How to Make Time for “Big Picture” Thinking
When Your Day is Full of Fires
You start your workday with the very best intentions. You’re finally going to make some progress on that major project that keeps getting pushed to the back burner. You sit down at your computer, roll up your sleeves, and are ready to get to work. Suddenly, a request from a colleague arrives in your inbox. You figure you should take care of that before moving on to anything else.
As soon as that’s done, your phone rings. A client needs help with something—which you know you can’t just ignore. With that out of the way, you attempt to zone in again. Right at that moment, a co-worker stops by your desk and wants to talk through a problem that he’s facing—he’s hoping bouncing around some ideas will help.
Before you know it, you’ve arrived at the end of your workday, and that major project, big-picture planning, or strategic thinking you had planned to fill your day with remains totally untouched. Sound familiar? It’s a relatable issue for many. Surprises, emergencies, and distractions have a way of cropping up and pulling you away from the things you had intended to work on. Sometimes, it’s totally unavoidable—these things happen.
But, here’s the bad news: Continuing to fall into the trap of devoting your attention to those smaller tasks and interruptions means that big-picture thinking will never actually get done. What can you do to combat a day spent on nothing but putting out fires? Here’s how you can make some space for those larger plans—even when your day is stuffed full with distractions.
When you feel like your attention is continuously ripped from the project at hand, it’s easy to turn around and point the finger at everybody else. Why do they keep distracting you? Don’t they know you’re trying to get important work done?
However, it’s important to realize how you might be contributing to your own problem. We all do it. We know that big-picture thinking and planning is crucial, but it’s also typically much more difficult than crossing off those smaller tasks and to-dos. It requires more intensive thought—which can be intimidating.
With that in mind, a study conducted by Yale University concluded that our brain uses those menial tasks to simulate real work. Put simply, cleaning out your inbox or meeting with a colleague makes you feel as if you’re being productive—even if you aren’t actually making any progress on the things you had set out to accomplish that day.
So, before you place the blame for your lack of focus on your clients and colleagues, take a minute to recognize how you might be self-sabotaging your own productivity.
Your co-worker sends you an email that looks something like this: “Can you take a look at the attached spreadsheet to ensure nothing looks off to you?”
You figure that—while it’s in front of you—you better at least get that done. So, you dedicate some time to work your way through it. There’s one important question you forgot to ask your colleague, though: When do you need this done?
In order to make time for big-picture thinking, you need to prioritize it. And, blindly working on tasks and assignments that find your way into your inbox—without ever asking follow-up questions that will help you determine where they should fall on your list—is a surefire way to continue cluttering your own day with irrelevant or non-urgent work.
If people don’t immediately assign a deadline when sending something over to you, don’t hesitate to ask. That information is important for determining how soon you actually need to tackle that supposed fire. For all you know, you might be qualifying different tasks and questions as emergencies—when they don’t actually need to be treated as such.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, distractions continue to crop up and pull you away from the things you really need to be getting done. For this reason, it’s helpful to schedule some designated time each day, week, or month (whatever works best for you!) when you can sit somewhere quiet and focus on your real work—without interruptions continuously banging down your door.
The best strategy to ensure you actually get the time you need is to block it out on your calendar. That way, if your co-workers have access to your schedule, they’re unable to book any appointments for commitments at that time—and will also see that you’re hoping to go uninterrupted.
Worried about any emergencies that could arise while you’re unplugged and zoned in? If possible, it can be helpful to identify someone who could serve as your backup during that time. Whether it’s a direct report or someone else in your department who’s equally in the loop, see if he or she would be willing to cover for you while you take some time for your larger projects.
Of course, return the favor for him or her on a regular basis, and you’ll establish a mutually beneficial working relationship that allows you both some much-needed time to get your important work done.
Will implementing these strategies ensure that you never need to put out a fire or deal with a workplace emergency? Definitely not. Unfortunately, those things will still happen every now and then.
However, these tips and tactics can help to limit your distractions and give you at least a little more time for the important planning and bigger projects that are just as crucial in your role.
Give them a try, and you’re sure to notice a difference in your workday!