So let's go to the point. This is what I did:
First: get some perspective.
If you don't know what you want, it's hard to assign priorities to your time appart from the always urgent requests of the others.
- Define a set of measurable goals, concrete enough to inspire action: "close 3 deals this quarter", "ship this product by the end of the semester", "run 10k in less than x minutes"
- Write them in a document, select a huge font, print them and hang them where you can see them every day.
- Look at those goals every now and then and ask yourself what is the ONE thing you can do to make a REAL progress to achieve them. Focus on contribution rather than staying busy with the requests of so many people around you.
Second: be honest about your time allocation
Make sure you save time for your key activities before you let others take your time.
- I'm sure you too have a list of to dos. Idenitfy those that require focused and uninterrupted time and schedule a fake meeting in your calendar for them. Schedule blocks of time for other scattered things, batch them.
- Schedule recurrent time slots everyday for email processing. Twice a day.
- Schedule 1.5h everyday of reserved time for yourself. Use that time to review projects, identify those key actions for your objectives, make critical phone calls, whatever. This will probably be the time when you'll make a difference.
After you've scheduled all those 3 items, the rest is available for others to claim your time. If your schedule is challenged and you are weak enough to trade one of your slots by some meeting someone is asking for, at least you know what are you trading it for. Feel the pain and learn that nobody is going to give you that hour back.
Third: be flexible and break those unspoken rules
So many times our worst boss is ourselves. Free yourself from your own constraints.
- Have you scheduled one of your focus tasks first thing in the morning? Good, do it from home, go to a cafe, do it from somewhere else. Avoid interruptions and enjoy the change.
- Choose one day and pick up your son from school. Schedule an early dinner with your wife. Do something that is valuable and matters to you. When you are mindful of your time, you know that you can accomodate this without harming your productivity or feeling guilty.
- Hold walking meetings. Or simply go out for yourself to draft the schema of that idea, or to come up with the most important requirements that a specific product has to meet.
- Just think of something that you love and try to combine it with your existing obligations, bending the conventional rules of 9-to-5 behind a desk.
Extra: tips to handle interruptions
These all come from the very useful Tim Ferris' Four Hour Work Week, on how to avoid interruptions and preserve your own space.
- Leave your desk phone in permanente silence. Respond to voicemails by email. Steering people towards email for those 99% of nonimporant matters will give you control over your time.
- Always respond to your cell phone, but never allow others to engage in small talk, just answer: "I'm in the middle of something but please tell me how can I help you". If the topic takes too long, excuse yourself, ask for an email, and then respond through email.
- Prevent interruptions in your desk in a similar way, if someone breaks into your office respond with something like: "I need to finish something here, but how can I help you?". People will learn over time that you are not going to let them interrupt and engage in small talk.
- The order or preference in communication should be: email, phone and meeting. If someone proposes a meeting, even yourself, think of the actual reasons behind it. If the whole purpose is passing information, write (or request) an email instead, if this is not accepted, use a phone call as a fallback.
- Make sure all your meetings have a clear purpose. Meetings should be used primarily to take decisions, or any other group dynamic as brainstorming or training.
I still cannot say that I master all that I'm preaching here, but I'm making good progress, and for sure it is not going to hurt you if you try it too.