Too busy to be the tooth fairy….a lesson in prioritisation

By | Productivity, Results

Today I got a reality check when my daughter came into the bedroom crying that the tooth fairy hadn’t visited her in the night. This was a BIG deal and I felt terrible.  I had forgotten. No excuses.

How do important things get lost in the haze of busyness? How is it that there was something more important than delivering a gold coin under her pillow? Well the truth is, there wasn’t anything more important and I can list 100 reasons why I forgot, but I’m not into excuses, only solutions.

Have you ever missed a deadline? Forgotten to return a call? Let it slip your mind that something had to be done by a certain time? We all have.  We all make mistakes.  Just this week I was speaking to a client who was given an opportunity by the Managing Director of her company to deliver a report on a special project.  2 days after it was due, she remembered. Gulp! We discussed how to avoid this in future:

  1. Daily ‘to do list’ – yes I have spoken about this before here. I can’t emphasize this tool enough. Now, I must tell you at this point she argued with me that she does in fact use a ‘to do list’. On further investigation it was a random set of notes on a page that were in no logical order and did not provide any direction or motivation.
  2. Be specific – tasks on a page need to be very specific.  Ring Henry Jones re: credit card payment or email Heather the ABC report by 5pm.  Anything that says, “do reports” or “make calls” is not going to happen or if it does, you will still miss tasks due to its generic nature.
  3. Projects – this is where it goes pear-shaped for most people in my experience.  You have things you would like to do or a project in the distance that you have to start at some point.  So on the to do list goes “Project XYZ”. And then it gets re-written and moved to the next day and the next day….and so on.  The idea is to break it down so the only thing that goes on the do list is something specific to do with the project eg: “Research competitor products”. Once this is done, part 2 of the project can go on the list. Before you know it, your project is well under way and there is no chance of missing the deadline.
  4. One location – it turns out my client was using her task book, in-tray, outlook calendar and inbox to keep and track her workload.  When I asked her how she missed this important deadline, it turned out that she had printed the email, highlighted it and then put it in her in-tray. It had been lost in the pile. One location and one list is the key.
  5. Human contact first – so when your list is 2 pages long and it is 2 o’clock in the afternoon, how do you decide what to do and what gets moved to the next day? People first! Anything that involves human contact gets done before close of business.  Verbal contact is the most important thing! This is where you build relationships and your own reputation as someone who does what they say they will do.

On reflection, this high achiever sees that she missed a moment to shine and deliver – but just as importantly she has learnt a valuable lesson in responsibility and prioritisation. I feel quietly confident that she won’t let a deadline slide again – with a new system in place and a big picture view of her own reputation and values.

By the way, the Tooth Fairy did deliver and there was some guilt money involved! She delivered her first bank-note, instead of the standard gold coin! I’m quite sure she has learnt her lesson too of important vs urgent.

Swamped by your workload? 5 ways to get out of the mess!

By | Performance, Productivity

This week I met up with a client who had over 150 emails in their inbox waiting for their attention. Just the thought made me squirm with discomfort!  How can you possibly respond, action, remember or even read that many emails? How can you honestly be productive with that much content staring you in the face?

This situation reminded me of a common problem I would witness with consulting staff time and time again.  A month would not go by without someone in the team getting themselves in a flat spin about the pile of work in front of them. When my Consultants found themselves in this tough situation, stressed, overwhelmed and really not knowing where to start I would do ‘desktime’.  If any old staff member is reading this now, they will probably be having a cold shudder just at the thought. They honestly dreaded it at the time, but loved it afterwards because they came out clear, focused and organised.

In any job, there are often so many tasks to do and all of them can appear urgent.  It is very easy to get lost in the detail of emails, phone calls and ‘stuff’ that distracts you from the bigger picture goals that you are trying to achieve.

Let me start by saying I am not a micro manager.  I am not interested in looking over someone’s shoulder, critiquing and controlling their every move.  Who has time for a start? I learnt that lesson early in my leadership career that carrying everyone else’s problems and being a control freak is a complete waste of time and effort as well as being incredibly ineffective.

However, there have been countless occasions where a senior staff member, and often a top performer, can get inundated with work and can become quite upset in not knowing where to start or how to tackle what seems to be the impossible.

1. Clear the inbox

If you’re like this client and have an overload of emails, start by getting rid of them. Clear the inbox! Being flooded with emails is usually the downward spiral on a slippery slope to disorganisation and feeling out of control.  As a rule, my inbox will only have enough emails to take it to the preview line, let’s say 10 – 12.  This will usually consist of new emails ready to be actioned, or something I need to refer to that day in terms of reference information.  That’s it.  Everything else has either been actioned or deleted.  My motto has been do it, delegate it, delete it, but don’t delay it!

2. Re-prioritise & re-organise

One afternoon in early 2002, one of my consultants was in tears in a complete panic unsure of where to start.  I spent two hours with her at her desk going through papers, trays, resumes, client files, emails and filing systems to see where it was going wrong.  It was a painful exercise.  She was completely disorganised.  I had to bite my tongue and avoid the lecture of how did things get like this in the first place? That wasn’t going to help.  For her, it was difficult as she felt being exposed like this made her incompetent.  We agreed that the purpose of the exercise was to help, with good intent, find a solution to avoid getting herself in this situation again and to re-prioritise.

3. Clean your space

I have always maintained a clean work-desk policy in all my roles.  At the end of every day, I would insist that all Consultants clean their desk.  This included empty inbox, files away, work in trays etc. Apart from just liking things neat and tidy, there is method in my madness.  A clean and organised workspace has the benefit of feeling like you’re on top of things, being clear in what needs to be done and not being distracted by mess.  There are of course obvious benefits like being able to find things, the cleaners could actually do their job and clean as well as the confidentiality of not having candidate’s personal details lying around.

