Fence It In!

By Mike Aucoin

If you want to improve the productivity in your projects, practice building fences!

Thanks to the matrix organization, many people are responsible for several projects or several tasks, and tend to approach working on them in a haphazard manner. Abby works for five minutes on Project A, and then Ralph stops by to talk about Project B and this takes 20 minutes. Then it's back to Project A for five minutes, and Melanie calls to discuss Project C. Next, Abby picks up an e-mail that asks for a reply about Project D.

By the end of the day, Abby's head is spinning. She worked hard all day but has a nagging sense that she did not accomplish what she intended. While many people can juggle a few projects like this, at some point, the process becomes very inefficient and maddening. It's hard to achieve much on if you are constantly shifting gears or being interrupted.

Take a lesson from ranchers and build fences to corral your weekly schedule.

Ranchers spend a lot of time building and maintaining fences because it is one of their most important jobs. A break in a fence means valuable assets that walk away.

Because of the many pressures on their attention, project managers also need to build fences´┐Ż fences around their time.

But it's not enough just to build a perimeter fence and let the cattle herd have free run around the entire ranch. Because grasslands are more productive when there is not a constant pressure of grazing, many ranchers use fences to divide their property into several separate sections and let the cattle graze on one section at a time.

Try thinking of your weekly schedule in a similar manner: instead of trying to be available for all your duties at all times, deliberately move your attention around on a regular, focused basis among your responsibilities.

Imagine your weekly calendar as a large ranch. How can you divide your planner into separate parcels in a way that allows you to focus effectively? Can you block off Monday afternoon to work on Project A, Tuesday morning for Project B, etc.? Would it work to set aside the first and last hours of every day for e-mail, correspondence and phone calls?

Create a schedule that works both for you and for your organization. Are there common times when all of your team members can work on Project A together? Are there natural times for grouping meetings? One of the keys is not to schedule your time too tightly - allow room for the unexpected as well as time to step back and reflect creatively. And be sure to follow your instincts about what kind of work suits you best at different times of the day.

The fences you build into your schedule should be meaningful - what good is a fence if you leave the gate open all the time? Use your schedule fences to enforce some boundaries, both for yourself and for your colleagues. If you need to, use some tricks for keeping your fence intact. For example, only keep one project file on your desk at a time. Try closing your door to cut down on unwelcome interruptions (but let people know you're available for emergencies). You can also move to a conference room or the company library if it helps you to get away. Of course, use your common sense to know when to open the gate in your schedule - if the company CEO wants something immediately, do it.

So be a rancher - divide up your weekly planner "ranch" and make your projects more productive!

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