but to feel happiness living within that environment.” What strategies do you suggest for technical communicators who need to declutter their minds?
AH: The best strategy I can offer is the “brain dump.” The brain dump is a central component of a working task management system, and it’s a bit more extreme than Marie Kondo, as I’m just suggesting you get it all out of your head regardless of whether it “sparks joy”.
When you start to feel a bit overwhelmed, dump out into your system all the stuff you have to do. No item is too small. Passport renewal in 7 years, buy a birthday present for mom by Tuesday, whatever. Free up that brain space for the actual brainwork instead of keeping it all in your head, and you’ll instantly feel better.
SA: There’s been considerable attention paid to the intent behind the design of smartphones, social media networks, software products, and video games. We’re starting to realize that in their attempts to engage us, these products are actually making it difficult for us to disengage, to ignore them. What strategies are most effective at minimizing the negative impacts of new technologies, and how can we sidestep their addictive allure?
AH: Turn off all the notifications. That’s the first step. I know it sounds drastic. You think you need those notifications, but you don’t. Answer email and Slack on your own schedule. Check social media when you feel like it. Look at all default settings with a critical eye. Set your browser default to Google or something else super boring with no clickbait. Keep your phone in your bag or a drawer. Make it easy for yourself by reducing the temptation. This stuff is designed to addict you, and you have to be intentional about it if you want to avoid that fate.
SA: Your company provides a variety of educational opportunities to teams of knowledge workers who need to accomplish more in less time (and with less stress). Tell our readers a bit about the type of educational programs you provide and how they can take advantage of them.
AH: Of course. My approach is a bit different than what you’ll read about in all those productivity books, and I don’t think there’s a single app that is the silver bullet. Everyone is different, and that means that different strategies are going to work better for some than others. Instead of trying to change who people are (because that doesn’t work), I work with people to implement strategies that work with who they are already instead of trying to fit them in a box. For instance, you’ll never see me telling a night owl that the key to productivity is waking up at 5:00 AM and getting a jump on the day before their kids wake up.
I offer the following types of programs:
- Coaching (individual or group): Participants will experience transformation in their life and work regarding their ability to accomplish what they want, and experience less stress by learning and integrating strategies, techniques, tools, and solutions that fit into their specific lives. After the program, participants will have built a completely customized system for accomplishing their tasks, projects, and larger goals, while reducing stress, and they will have learned the underlying skills necessary to tweak their systems when circumstances inevitably change.
- Workshops: I lead virtual and in-person workshops, for groups of any size. During this interactive workshop, participants will learn the essentials of effective time management, including easy-to-implement strategies, techniques, and tools that they will be able to integrate into their workflows immediately.
- Speaking: If you’d like me to speak at your event, I’m more than happy to share tips that anyone can implement immediately to become more productive and reduce stress at the same time.
- Online course: If you’d like to learn at your own pace, you can check out my online course (see Resources).
SA: Are there any online resources, books, or tools you recommend for people hoping to earn more about time management and personal productivity?
AH: Getting Things Done by David Allen is a seminal work in the field—an excellent read and lots of great content. Tools-wise, I often recommend TickTick, a free, simple task manager with lots of great features.
SA: I’m afraid we’re out of time. Thank you on behalf of our readers for taking the time to share what you’ve learned about personal and workplace productivity and time management.
AH: Thanks so much, Scott. I really enjoyed speaking with you today.
Take her online course: https://www.udemy.com/do-more-stress-less/?couponCode=TECHDOCS
Learn how to work with her: https://www.alexishaselberger.com/work-with-me
Join her newsletter: https://www.alexishaselberger.com/subscribe
Strategic Coach website: https://www.strategiccoach.com/
Allen, David. Getting Things Done. Penguin Group: New York, NY, 2003.
Boogaard, Kat. “7 Email Templates That’ll Help You Say “No” (Without Having to Overthink It).” The Muse. https://www.themuse.com/advice/7-email-templates-thatll-help-you-say-no-without-having-to-overthink-it.
Technical Documentation Roundup. Accessed 4 September 2019. https://www.technicaldocumentationroundup.com.
TickTick. Accessed 4 September 209. https://ticktick.com/.