4. Central list

Through these situations, I learnt that sometimes people just need to go back to basics. I strongly recommend one list – a daily to do list (see are you busy or just ineffective?) where every task or action is recorded (avoiding sticky notes and electronic reminders).  This way there is a central point and you don’t need to rely on your memory (which rarely works).  The inbox can be cleared when there is a central list, your in-tray should match the list with anything that needs to be actioned and the rest should be filed and out of sight creating a clear and organised workspace.

5. Time out & clear your thoughts

When things just seem all too much, I am a big believer in getting up from your desk, taking a deep breath and getting some fresh air.  A walk around the block, a trip to the mall or grabbing a coffee can seem a bit trivial, but honestly it can work wonders.  Physically removing yourself from a situation that is causing stress or where you can’t think straight is an easy remedy to get some immediate time out.  I would often take a notebook and pen with me, to be away from the chaos to refresh and rewrite my priorities to re-focus on what I wanted to achieve.

These tactics were consistently successful with Consultants over the years as they found it helpful (and painful at times!) to have someone external to sit with, to talk to and get some clarity around “ok, what are the priorities again”. It got to the point where ‘desktime’ was even requested!

The client with the 150 emails argued with me, telling me that you should keep everything.  It is a record and you never know when you may need to refer back to it.  I don’t disagree completely ….. but hording hundreds of emails in an inbox is a sure fire way to miss something important or a quality service standard.

Instead of feeling swamped by workload and looming deadlines…clear your head, desk and inbox, reorganise and reprioritise so you can take control.


Nicole Underwood offers a range of consulting and workshop services to help other businesses implement similar success strategies.  As a previous finalist in the prestigious Telstra Business Women Awards, a business coach and entrepreneur, Nicole partners with organisations to improve their leadership, performance and results. Contact Nicole here.



Are you busy or just ineffective? 5 ways to create more hours in your week

By | Productivity, Results

I need more time with no extra hours,” a friend recently told me. She consistently feels anxious going to work, gets to the end of the day and feels like she hasn’t stopped to take a breath. Her regular rants include “I don’t have enough time”! She feels scattered, unfocussed and disorganised.  The stress is building as she runs around reacting to what is happening around her.

I think at some stage in our careers, we all have experienced moments like this when we feel like a headless chook and seem unable to get in front and on top of our workload and this often spills into other aspects of our lives.  For me, it was in early 2003 – a couple of years after establishing a new business and giving it my everything to get it off the ground.  The passion, excitement and determination to create something successful was a driving force that also pushed me closer to the burnout zone.

I learnt that feeling like I had a lack of time, meant that I had to prioritise to gain control over my day.  Several things needed to change, some were relatively small in concept and simple in application, but they made a significant difference immediately.

  1. Role definition – get a blank piece of paper and write at the top what is my job? What are the 5 major tasks to achieve this? What 5 things am I doing that I can delegate? And finally what steps can I take to delegate them?  For me, such a simple exercise clearly showed me that I was spending nearly half my time on tasks that I could easily get someone else to do and I was too “hands-on” in the business managing rather than leading.
  2. Urgent vs important – any time management guru or text will explain that we spend too much of our day reacting to what appears urgent rather than on those activities that have a direct impact on outcomes.  This became very clear to me as I proof read documents, approved invoices, accepted interruptions from other internal departments and got distracted by administrative processes.
  3. The “to do list” – a non-negotiable, essential tool that I have used every day for the past 15 years. It has become legendary with every person who has worked for me and they will tell you that I live and die by it.  It numbers and lists every task specifically that needs to be completed for the day.  It has to be specific eg: call Tony Jones re: ad approval or complete reference check on Mandy Smith.  Grouping tasks or being generic such as do reference checking or ring clients doesn’t get done because it isn’t exact or measureable.  Once completed, ticked off, it becomes a single document that lists all tasks – not using different systems such as outlook, sticky notes and a notebook – one system, one list.
  4. “Big rocks” – becoming clear on the “big rocks” – that is typically between 3 – 5 of the most important priorities that you do that deliver the outcomes you want to achieve.  Figure out what they are and spend at least 70% of your week doing them. For me these highest payoff activities were performance management, business development, coaching and sales training.
  5. Empowering others to take responsibility – when it’s your own business or where you have direct accountability for specific outcomes for a division, it can be hard to let go.  The moment I delegated authority, allowed people to make decisions and learn for themselves, the confidence and trust grew.  The result for me was more time and less stress, as I wasn’t holding sole responsibility for everything that happened. A weight was lifted off my shoulders.

The secret to gaining more time is through priortisation and focusing on those things that actually make a difference to what you are trying to achieve.  In the words of productivity guru Timothy Ferriss, “being busy is used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions”.  I couldn’t agree more.  It is so easy to fill our days with unimportant, seemingly urgent but irrelevant ‘busyness’.  To my friend I say, “stop, revisit your purpose, get clear on what tasks actually contribute to achieving your results and don’t procrastinate by being ‘busy’”. You will never get more hours in the day, but you can certainly control what you put into the hours that you have.

So does my friend need more time? No! If that were a possibility, she would just fill it doing more of the same unproductive stuff she is doing now and in essence be no more effective.  Having more time doesn’t equate to greater effectiveness…but being effective will create you more time.


Nicole Underwood provides business coaching to leaders and owners who are seeking to improve their results through more effective leadership and communication.  A recent client has said “Her effervescent style coupled her with extensive experience in her field is a joy to work with. She is non-judgemental and not controlling in her style. I would highly recommend Nicole to any emerging leader who needs tips and support in growing a team. She is a first class consultant.” Business Owner, March 2012.

*This article was originally written and published for Training Point in January 2012