First things first

by | Apr 10, 2023 | Leadership

What do you do first in the morning? Have some quiet time to reflect and plan your day? Or check your phone and end up being sucked into a vortex of emails?

A common challenge my coaching clients bring to our conversations is how to make time to get stuff done. Their days feel like a whirlwind of meetings, dealing with other people’s problems and trying to get their inbox under control.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Important Things That Need To Be Done are building up and deadlines fast approaching, whether a paper to be written, a proposal to be put together or preparation for an important meeting.

By the time the whirlwind is dying down at the end of the day, they haven’t got the energy or focus to face the Important Things That Need To Be Done. If they have, everything takes twice as long because they’re exhausted.

So what’s the solution?

The first two hours

Author Donna McGeorge has written a great little book called The First 2 Hours. The key take-away is that our most productive time is in the morning, so don’t waste that time on stuff which isn’t priority, which includes the majority of emails.

Key findings McGeorge shares from research to back this up are :

  • 70% of us are most alert between 9am and 12noon courtesy of our circadian rhythm
  • We are more likely to be happier, more alert, optimistic, considered and energetic in the morning
  • Tiredness impairs our cognitive alertness and attentional space which means we’re more likely to make poor decisions and be reactive in the afternoon

First things first

Interestingly, when I ask leaders how much time they need to get The Important Things That Need To Be Done done, it’s not always that much. It’s more about having uninterrupted time to focus – quality of time rather than quantity.

What I recommend is scheduling time at the beginning of the day for important work before you engage with people or emails. It doesn’t have to be two hours – it could be 30 minutes. The key thing is to make the most of the time of day when you feel your freshest and most productive.

One leader I work with shared that reserving half an hour first thing to think and plan has been transformational. Even though her day is still often a whirlwind of meetings and crises, that time first thing helps her feel more in control and on the front foot.

Another leader uses his commute to scan emails then schedules time for priority work when he gets to the office. Sometimes that means closing the door to write a paper, sometimes engaging with colleagues. It’s meant he’s quickly been able to get on top of important work whilst remaining flexible.

Know thyself

This isn’t easy – we need to battle against our evolutionary legacy to give in to distractions and keep people happy rather than stay focussed on our long-term goals. Writing this blog has been an exercise in

Here’s some questions you might like to ask yourself to help you work out how you can make best use of your time and energy :

  • What do you need to make time for?
  • How much time do you need for this on a daily/weekly basis?
  • When are you at your most productive?
  • What time can you carve out, likely in the morning?
  • What do you need to make this happen? For example, block time in your calendar, ask your PA to act as a gatekeeper and/or let your team know that you’re only available for emergencies at that time
  • What are you afraid will happen if you don’t prioritise other people’s demands/emails? And what’s at risk if you do?

I’ll close with an apt quote from Goethe : “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.”

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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps senior managers and directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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