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We all know people who manage to get an incredible amount done, while the rest of us feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day. What’s the secret of effective time management? How can you and your company improve your productivity in spite of the increasing number of distractions coming at us?

For insight into the problem, I talked with bestselling author Kory Kogon, global practice leader for productivity at Franklin Covey Speakers Bureau and bestselling co-author of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity, on a recent broadcast of my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection.

Kory noted it’s been 25 years since Stephen Covey wrote his groundbreaking book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Over the years, the workforce has changed and so has the workplace itself. Technology has created a different landscape and a fresh set of challenges. Kory felt it was time to develop some new strategies around time management.

“We have a knowledge-based world now,” she said. “It’s both easier and harder than ever to achieve extraordinary productivity, due to technology. We put together the 5 Choices based on that principle, blending it with 21st-century research in neuroscience, attention, and energy management.”

Read on for Kory’s advice on how to stay focused and get things done in today’s fast-paced environment.

The problem of too much information

“People are overwhelmed with the number of decisions that are coming at them every day,” Kory said. “Our attention is under unprecedented attack, with our smartphones and email and all the distractions. And it’s no longer an eight-hour day. It’s a 24-hour day. So all of that is just wearing us out.”

The 5 Choices offers a process to help you decide what deserves your attention — a four-quadrant matrix that can be used to evaluate whether a task is important or not, urgent or not. “Act on the important. Don’t react to the urgent,” Kory explained.

For example, if something is urgent but not important (quadrant three), it’s probably a distraction. On the other hand, if it’s important but not urgent (quadrant two), it likely needs to get done.

“You really have to get conscious and very intentional about using the time matrix to filter everything that’s coming in,” Kory said.

A survey by the authors showed that people devote their attention to truly important matters only about 60% of the time, spending the rest of their time on irrelevant things. “So what they’re saying is they’re essentially wasting half their time,” Kory said. “A lot of times what hinders getting good work done is this busywork. Why is it like that?”

Changing how we spend our time

Right now, this 40 percent wasted time is just the cost of doing business. According to Kory, it doesn’t have to be that way.

“When most people see that survey, the first thing that comes into their minds is, ‘Well, do we know what’s important and what’s not important in my organization? Are we clear enough on that to even be able to take the assessment?’

“What the time matrix does is allow people to get really clear on what’s important and what’s not — or maybe it’s just important to somebody else.”

For those who feel that their work culture or leadership requires them to waste time on unimportant projects, Kory suggests they also look at their own work habits. “Clean your own house first,” she said. “If you do things like procrastinate, or feel like you do your best work under pressure, or if you’re the accommodator for everybody else, you’re creating a situation that’s controllable just by changing your behavior a little bit.”

Having said that, Kory feels the 5 Choices are really all about culture. “If you really want to see enormous productivity gains, then leadership needs to get that time matrix up on the wall and really get clear what the goals of your organization are.”

“Start to filter everything through this. Reward quadrant-two behaviors, as opposed to always rewarding the crisis responder: ‘Wow, Mary saved the day!’ If leadership models productivity, then you’ll find people come to work excited and engaged. People show up feeling hopeful that they can get the most important things done.”

Her book offers exercises to help leaders develop a “Q2” culture in the workplace, change behaviors, and get their organizations focused on what really matters.

The most important tool in the workplace: the brain

“Over 50% of the workforce worldwide are now knowledge workers,” Kory told me, “people who are paid to do mental labor. To think, innovate, create, and execute. So it’s not as easy as it used to be. You can’t say to today’s worker, ‘Just do your 10 widgets per hour. If you only do nine, we’ll find someone else who can do better.’ You have to give them the tools to really identify and understand what’s important. Get out of their way, because they want to win, they want to win big, and the opportunity is dramatic.”

Even unskilled workers, people in so-called low-complexity jobs, can benefit from this new approach. “Now it’s the brain that’s the number-one tool, not the hands or the back,” Kory said. “Say you’ve got two people who were given the same training to do a job. And yet we know that the top performer could be three times more productive than the lowest performer. People will look at them and go, ‘Oh gosh, look at Mary, it’s unbelievable how productive she is. If we could just bottle her or clone her, what a great place this would be.’

