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How To Tackle Big Issues When You're Constantly Putting Out Fires

Getting yanked into one meeting after another? The Muse CEO Kathryn Minshew shares how she makes time for crucial solo work.

[Photo: skeeze via Pixabay]

Every morning, you sit down at your computer with the best intentions. Coffee in one hand and your to-do list in the other, you’re feeling geared up and ready for a productive day. It's the day you're finally going to dig into those grand ideas you've been rolling around in your brain.

But then real life intervenes. Your phone rings—and won’t stop ringing. You’re pulled into 10-minute meeting after 10-minute meeting. You keep getting distracted by the barrage of "urgent" emails arriving in your inbox. And you wind up deciding that those big projects you didn't so much as touch today will have to wait for another spare morning soon—whenever that is.

As a startup founder, my daily tasks include everything from long-term strategic planning to approving team outings and company culture initiatives. So I know this feeling all too well. Day after day, things inevitably come up that need to get handled ASAP. But I’ve also learned that if you don’t have a strategy for making time for those bigger ambitions and your truly lofty goals, they’ll simply never get done. And that means you won’t make the progress that’s really going to move your business forward.

Here's how I've managed to keep a hand in the day-to-day decision-making process without letting it overwhelm the time I need to tackle big ideas.

1. Find Your Most Productive Time

Face it: You aren’t cranking out work at absolute peak productivity for the entire day. Instead, there are likely certain times when you’re at your most focused and other times when your energy wanes. That's normal. Maybe for you, it's bright and early in the morning, before anyone else arrives in the office, when you do your best work. For me it's the opposite. Later in the evening, once everyone starts trickling out of the office and things quiet down is when I can really get cracking.

Whenever it is, identify that chunk of time (even if it’s only an hour!) when you feel your most productive, and then reserve it on your calendar like you would any other important meeting. You need to protect this block of time from intrusion—it isn't optional. That way you’re guaranteed to have a regular, designated period when you can at least get started on those bigger to-dos.

2. Create Physical Barriers

Nobody works in a vacuum. We all have to collaborate with others to some degree or another. And it's the people we work closest with whom we tend to put first—we want to be readily available if they need our help. But there are times you need to tune out the distractions and focus if you’re going to get any meaningful work done.

One of the most effective methods I've found is to put physical barriers between us. I’ll work from a conference room or even from home on occasion in order to get some literal space from people needing "just one quick thing." And while I used to feel guilty about sneaking away, I soon realized that it made me more present with my team the rest of the time. No, it’s not something I want to implement every day, but it’s undeniably helpful when I really need to zone in on something important.

(And you’ve heard it before, but turn off your smartphone notifications, or just move your phone into another room altogether. You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done when you aren’t sidetracked by the constant dinging and buzzing!)

3. Delegate Like Your Job Depends On It

When I first started The Muse, I had my hands in just about everything. If my cofounder or I didn’t take care of it, well, it just wasn’t going to get done.

That’s not the case now—we have a huge team working with us—and more and more, I don’t have to be the one who’s putting out every fire. These days, I look for ways to help the very capable people around me share the load, leaving me more time to actually get to those big ideas.

Only you know your work situation, but I’m willing to bet there are a few things on your to-do list that need to get done, but not necessarily by you. I get it—loosening the reins and letting go of some control isn’t always easy. But delegating is crucial if you’re aiming to free up several precious hours.

Your workday can quickly become overloaded with crises that need to be addressed immediately, leaving you almost no time to get to those broader goals and projects that you really need to accomplish. But it's those big-ticket items that are more likely to drive your company's success over the long term. Which means that pushing them to the back burner is actually dangerous. So with these strategies, you can get in the habit of spending regular periods of focused time for that kind of work—even if you're still chasing alarm bells the rest of the time.

Kathryn Minshew is CEO and cofounder of [i]The Muse. Follow her on Twitter at @kmin.[/i]

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