To choose time is to save time.
- Francis Bacon
Time is the scarcest resource and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed.
- Peter Drucker
A hound dog tracking a scent. Yes, that’s what Jack felt like this morning and it felt good. Years earlier, a friend at work made a joke about how much Jack resembled the friend’s English foxhound. Just like a hound dog following the scent of a fox, whenever Jack zeroed in on a task, nothing distracted him and very little could slow him down until he ran down his quarry. With the inventory upgrade project chart posted on his wall and Fran’s feedback still lodged in his memory, Jack was ready to bark a couple of times and start running down his activity milestone trail. Then the phone started ringing.
Other tasks Jack was involved in needed his input; meetings about new equipment requirements had to be attended; colleagues with problems had to be helped; and before Jack knew it, 8 a.m. was just a memory and Jack was worried that somewhere Elvis was singing about him. With the mountain of work that was already on his plate and the last-minute requests for his time heating up his phone, how could Jack ever stay on schedule with his inventory upgrade project?
Even ruthless time managers have a hard time getting the maximum productivity out of every day, so it is little wonder that people who use the time management habits they’ve collected haphazardly through life almost always find themselves with too much to do, too little time and a gnawing feeling of underperformance.
In this chapter, we’re going to learn how to take the hard planning work you’ve done so far and fit it into your already busy workday. We’re going to learn how to coordinate the project plans you’ve developed so that every activity gets the amount of time it requires. And we’re going to learn how to quickly evaluate the requests made for your time so that you can either fit them in or tactfully decline them. We’re doing this because as a manager of projects, you owe it to everyone who depends on you or works with you to be a masterful manager of time and the work that fills it.
The knowledge and skills you’ll need to effectively manage your time are simple. In fact, the information you’ll need to become an effective manager of time is almost trivial; if you don’t know it already, you could quickly figure it out. And the skills required to schedule and protect your time aren’t mysterious or complicated. Consistently practicing good time management skills may be simple, but it isn’t easy. To turn time management theory into reality involves more than just learning how to be more efficient and more effective; it requires replacing a few ingrained inefficient habits with new ones. Like healthy eating and exercise, dieting, sobriety, and smokelessness, the hard part of time management isn’t knowing what to do, it’s doing it. Simple; not easy but quite possible. And, really, isn’t it about time you took control of the time of your life?
If efficient, effective, and relatively simple habits are the cornerstone of productivity, how is it that a wonderful person like you ended up struggling to get things done? The answer probably begins in your childhood. Your parents tried to instill the habits of neatness (“Clean your room now, and don’t come out till it’s done!”), hard work (“No TV till your homework’s done!”), and cleanliness (“Go right back in there and wash behind your ears!”). But they never said, “OK, now bring out your to-do list, your weekly schedule, and your priority list so we can go over it.” And with few exceptions, your years of formal education were full of structure, schedules and deadlines that other people imposed on you. School (and employment) teach people how to work, but they don’t always teach people how to plan, schedule, prioritize and manage. The emphasis isn’t on balance and efficiency; it’s on delivering by the deadline. As a result, “good” students and “good” workers often become sprinters, roaring toward a deadline, making it, stopping to recuperate, and then beginning the dead run again. And like many sprinters, people with a strong work ethic and marginal time management skills often end up injuring themselves with coronaries, burnout and/or ulcers. But enough “why”; let’s get to the “what” and “how.”
Core Time Management Concepts, Skills, and Attitudes
Nothing, by itself, has a high priority or a low priority. Priority is a relative thing. For example, while you may think that leaving a burning building must be the highest priority, if you have a lit stick of dynamite duct-taped to your leg, exiting probably slips to number 2. Project managers must be prepared to assess the impact and time demands of a project element, compare that information to other tasks and milestones and make priority decisions in project schedule on-the-fly if they expect to be doing the right thing at the right time for the right duration. However, for all the airplay the word “priority” gets, it is often misunderstood.