“And really, when you think about it, the difference between the two is that Mary is motivated. She’s decided to make a real contribution with the tools she’s been given and the others have not.”

“If we can tap into that, and given them some tools to identify the most important things in their world, even if they don’t have a lot of decision-making power, there’s still the opportunity for them to go home at night feeling like they really accomplished something. And they can’t wait to get up and do it again tomorrow.”

Re-training the brain

It’s a well-known fact that every time you look at your smartphone while you’re trying to work on something, the quality of your work declines. “It’s the wild West of the knowledge worker age,” Kory said. “At 10 o’clock at night your boss is texting you, and you don’t know whether you’re supposed to respond to it or not.

“Technology is supposed to make it easier for us, but it also makes us accessible 24 hours a day. People are working harder than ever, up to and over 50 hours per week. The stress levels are unprecedented. Every ding and ping creates a release of dopamine or cortisol.”

The only way to gain control over the situation, Kory believes, is to train yourself to be more mindful and more intentional. “Decision management and attention management are purely a function of the prefrontal cortex of the brain,” she said. “Your brain takes an enormous amount of energy. It needs vast amounts of oxygen and nutrients to stay focused and to make those high-value decisions about what’s important and what’s not.

“It’s not rocket science. Our parents taught us that we need to exercise, to eat right, to sleep, to de-stress, to connect with other human beings.”

Evaluate where you’re underperforming and create a vision of success in those roles. In neuroscience, this is called labeling and reappraising. “That becomes the brain’s target for decision making all day long,” Kory said. “Your brain requires and needs to know where it’s going. As a practice leader, I know I need to wake up every day thinking about how to enable and strengthen the capacity of people in order to go to sleep feeling accomplished at the end of the day. So I make decisions all day long around that.”

Don’t just focus — focus on the right things

Successful attention management also means choosing to accomplish the big things over the little ones. Or, as Kory put it, “Schedule the big rocks. Don’t sort gravel.”

Think about the one or two most important things you need to get done this week and place them in a time slot. “Our research shows that when you get more specific about planning a task, you raise the probability of accomplishment by two to three hundred percent,” Kory told me. “Thirty minutes before the week starts, reconcile your calendar and just get motivated about what you need to do. Again, not a million things, just the key things — the big rocks.”

Getting clear on the tasks in front of you also means taking control of your gadgets. “We’ve got all these planning systems, but if our technology is blinding us, that’s a problem,” Kory said.

“Really think through your technology. Where is your stuff? Where are your appointments, where are your tasks, where are your notes, your contacts? Make sure, where possible, that things sync across the devices so you don’t have any redundancies.”

While technology can be helpful, don’t allow yourself to become addicted. “When you’re picking up your smartphone, ask yourself: ‘Am I in quadrant three or four? Is this a legitimate reason for me to check my phone?’ ”

“Rule your technology — don’t let it rule you,” she advised.

Three top pieces of advice for maximum productivity

The first thing leaders need to do, Kory told me, is “Get clear on what’s important and what’s not. Really identify which things belong in each quadrant. Make sure everyone knows what they are.”

Next, leaders need to acknowledge that not everything is in quadrant one. “I hear it all the time, leaders saying, ‘I need this now, I need this now, I need this now.’ Leaders need to make sure they’re not pulling people into quadrant one unnecessarily.”

Lastly, leaders should start rewarding quadrant-two activities, tasks that are important but not necessarily urgent. “Somebody once said to me, ‘We’re an organization of the diving catch.’ Everything was heroic. They saved the sale, the system came back up. The company had created a Pavlovian culture where people were rewarded for saving the day.

“What if a leader said, ‘Hey, Tom, great root-cause analysis on that problem, good for you for taking the time to think things through.’ You’ll start to change the culture away from this quadrant-one mentality all the time.”

I think we can all agree: it would be wonderful to spend more time focusing on the things that matter. For more ideas on how to manage your time effectively and get the important things done, pick up Kory’s book The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity.