How knowing your “ONE” thing can make you more productive immediately

Productivity, organization, time blocking, tracking, one thing, time management

“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn

As working moms, we are busy, really busy. We struggle to get it all done. Balancing work, family, and time for yourself, plus all of the other responsibilities is exhausting and overwhelming. It can feel like you never have time to finish things. It feels like you are always feel behind. It feels like you can never catch up. It seems like the moment you solve one problem an even bigger one arises? It feels like you have so many important things to do and reach the end of the day and realize you have barely started them.

One of the biggest challenges with being a mom and advancing your career is time. I remember saying the words “I’m so busy” before I had kids, but it wasn’t until I was a working mom that I truly started to understand what it meant to be busy. In fact, I think I’ve said the words “I’m busy” less after becoming a mom than before because I didn’t even have time to have that conversation. Plus is gave me some perspective that all working moms are really, really busy.

I’d always been a pretty productive person, but by the time my first child was 18 months, I was really struggling to get it all done. I was managing 10 staff at work, trying to get my own work done, and then coming home to a busy toddler and my husband. I knew other people struggled with not having enough time, but I felt really alone. I had mom friends who worked, but they didn’t manage 12 people; these moms described work as “down time” compared with being at home. I had manager friends, who worked really hard like me, but they didn’t have kids. It felt like my challenge was in balancing these two things at the same time. There was no down time and I wasn’t getting anything done.

I was at a breaking point when I left for a conference in Ireland. One evening, I went to dinner with a grad school friend I hadn’t seen in years. She had just taken a new position as a director, overseeing 12 people – a really similar position to me. As I started sharing my challenges with getting everything done, I could immediately tell that she got it, really got it.

She started telling me about the ONE thing, specifically about the concept of time blocking. You block off half of your day, first thing in the morning, to get your really important work done first - no meetings, no interruptions, just work. As I ate my dinner, listening to her explain it, I thought she was insane and being totally unreasonable; this was not a usable or sustainable solution for me. I had 10 people coming to me with their problems, I couldn’t just close my door and ignore them – I was their manager, it was my job to be there for them. She reminded me that part of my job was to be a manager, but that my greater contribution wasn’t managing people, but creating and putting into action the vision for our department. Yes that involved managing people, but it was much bigger than that.

At the time, I was so desperate for change, I tried it. It's been almost 4 years since I had this conversation and it has fundamentally changed how I work and how productive I am.

Time Blocking

The idea behind time blocking is that you have ONE thing that is your most important contribution. Unfortunately our ONE thing often takes up less than 10% of our day. But “if disproportionate results come from one activity, then you must give that one activity disproportionate time” (the ONE Thing p161). If you leave your calendar open, things will fill it up. But if you block time in your calendar for your ONE thing, then it is far more likely to get done. And if you don’t block that time – good luck.

Okay, I could buy into that, it aligns with the 80/20 Pareto principle (that 80% of our output comes from 20% of our effort). I have also seen over and over that cancelling a meeting doesn’t give me back time, it just gets filled up with something else.

Next the book suggests blocking half your day, yes half your day. Honestly, this seemed totally extreme. There was no possible way I could block half my day for anything! But I gave it a shot, I started blocking off 7-9 am every morning (I had an early work schedule, but my girlfriend started at 9 am and was also able to pull it off). It was a recurrent meeting in my calendar. Within 6 months I got it to 2.5 hours and by a year I had blocked 3 hours every morning I was in the office, and longer on my work from home days. It’s been almost 4 years and I know that if I don't get something important done before 10 am, it’s not going to happen that day.


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    You are probably thinking that there is no way that you can block half of your day. I totally understand, I was completely there. Let's figure out how you can test out time blocking and see whether it can be adapted to work for you.

    1) Block 2 hours every morning.

    The goal is to work towards 50% (or about 4 hours a day), but as you transition and test it out, try to block 2 hours. If that seems extreme, start with 1, but I want to really challenge you to try 2 hours. Put into your calendar "working" so that anyone who checks your calendar can see that you are already busy. Take a look at your calendar for the next 2 weeks. Do you have anything scheduled for those first 2 hours? Can it be rescheduled for later in the day? Some things can't be rescheduled, but at least see how much of this time you can reclaim. Also, if you have to attend an hour meeting one morning, can you block the next hour after that?

    2) Share your plan with relevant people.

    If you are worried that your boss will wonder what you are doing or if colleagues will be confused that you are trying to move meetings, tell them that you are trying to be more productive and get more done and the best way to do this is to time block first thing in the morning. I know you might be worried about how they will react, but think about it, what would your boss say if you explained, “I’m trying to really focus on the most important work I do, so I’m going to block 2 hours every morning to be as productive as possible”?  I haven't heard of any managers disagreeing with the idea of getting more done. I’ve also found many colleagues became interested in what I was doing and wanted to try it out.

    3) Know what you are going to work on

    The worst way to start your day is the thing we all do best - checking our email. Time blocking is not for checking and answering emails, it's for doing your most important work. At the end of the day (either before you leave the office or even on your commute home), make a note of the 1-3 things you need to do first thing in the morning - the most important things on your to do list. For me, these are often things don't have deadlines (for example, writing academic publications), so they get put on the backburner, but are essential to our credibility as an organization and indirectly bring in new projects.

    4) Track how much you get done

    Make a note of all of the things you are accomplishing in those first two hours. I use task lists in Outlook and checklists in my notebook. This should take less than one minute, but is so interesting because you start to realize how much you get done in just 2 hours (and often how little you might get done in the rest of the day). When I have a morning meeting that I can't move, I'm always shocked by how little I accomplish that whole day. It makes me feel behind and panicky, eager to have my blocked time the next day.

    5) Work your way up to 3 hours (and then 4)

    After a week or two, try blocking 3 hours and seeing how that goes. Then try 4. I'll be honest, I've stopped at 3 hours for the days I'm in the office, but I block 5 hours on work-from-home days.

    6) Share your progress and what you have learned

    Don't be afraid to share this idea with others. People are often reluctant to believe that blocking that much time is possible, but interested in how it's actually going. Sharing successes and challenges can be so helpful in inspiring yourself and others.

    You can do this right away and it will fundamentally change how productive you are. It also links so nicely with using the Marie Kondo method to organize your career.

    1) Block 2 hours every morning

    2) Share your plan with relevant people

    3) Know what you are going to work on

    4) Track how much you get done

    5) Work your way up to 3 hours (and then 4)

    6) Share your progress and what you have learned

    Good luck and happy time blocking!


    Productivity, organization, time blocking, tracking, one thing, time management