Eliminate Your 3 Biggest Time Traps For Good

Last Updated May 6, 2011 10:07 AM EDT

...or I'll buy you coffee.

My last blog post on the single best time management tip ever generated many comments asking for more on this topic. This blog post talks about how to discover more time in your day, every day.

There is a category of things you do that you need to stop doing right now, and never, ever do again. At the same time, your boss, company and family want you to keep doing these things. These to-do items from hell are called "twilight tasks," taking their name from a speech by Teddy Roosevelt:

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

Twilight tasks can be monotonous (TPS reports from Office Space), headache inducing (scheduling meetings), or just a waste of time (weekly activity reports). They have two characteristics:

  1. Someone wants you to do them. When I was associate dean at USC, I realized that many people would be very happy if I just checked email all day long. People said how great it was if I responded in 15 minutes or less, that it was a sign of responsiveness and customer service.
  2. The more you do twilight tasks, the more distant you feel from things that matter. Imagine a day when you did nothing but twilight tasks. How would you feel at the end? I can recall 10 hour days when all I did was answer email. The result? It felt like my soul had been stolen, that I was betraying my purpose for being alive. Imagine that feeling when you're looking back at your entire career.
This is where people say "but I can't just stop! I'd get fired!" True, and I'm not suggesting you just flip your boss the bird and stop doing things. In a study I did in the mid-1990s on people who had great careers, one factor stood out: they had the ability to abandon twilight tasks while others didn't. When people do twilight jobs, they tend to form "my life sucks" cultures. See if that describes where you work.
There's great news about twilight tasks, so good, in fact, that most people don't believe it. Try it. If it doesn't work, come to USC and I'll buy you a latte from Trojan Grounds. I'm serious.

Twilight tasks come in three varieties, each with its own solution to eradication, or at least containment:

  1. Those that you don't need to do. Here's the advice: stop. Now. But how do you know no one will bug you about it, or even get mad? Stop, and see if anyone notices. In one consulting project I did, 85% of tasks could be stopped without anyone ever complaining. If someone complains, say you're sorry, and start doing it again.
  2. Those that someone else would love to do. Here's where you won't believe me. Name the twilight task that really needs to get done, and someone will want to do it. In fact, your continuing to do it is depriving them of job satisfaction. While associate dean at USC, I hated to keep my schedule. Being dyslexic, I sucked at it. It seemed like I was spending 60% of my time sending out emails about when I was free, only to have people accept a time and then I'd annoy people who wanted the same slot. It made my life a living hell until I found someone who loved doing it. It's your job to find that person for those twilight tasks that need to get done but that you have no business ever doing again.
  3. Group the twilight tasks that you just have to do into your least productive period of the day. While you can purge many twilight tasks, and hand off others, there are some things you just have to do. On a personal level, you have to pay your taxes. You have to answer email. You have some version of TPS reports. The key breakthrough for me about this was to map my natural rhythms of strategic thinking, creativity and need for routine. In the morning, I'm creative, and often write at that time, or help clients with strategic direction. In the afternoon, I can barely string words together, and no matter how much coffee I have, strategy eludes me. In the middle afternoon, around 3pm, I have my ideal time for twilight tasks. Find the time when your brain can handle them, and when it needs time off from more values-directed challenges.
Here's my challenge: find one twilight task and stop doing it, hand it off, or sync it to when your brain wants to do it. I hope you'll write about it in the comments field below. Remember, if nothing works, I'll buy you a latte.

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Photo courtesy Kt Ann, CC 2.0.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.