The priority of a task or outcome is determined by two potentially conflicting components: importance and urgency. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, important is defined as “meaning a great deal,” which gives us a good clue to how “important” figures into priority. Importance is measured in amounts. Companies and people invest a great deal of time, money, and other resources in important outcomes. The more important the outcome, the more they invest. The consequences for failure also increase in line with increasing importance; the more important an outcome is, the more you’ll pay if you fail to produce it. So, when you prioritize a very important task or its outcome, you need to give it the amount of time required to complete it, right up to all the time it needs (which could be months or minutes).
Urgent, according to Webster, is defined as “calling for haste, immediate action,” and is measured in terms speed, intensity, and focus. A deadline (that point beyond which results become valueless) is set for the delivery of products or services. The closer you get to the deadline without starting the task, the faster and more single-mindedly you must work to stay alive. For example, if your project plan indicates that the only way you can meet a critical path milestone deadline is to start today and work sixteen hours each day, it has high urgency. On the other hand, if the same important outcome will sit on a shelf until others have the necessary equipment to use it, your important task has low urgency. The smaller the difference between the amount of time needed to produce an outcome and the time available to produce that outcome, the more speed, intensity, and focus you must apply to materialize the outcome.
Most people single-mindedly devote their days to ‘A’s (the tasks that produce urgent and important outcomes). As a result, many people run into trouble because they fail to promote ‘B’s (important but not yet urgent) into ‘A’s soon enough. The desire to keep working a task until the result is absolutely perfect, the dread disease procrastination, impromptu meetings that suck otherwise productive hours out of your day and a dozen other factors can work to keep you from promoting a ‘B’ task to an ‘A’ soon enough. The result: Back burner ‘B’s catapult into a pre-cardiac ‘A’s. What can you do? After taming some of the time-eating gremlins mentioned above, try sampling your ‘B’ tasks for an hour or so well before you think they should regularly appear on your daily work schedule. By taking sixty minutes to preview the scope, complexity, and eventual impact of a task, you’ll cut way down on the thrills of tardy task promotion.
More often than not, time is lost to unimportant but urgent time demands that are brought to you by others. Beware the co-worker who runs into your office with his eyes bugged and the vein across his forehead throbbing. He may be a time bandit who, wearing the disguise of urgency, steals your time with unimportant tasks. You can see your co-workers obvious vital signs that he has something urgent going on, but you must find out if it’s also important enough to you and/or the company to invest time in. Avoid any tendency to empathize with his urgent neediness and apply the following five-step analysis and action formula.
- Clarify the coworker’s needs (“Lets take a second to find out exactly what I can do for you.”)
- Determine the importance of his/her request (“Tell me what will happen if you don’t make the deadline.”)
- Compare the request with what you have scheduled (“Pardon me while I check my schedule.”)
- Cooperate as much as you can. (“I can give you thirty minutes starting right now. Would that be enough?”)
- Circumnavigate the time sinkhole (“I sure would like to help you pardner, but my schedule for today is full up. Sorry ‘bout that.”)
We’ll return to protecting your time later in this chapter.
Let’s be honest; everyone needs to spend some time on activities that are neither important nor urgent. Hardworking humans need to take a little time to let their brain muscle relax occasionally. A little casual conversation, a hike to the coffee machine, or some gratuitous office straightening won’t kill your productivity. Just keep it short and to yourself. More time and goodwill are lost by marching into someone else’s day than you would imagine, so unless someone actively invites you to do tag-team brain recharging, recharge alone.
Goals and Milestones
In Chapter 3, we addressed the subject of how goals and milestones were used, but we didn’t look carefully enough at what they were. Because they are a language convention designed to ensure the communication of a very specific outcome, it is only right that we examine them more closely.
For most people, goal writing is right up there with tooth flossing: a boring, awkward activity that is supposed to be good for you but that yields little or no apparent results. There are good reasons why so many people cringe when the topic of goal writing arises, the annual goal-writing/performance evaluation ritual, for example. But the truth of the matter is that most fabulously successful people who didn’t have good looks, huge brains, or a rich uncle to fall back on use goals to target what they want out of life.
For project managers, however, goals and the milestone sequences that define the paths to goal attainment are absolutely essential to success and sanity. While doing project management tasks, well-written goals help you focus every participant’s attention on the mutual outcome. Well-written milestones take the guesswork out of what participants must complete at specific points during the life of the project to stay on track. And while you do your non-project work tasks, goals and milestones can add a similar clarity, allowing you to make important priority decisions with confidence. Project and routine work goals are written on paper (rather than carved in granite) because as needs, wants, possibilities, priorities and resources shift, you can expect to adjust goals and milestones to clarify and communicate the changes. But like many things in life, to keep goal writing from being just an exercise, you must learn how to do it right.
How to Make Sure Your Goals Are Wonderful
- Think about/picture the outcome you need and want. Goal writing begins in your head. Spend some time pondering what the final outcome will look like, work like, feel like and do. Don’t pick up a pen until you can close your eyes and see the outcome you will describe in your goal.
- Write and re-write your goal(s). You don’t have a goal until it is written down; so-called goals you keep in your head are really “gonna do” intentions (e.g. “I’m gonna lose weight when I get around to it”). The purpose of goals is to express exactly what you want to accomplish. If you don’t write them down, your goals won’t be exact and you will be much less likely to make steady progress toward them. Since it is a crime to work without clear goals and an even bigger crime to lead a project without goals, Figure 5.2 uses “crime” as a memory aid to help you write great goals every time. There is no good writing, only good rewriting. Don’t try to get it absolutely right the first time. Just capture the idea, then refine it over and over until you’re satisfied (or too tired to do it over again).
- Show others your goals and ask questions. Communication happens only when a listener or reader understands what you’re trying to express. That means that your goal doesn’t communicate your targeted outcome until other people can read it and tell you exactly what you’re trying to produce. If any confusion between your vision of the outcome and their understanding of it exists after they read the goal, you can and should improve on it. To find out if your goal is really communicating, ask questions like:
- “What am I trying to accomplish?” - If the answer leads you to suspect that the reader has somehow looked into your head and examined your three-dimensional vision of the outcome, your goal is clear and measurable.
- “Compared to other activities and outcomes, how important is this?” - With project goals and milestones, you probably have a good idea of importance at this point. But with your non-project duties and, occasionally during project plan revisions, this question will help you plan and schedule.
- “ Do you think it’s possible to accomplish this goal in the time available without ditching other activities?” - If this is the top priority of a particular project phase and /or if you don’t have to short change other important milestones to accomplish it, your goal is reasonable. Otherwise, some adjusting might be in order.
- “Do you have any suggestions for adjusting this goal?” - If the goal affects others, make sure you show it to them, ask them all the questions listed above and adjust the goal if for no other reason than to promote their buy-in.
- Don’t zip by this reality check. The easiest person for you to kid is yourself, so let someone you trust and respect give you good information about your goals. Not only will they help you improve them; the fact that they know you’ve set goals will help you stay on course toward their accomplishment.
About Planning Tools
As difficult as it is to believe, some project managers don’t use their sole planning tool (e.g. MS Outlook, iCal, the FranklinCovey Planner or At-Glance-Planner) very well. If you aren’t an effective planning tool user and you want to be an effective project manager, prepare for a change. It is virtually impossible to manage projects and your normal work efficiently if you don’t become accomplished in the essential skill of planner use.
Today’s planners range from feature-rich, enterprise-supported, mobile device-synchronized software applications to lower tech, higher touch leather-bound ‘calendar’ books. Regardless of the medium, the “planning challenged” of us frequently use our tools almost exclusively as a memory supplement, which is the absolute minimum value one can get out of them without losing them altogether. Most poor planners capture the date of the meeting they’re supposed to attend next month or make a note about the report they’re supposed to submit on a particular day so they won’t forget it. This function could be more economically served with Post-its attached to computers and desks. Some poor planners capture milestone dates too, which is better but doesn’t do much to help you plan or protect the time needed to achieve a project milestone. To get the maximum value from a planning tool, you must load the components of your non-project work plans and your project plans into them and use the combined plan schedules to drive your day and time-use decisions. While a project chart is an effective way to communicate the planned course of one project’s work and outcomes, you may have several projects going on at the same time and almost surely have additional non-project work to do. That’s why a planning tool will serve as the organizational core of your projects, your work and your overall productivity. While many project managers are required to use the company’s mandated software/mobile app scheduling solution, some of you have planning tool options. Let’s start by learning how to use one by making sure you have or get a good one.
Tips for People Who Need to Buy a Daily Planner
Planners come in three types: book, computer application, and mobile application. There are several makes of each planner type and each planner vendor includes special planning features among a core of common planning functions. Book-type planners come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, weights, costs, and degrees of comprehensiveness. There are several makers of computer software planning tools and synchronized mobile apps competing for the business of companies that choose their product as the “enterprise solution”. Unfortunately, enterprise-imposed planning applications are too often misused as a solution to a memory deficit problem rather than a planning problem.
Several large companies continue to sell book-type planners. Most offer a few hours of training (either in person for large group purchases or online training for individuals) and a variety of sizes to choose from, ranging from the relatively simple and small to multiple cross-reference weightlifter specials. Professionally researched and executed, these book-type planners are uniformly well done and, with their range of choices, would certainly satisfy the needs of individuals. Going forward, however, it’s hard to see how these high touch-low tech planning books can efficiently coordinate the activity of a project team.
Mobile application planners have become a mainstay in large and small companies. It is increasingly uncommon to get into a high rise office building elevator and NOT see someone staring at the faint glow of an iPhone or Blackberry screen. As tablet computers and other handhelds continue evolving toward lower costs and greater power, the days of high-touch/low tech planner books are probably numbered. Since software-based planners have the same features you can get from a book-type planner, for any readers who have not made the change, the real question is not if you will use an software planner but when to make the transition.
How To Use A Daily Planner
Loading Your Planner: Non-project Work and Outcomes
Start by entering all the non-project events you know about, such as meetings, presentations, vacations, and other “I’ve got to be somewhere doing something on this date” kinds of things. In a software planner, enter these events as meetings, even if its just you working alone. Enter the amount of time for each planner entry from start to finish with either specific notes to yourself about the event or activity.
Enter any repetitive tasks at the time(s) they must be done. These are tasks that don’t have an “it’s over” outcome; they simply require doing every day. For example, you may set aside twenty minutes per day, starting at 10 a.m., to retrieve and respond to your e-mail. In your Notes section of a software planner or on a piece of paper, list every normal work-duty outcome you must complete and the date it must be finished.
For each outcome you’ve listed, describe milestones (intermediate outcomes just like the ones you’ve already worked with for your project plan).
Enter all the outcomes and milestones on their due dates from the final outcome deadline backwards to today. After entering each outcome /milestone sequence, work forward from today, scheduling enough work time so you can produce the milestones and outcomes at or before the deadline. Keep these timing tips in mind as you schedule your days.
Schedule tasks that require laser-like focus when your level of concentration is greatest. Consider whether you are a morning person or someone who needs a coffee IV to register a heartbeat before noon.
If you normally make several outgoing calls a day as part of your job, try to make the most of them as early in the day as possible. You are more likely to reach people early in the day and, if you leave a voicemail message, you’re more likely to get a return call that day.
Be prepared to use voice mail correctly. Prepare a detailed message before you dial. That way, people can give you an answer on your voice mail without interrupting you later.
Break yourself of the all-to-common e-mail ding habit; whenever the e-mail alert sound happens, you check your mobile device or bring your open e-mail client forward to see who sent you a message. If this sounds like you, set times to read e-mail or, at the very least, limit yourself to a certain number of times you look per day. If someone needs your immediate attention, they’ll call or visit you.
Review your planner for schedule-overload. If, after loading your planner with all your normal work, deadlines, meetings, vacations, etc., you must work six days a week and ten hours each day to get the work out, locate the delete key and pick up the phone. If your non-project work plans are already at overload, you will not only fail to meet your goals and be unable to handle the inevitable intrusions and emergencies, you will have no hope of successfully managing a project. Do whatever you need to do to adjust deadlines, jettison events or offload some responsibilities. Work at thinning your normal work schedule until there is enough time to schedule project management activities.
Loading Your Planner: Project Management Duties
With the non-project part of your work loaded in your planner, you’re ready to plug in the tasks, deadlines, review meetings, and all other essential project management activities and outcomes. If you’re thinking that all you have to do is load project chart milestones you recently developed, you’re wrong. You must integrate the project schedule milestones with management activities that don’t appear on the chart (e.g. review meetings), with other projects you’re managing and with your non-project activities and outcomes. At the core of every plan and schedule are coordination and balance. Putting everything in one place allows you to coordinate your schedule and balance your priorities. So, whip out your project chart and your planner, and let’s load your project into your planner by the numbers:
Scroll forward to your project deadline. Reserve a block of time big enough for a meeting and presentation that day. Using your notes from the initial review meeting you had with your prime mover, reserve time for your periodic review meeting dates.
If you’re working with one or more collaborators, transfer their scheduled project-work start dates and their milestone deadlines from the project chart to your planner. A day or more before each start date, enter a meeting reminder to yourself to gently remind/confirm key collaborators (“Joe, I just thought I’d call before you start on the credit data processing task to see if there is anything I need to do to make sure you’ve got everything you need to start on the 12th.”). You may not need to do this with every collaborator, but rookies and the very busy should get a wake-up call. You may also want to include a reminder to tactfully backstop them shortly before completion dates (“Joe, I’m looking forward to our credit data summary meeting next week and was wondering if there was anything I could do in the way of preparation?”). Of course, your coworkers are capable, diligent people who don’t need you badgering them. But if you make a practice of blind faith, someone will eventually drop the ball and blow your project schedule.
Take a moment to reflect on your personal work preferences before taking the next step, which is scheduling your project work time. Because of our individual metabolisms, our past work habits, our eating and sleeping patterns, and several other factors, every moment of everyday is not created equal. Some times (like the early hours for “morning people”) are well suited for high levels of energy and concentration and other times (like after lunch) are well suited for activities that require less focus. As you schedule your day, try to match each activity of the day with the thinking resources you can bring to it. If you concentrate best in the morning and the activity of the day is writing, schedule writing time in the a.m. If an informal update is the activity of the day, consider taking the person you need to talk with to lunch. But whatever you do, don’t abandon a balanced schedule for a near-sighted to-do list.
Schedule time to (a) review milestones on the date they are to occur, (b) monitor rookie work activities and (c) prepare for periodic review meetings. Confirming the quality and timeliness of outcomes that collaborators hand of to each other guards against handoff fumbles (and is a big part of why you are allowed to call yourself a project leader). Gathering information about a rookie’s progress and stepping in before it stalls can save you and the rookie from days of frustration and catch-up. Setting aside time to prepare for oral or written progress reviews keeps prime movers current while it gives you an opportunity to confirm and, if needed, rekindle their support.
Now, repeat steps 1-4 for every other project you’re leading.
Do an “Am I overloaded?” reality check to see if you have committed yourself to too many twelve-hour days. As before, do whatever you need to do to adjust deadlines or offload some of your responsibilities. If that doesn’t work, try shaving some time from project work blocks - remove whiskers but don’t peel off the skin. Or move a couple of hours of work from an overloaded day to a nearby underloaded one. Try to recruit another project collaborator. Ask your boss for a get-out-of-meeting-free card for regular, sort-of-important meetings. Delegate some of your non-project work. Volunteer for a cloning experiment.
Finally, if you find that you can’t get it all done in the goal deadline times available, even after applying a reasonable extra effort, talk to your project prime mover(s) and ask to push back a deadline. With your schedule and adjustment efforts in hand, you should be pretty persuasive. When you’re finished with this, you should have every important activity and outcome entered into your planning tool in a way that has the potential for keeping them from becoming unreasonably urgent.
Working Your Schedule
Now that the easy part is done, you can turn your attention to working the schedule. Practically anyone can schedule their work into some sort of time matrix. But a well-organized schedule, like a well-organized budget, doesn’t save you anything if you don’t follow it carefully. Fred Brooks, a computer designer for IBM, is credited with asking and answering the following; “How does a project get to be a year behind schedule? One day at a time.” In addition to your habitual inefficiencies, accept the fact that the intrusions of co-workers, unexpected technical problems, delays caused by others, and underestimates of the effort needed to accomplish an event can put you far enough behind so that meeting milestones becomes impossible. In this section, we’ll consider some ways to stay on track.
Spend thirty to sixty minutes looking through your planing tool; survey the status of every ongoing project as of the end of last week and review the week to come. As you look through your project chart(s) and plans, ask yourself:
“Are there any critical path milestones coming due during the week?” “Is a participant scheduled to start a task or complete a milestone?” “Is there a particularly difficult aspect of the project coming up?” “Am I significantly behind or ahead of schedule?”
Make notes detailing your answers: “Mktg Milestone on the 12th,” “G. Jones starts data analysis on 3rd,” etc.
Next, ask yourself, “What must I accomplish this week?” After looking up the easy ones (milestones and deadlines), focus on the work that isn’t anchored to a near-term milestone. How much progress should you make this week in order to stay on schedule with milestones or deadlines that are coming up in two weeks or a month? Ask yourself, “Have I learned anything that inclines me to adjust the project schedule?” Add these longer-range musings of what must be accomplished by Friday to the notes you took earlier. After looking at this list, consider just how pinched you’ll be for time. If you need to find five or six hours, now is the time to find them. Make any necessary adjustments to the week’s schedule, giving particular emphasis to Monday.
Make a habit of starting each day by opening your planning tool and sticking to the schedule. If necessary, make adjustments to your planned afternoon activities during lunch. The final thing you should do before leaving work in the afternoon is review your progress during the day and make necessary adjustments for tomorrow.
Do a mini-version of your Sunday night review. You’ve still got two days left to make your planned weekly progress, so take thirty minutes or so to decide what it will take to finish the week on plan and on schedule.
Protecting Your Schedule
Let’s say that instead of loading a planning tool and working a schedule, you’ve decided to load a financial plan into a budgeting program and to work that budget. You want to make the best use of your money, so you make decisions about what you’re going to buy and, consequently, what you’re not going to buy. With your brand-new budget glowing at you from your computer screen, your brother-in-law (or neighbor or coworker) walks in, removes your wallet, and starts helping himself to some cash. Later, someone else arrives and starts writing checks to herself, which you sign! At 10 a.m. you get up and go to a meeting, but within minutes, the meeting leader walks over to you and starts pulling off your rings and unclasping your gold necklace. No problem, right? Wrong!
We have no problem stopping people who would take our valuables, because the rules about and against stealing money and jewels are clear. But when it comes to stealing the non-renewable resource called “time”, we tend to adopt the Scarlett O’Hara philosophy, “Tomorrow is another day!” Sure it is; another day toward deadline disaster. If you don’t protect your time, as it appears in your schedule, you’re better off flying the project by the seat of your pants. At least that way, you won’t squander the time you would have invested in developing a plan that you don’t use.
So what are you, the project leader, to do? Ruthlessly protect your schedule and our plan with preemptive interruption repellent, with priority gauging probes and with schedule driven responses.
