Erica Venton on Working Efficiently

"Feeling more like I was in control of the work I was doing"

Erica Venton, Marketing Manager for the Office of the Provost Communications Team, shares some of the new practices she has inserted into her worklife to help her improve her experience.
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By Erica Venton

Make Time book with coffee, notebook and penLet me guess, you’ve already taken three classes and an online quiz to help you become more efficient and you still feel buried in work and in life responsibilities. You haven’t seen the bottom of your inbox since the week you started. Busy isn’t a season — it’s every day and you can’t remember the last time you weren’t exhausted. 

I’ve been there. Over the years I’ve experienced my inbox like a tidal wave of incoming requests and information to sort through — it alone could fill a day of work, but then there are priorities, longer-term objectives and those great ideas that just seem to keep getting pushed further into the future. There are days when work spills into evenings and early mornings trying to make deadlines. The delicate balance between work and home skewed. Perhaps this is why, when my grandmother passed away recently, that the WorkLife Office's Lifespan and Family Services Coordinator Jaimie Hutchison reminded me that it’s about work-life “fit” -  not an equal balance but a regular shifting of priorities so overall you are using your time to honor your work and personal life. 

This year I had the pleasure of meeting author John Zeratsky formerly of Google Ventures and author of Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day and contributor to Sprint, in a workshop here on campus. The quote that stuck with me from that day was “No one ever became great by being the fastest at email.” That just hit me - I’ve been spending so much of my time trying to keep up with the incoming requests, creating this habit of instant responses, which probably spiraled back out to the people that I was working with. Zeratsky finished the thought by noting, “It’s important to be responsive, but having time will make you a better colleague/human.”

Question the defaults

Zeratsky and co-author Jake Knapp introduce something that they refer to as questioning the defaults, which leads to a new way to set the tone for your day and your week. We all have habits, patterns, and technology that run in the foreground and background of our lives, often shaping the way we function within a day. In the book Make Time, Zeratsky and Knapp ask you to pause to think through the defaults in our lives in order to make adjustments. 

I learned in The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, that habits are formed both intentionally and unintentionally. The habit loop can work for us to ease our mind of thinking through each millisecond of our day — that’s how you can drive the same route to work and not remember the drive. The habit loop can also work against us in instances when we are trying to diet and go through a drive-through where salad is an option, but we still order the number one with a Coke. Habits are a part of our daily lives. 

Zeratsky and Knapp started experimenting with the habits/defaults in their own lives. Sometimes they didn’t agree. Their lives, just as ours, aren’t identical, so what works for one of them didn’t work for both of them or needed to be modified. That’s the whole point of the book - experiment with your life to find the defaults you can change to make time in your life instead of letting your life run you and wear you out.

Zeratsky spoke in the workshop of this idea of a highlight for each day — one thing that was work to accomplish or something to look forward to so that at the end of the day it was something to be proud of. “What’s the one thing that I need to make time for, that I want to make time for, the one thing that is most deserving of my energy and my focus? I think that would be a success for me because once you start thinking of time in that way a lot of other good things flow from it. A lot of other decisions about what you are saying yes to, about what you say no to, about the tech you are using, and how you are structuring your day. When you have that awareness of what is important to you, why you are at work, why you are doing things that you are doing, other good things happen.
On a philosophical level, I want people to see these defaults. When they look around in the physical environment and at technology and the way they are using technology, that they see the things they do automatically. I want people to think, ‘Does that automatic behavior serve my priorities? If not, is it changeable? Can I reset the default so that I’m spending time on what matters?’”

Choose your own adventure

The book Make Time and the similarly named blog showcase a myriad of ideas for you to select, test, modify, and choose what works and what doesn’t for you. The idea isn’t to tell you how to live to be more effective and efficient, it’s about opening the door to possibilities for you to reclaim your day and shape it into a model that honors your work and personal life in a way that is unique to you.

Ideas from the book that I have personally tried include:

  • #1 Choose your highlight. This one was my favorite and really the most practical way for me to end each day and feel accomplished instead of run over. Sometimes, I’ll choose a small thing that is important, and sometimes I choose a big thing that requires me to block out my calendar to focus. Either way, getting through this highlight gives me a sense of accomplishment for the day.
  • #3 Stack rank your life. List all of your priorities and then rank them in the order of importance. Then think about the weight that you give each one. Once you see where your priorities are you can start shuffling incoming requests and even (gasp) say no to things that aren’t in your priorities. 
  • #6 The burner list. Make a list of all the “might-do” things. Then choose what to focus on and schedule them into your day. 
  • #8 Schedule your highlight. If you don’t block time for the important things, they will continue to get pushed by the small things, the easy solutions, and the distractions. Put it in the schedule then set a timer if you need to get yourself to focus on your highlight.
  • #13 Design your day. This is one of the most effective tools for me. I am notorious for long to-do lists for a day without really thinking how much can actually get done. Each morning I write the list of work for the day, then on a piece of paper, draw in the meeting timeslots, then add in the tasks based on how long each thing should take. Sometimes there are unexpected events or work that takes longer than I anticipate and the afternoon gets adjusted based on priorities. This process has helped me see what is even possible to fit in a day and to adjust priorities before getting started. This allows me to make sure the most important things for that day are getting accomplished.
  • #14 Become a morning person. Zeratsky and Knapp disagree here - one is a morning person and the other a night person. For me, I found that I am awake and very creative in the morning, so I started using this to my advantage - even writing this at 5:30 a.m.
  • #18 Log out. This is as simple as it sounds - log out of the technology and software that you use during the day. For me, this means closing down all the tabs and browser windows, shutting down my inbox and starting the day fresh. I tried this and have yet to conquer it regularly, but I think it will be a good habit to get into.
  • #23 Skip the morning check-in with social media and what Zeratsky refers to as “infinity pools” or apps that refresh with a never-ending stream of data. These data sources are impacting your mood and your outlook on the day as well as using precious time. Choose the way you want to start your day - a calm stretch, a few minutes in a book, selecting your highlight, listen to the birds. You choose what is going to set your day off on the right foot.
  • #38 Be slow to respond to email. This is a total game-changer. Now I’m not saying don’t check your email, but choose the breaks in your day to check in and respond. Don’t respond to everything the second it hits and in some cases, you can wait a day to respond. I’ve been upfront with the people I work with regularly and given them a way to contact me if something is urgent and you know what -- hardly anything is so urgent that it can’t wait a few hours or a whole day for a response. This one thing has reduced my anxiety level so much because it put me back in control of my time.
  • #64 Squeeze in a super-short workout. Zeratsky and Knapp have two different samples in the book, but you can choose your own. I set up what I refer to as the 5-minute mini, which is a series of 3 exercises to do each morning (squats, planks, and pushups). Then I take a walk or walk to a meeting across campus once a day.
  • #80 Take real breaks. Seriously, step away from your desk. Go for a walk, talk to a friend, leave your phone in your pocket and listen to birds and the river and the breeze. Something about an intentional pause in your day where you give yourself permission to stop thinking through everything and rest your mind is incredible. And I’ve found the time after a break to be incredibly productive.
  • #81 Spend time with your tribe. There are people who really love you. That report is never going to hug you. The research isn’t going to encourage you on rough days. Your kids aren’t getting any younger - your parents either. Laugh with your friends and remember that there is more to life than the checkboxes in your workday.

The bottom line here - it’s your life, you get to choose. Zeratsky and Knapp offer an entire catalog of options for you to try, but ultimately, it’s your life, your highlight, your moments to enjoy, your projects to conquer, your relationships to build, and your time. How will you Make Time work for you?