When I entered the office of an old boss of mine from the 1990’s he would routinely ask me – ‘are you here to discuss how you intend to either increase revenue or margins or reduce costs? If you’re not then what are you doing here?’ The first time he said it I was caught off guard but soon enough I got used to it and made sure I was properly prepared to answer him.

What I grew to understand was that he was trying to teach me a valuable lesson to focus on the right things and not get distracted by less important matters. In my case I had to increase sales without reducing margins. It was an unambiguous objective that was easy to focus on. Because the expectations were so clear my boss never felt any need to micro-manage or dabble in my work. He trusted me to get it done and to figure out the best way to do it. How I answered his questions also provided him with a sense of whether he needed to offer help if he thought I was struggling. It was a great intuitive style of management that never slowed progress or created bottlenecks.

It did however put pressure on me to perform. To do that I realised I needed to be really focused on my key objectives without getting distracted. It’s tough to do that in a corporate environment with its endless interruptions. However I worked hard to establish a few work practices that helped me (and still do):

• Each week I would list what I needed to get done that week. I would then divide the list into daily tasks. The list would be compiled on the basis of what I could realistically expect to get done without working silly hours. I would work meetings around these tasks to ensure I had enough time to get it all done. I’d also added a bit of ‘flex’ time in to deal with unexpected matters that popped up that I considered important. Occasionally I’d work back an hour or two to stay ahead but it wouldn’t be that often. I always tried to make sure that any set activities didn’t drift into the next week.
• If I was waiting on someone to come back to me I would file a note in my “Follow Up” file with a date to action it. Each day there was always a small handful of items to attend to. My aim was to never handle a piece of paper more than twice.
• I’d only allocate a short time for any meeting – 30 minute maximum – to encourage straight talk and urgency. This ensured people came properly prepared with the right mindset to solve problems and make decisions. This took a while to get right but the effort was worth it.

The only way to deliver your key objectives is to spend most of your time focused on them. This means you have to avoid interruptions and treat time as your most valuable resource. If you don’t have a weekly ‘to do’ list, as a minimum, then you’re likely drifting through your work week either not hitting your targets or pulling big hours to keep up. Neither is sustainable or much fun.

Like I did it’s easy to make a few simple changes that will buy you large chunks of time and allow you to focus on the right things. Looking back I now know that my old boss was one shrewd guy…