Preemptive Interruption Repellent
Without traffic signals, cars would be crashing into each other all the time with occasionally fatal results. In this era of cubicles and open office architecture, people in the recharging mode are constantly crashing into folks who are diligently working and the results are productivity-sapping. The problem lies with the absence of universally recognized traffic signals. For many, the rule is that if they can see someone, they can talk to him (or her). And when they do, that deeply absorbed person loses the dozen or so thoughts he’s keeping straight in his head. Even if he effectively brushes the interrupter off, it takes several (like about twelve) minutes to get back into his train of thought. Take several of those hits in a day and a person can easily burn an hour or more. People at work need a traffic signal.
Using a traffic signal of some sort (a closed door, an I’M BUSY NOW sign, or yellow crime-scene tape across your cubical portal) is only half the answer. Some people will require a little training before they respond to your signal in the desired way. For example, when Bruce the Interrupter ignores your stop sign and launches into his well-known “How ya’ doin’?” opening to the all too familiar twenty-minute “What I did on my weekend” review, immediately stand and cut him off. Walk toward him with a smile and say something like:
Project Manager: Bruce, you sure would be a breath of fresh air if I had time to breathe. (Talking right through his attempt to gain control of the conversation, you continue.} You know, I’m so swamped with work that I’ve had to resort to closing my door so I can really focus in on . . . (glance at your watch and quietly exclaim a quick, surprised) Ouuuuu -- my twelve thirty deadline! Could you do this for me, Bruce? For the next couple of weeks, let me come over and visit you when I can afford to come up for a breather? I hate to lock myself away like this, but if I don’t, I’ll never finish this project on time. OK?
Does Bruce know you’ve told him to buzz off and to observe your closed door? Yes. Are his feelings hurt? Probably not. The trick is to word the buzz-off message so it conveys some degree of respect. If Bruce leaves with his face intact, he’ll still remain an acquaintance but he’ll think twice or more before barging into your office.
Some interruptions come with a bona fide request for help attached. As we observed earlier, the first challenge is to find out how urgent and important these requests are compared to the work you have scheduled. Don’t base your estimate of the priority of these interruptions on the bugged-out eyes and pulsing veins of the requester. Certainly, their need is urgent, but urgency alone does not give something a high priority. Their need must be more urgent and more important than what you have scheduled. Clarify the level of importance and urgency with these carefully worded probes:
“What do you need my help to accomplish?”
“Who are you doing this for?”
“What would happen if I couldn’t help you right now/this morning/today/at all?”
“Would X minutes of my help be enough?”
The suggestion to question interrupters makes more than a few people nervous. They worry that “I won’t be viewed as a team player.” or “If I don’t help them, they won’t help me when I need it.” or “When my boss says ‘jump,’ I don’t probe, I jump!” Well, how nervous do blown deadlines make you? How nervous are you when you must work late into the night because someone squandered hours of your day? How nervous does the prospect of a “he’s never around”-based divorce make you? Don’t get yourself fired by trying to probe a stressed-out boss while you’re wearing an understanding smile on your face. But don’t roll over just because someone asks you to. Ask questions that allow you to spend your time knowledgeably and productively!
Learn to say no when your task is more important than the requester’s. Be suitably sorry and helpful but say no. If the request is, in fact, important and somewhat urgent, find a block of time assigned to a less urgent task in your schedule and offer to help (“I could help you for an hour this afternoon starting at 2 pm. How does that sound?”). And if the request is both important and more urgent than what you’re working on at the time, help immediately but indicate exactly how long you can assist (“I can help for the next hour if that makes sense to you.”).
Once you commit your goals and plans to a schedule, the realization of your potential productivity gains depends on working and protecting that schedule. It will feel peculiar for a while, but if you discipline yourself to living by a schedule, you’ll begin to see some real changes in the results you can manage out of yourself and out of others. As you reap the productivity gains that come from your investment in planning and goal setting, the self-discipline that you had to force will transform into habits that you wouldn’t consider relinquishing.