swamped? read before you drown

I had written the following article, a book review, for Business Mirror‘s “Executive Readings” column. It appeared in the November 10, 2006 issue.

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A quick glance at my computer screen tells me that six items on my To-Do list are inherited from last week. Hand on mouse, my start-of-the-week instinct is to swoosh the cursor onto the To-Do field and key-in six more “urgent” items for the day. But even that won’t make it an exhaustive list. There’s a big white board to my right that details the progress (or non-progress?) of marketing projects, most of them needing to take off in time for the Christmas buying season. So much to do, so little time. Or so I think. The Bangles’ song rings in my ears, It’s just another manic Monday….

Or is it? Will Tuesday—or the countless work days thereafter—be any different? Any better?

Todd Duncan, author of New York Times bestseller Time Traps (Thomas Nelson Publishers), doesn’t think so. Not unless I “fight” to secure the most productive use of my time. Thankfully, I—whom Duncan would classify as a “swamped professional”—am not alone. “Nearly every professional has a challenge with time,” writes Duncan. “It is the most pervasive and repetitive problem I’ve come across in fifteen years of speaking and training, and it doesn’t just go away. To-Do Lists never get done on the day for which they were intended. Post-It Notes lose their stickiness, and the dream of productivity fades into a state of harried and hurried multitasking.”

Touché! So what does Duncan propose to us, swamped professionals, whom surveys reveal are productive only—gasp!—25% of the time despite the longer hours and the generally industrious attitude? Will more overtime hours (and more colored Post-Its) effectively redeem the 75% “wasted time”? The answer, Duncan proffers, does not lie in the oft-praised time management paradigm; instead, the solution begins with task management. “The majority of disorganization is not the result of character flaws, too much work, or too little time,” the author clarifies. ”It is primarily the result of investing time in meaningless tasks.”

Realizing that we could be drowning in our river of responsibilities, struggling to keep head above water as torrents of tasks beset us, is a good place to start. In Time Traps, Duncan uses this as an analogy to create a convincing, mental image of the swamped professional’s situation and then propose a strategic framework for coping.

And what is Duncan’s life-saving exhortation to the professional drowning in his or her river of responsibilities? Build a dam. In other words, put boundaries on your tasks to free up more time for productivity, and more time for life. That’s a no-brainer. But will those who are actually doing this please stand up?

Now for those of us who remain seated (gasping for air in the waters of backlog), Duncan presents the process of “building a dam” in four phases: Accumulation, Admission, Action, and Assessment.

In the Accumulation phase, the foundational phase, boundaries are set up to prohibit unnecessary tasks (distractions and interruptions) from entering our river. One practical application is to turn off the instant messenger and email alert functions of the work computer. Learning how and when to say “No”—despite its being countercultural to the accepted “No problem, ma’am” or “Consider it done, sir” attitude—will also help save us from drowning.

The second phase is the Admission phase. After unnecessary tasks have been stopped, it is time to set up another set of boundaries to help us admit—that is, prioritize and schedule—necessary tasks. Here Duncan makes a distinction between necessary and productive tasks. Necessary tasks represent tasks that make good but not the best use of our time; these include planning and goals-setting, doing paperwork, communicating via email or phone. Productive tasks, on the other hand, are those fewer activities that move our career in a positive direction; these are actions born of the discoveries and reflections we’ve made completing the necessary tasks.

Action phase is the third phase. This is where Duncan coaches readers that they can increase their overall productivity by “letting go” and avoiding the control trap. Crucial to this phase are the effective delegation of tasks and the development of a team that will help promote success. The dam will have been completed after this phase.

The fourth and final phase is the Assessment phase. The dam has been constructed to keep out unnecessary tasks so we can have time to prioritize necessary and productive tasks. This last phase promotes focus and helps us avoid habits and obstacles that hinder productivity, freeing more time for us to live a meaningful and beneficial life.

In Time Traps, the discussion of these four phases for constructing the dam in our river of responsibilities is segmented into chapters that each tackle a “time trap” we usually fall into.

There’s the Yes Trap (which we Filipinos are culturally predisposed to) flooding us with new and more tasks that become too much for us to handle with excellence. The Control Trap slows us down and tricks us into believing that we have to do everything ourselves for best results.

The chapter on the Technology Trap discusses how we can be disillusioned into thinking that the use of technology is always the most efficient route; in reality, gadgets could also prove to be a waste of time. Other traps are the Organization Trap, the Failure Trap, the Identity Trap, the Party Trap, and the Quota Trap (for sales professionals).

Duncan does not dispense of his task management advice from a high horse. He would be first to admit that he himself had fallen into dark traps in his life. And, by God’s grace, he has risen from them with a strong desire to help others. Since overcoming his family’s traumatic car accident, a two-year drug addiction, and the financial collapse of his company, Duncan has become a friend and mentor to salespeople around the globe who are seeking to achieve success in today’s marketplace without sacrificing the things they value most.

Originally written for swamped salespeople, this second edition of Time Traps now addresses professionals in whatever field. Todd Duncan is also the author of the books High Trust Selling (a Wall Street Journal and BusinessWeek bestseller) and Killing the Sale. He currently serves as chairman of INJOY/Maximum Impact, an international leadership, personal development, and sales training group based in Atlanta, Georgia, founded by his friend and mentor, John C. Maxwell.

There. I have ticked off “Read and review Duncan’s Time Traps” on my To-Do list. And I’m quite sure Mr. Duncan would agree with me that it was a productive task. Now, onto the dam construction project! I don’t know about you, but drowning isn’t on my To-Do list.

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