Blogging AllianceBruce HarphamProject Management

4 Principles to Maintain Focus on What Matters at Work


Recently, I read the new 2015 edition of David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. As GTD enthusiasts will know, the book offers both a robust methodology and numerous practical tips. In this article, I will explain a few ways that professionals can streamline their daily schedule. Before going further, let’s revisit a few key findings on time pressure, work and productivity:

  • Half of time spent in meetings is wasted according to industry surveys (source: CBS News).
  • Only 36.8% of managers (versus 50.8% of team members) feel absolutely satisfied with their work-life balance (source: Wrike).
  • Making time for exercise during the workday leads to increased productivity (source: Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine).

These findings suggest there is still substantial room for productivity improvement. Whether you are concerned about output at the office or maintaining your physical health, productivity matters. Whatever strategy you pursue, think twice about simply working more hours. The “more hours” approach ignores the fact that your energy and focus tend to wear down over the course of a day.

Let’s look at a few principles and practices that can improve your life.

1. Use prevention check lists to saves time.

Quality management theory, as codified in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, tells us that prevention is superior to inspection. That principle applies to our own productivity as well.

Rework consumes significant amounts of time that could be put to better use on other activities. Rework is no longer limited to manufacturing – many knowledge workers including developers and project managers face this problem. I have certainly had the experience of rebuilding Excel spreadsheets from scratch from time to time.

Fortunately, the time and financial costs of poor quality can easily be minimized by creating a checklist. According to surgeon and author Atul Gawande, checklists are excellent tools to prevent errors in aviation, medicine and other fields.

For further guidance on other quality improvement approaches, please read “4 Ways to Improve Quality.”

2. Use a Weekly Review to maintain perspective.

Far and away, the Weekly Review is one of the most powerful tools I have learned. It is a recurring practice where I read over my calendar, list of tasks, email and other information. If you have ever had the experience of being surprised by an appointment, this method will help.

Tip: Read “Why You Need a Weekly Review to Become More Productive” for inspiration on how to develop your Weekly Review.

To deepen your Weekly Review practice, I strongly encourage you to read (or re-read) Allen’s Getting Things Done. It is one of the most valuable productivity books I have ever read.

3. Use automation to reduce the burden of recurring tasks.

Automation is an excellent approach to improve your productivity. There’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of leveraging technology. Fortunately, advanced programming skills are not required to implement this principle. Simply follow these guidelines:

  • Write a list of tasks that repeat on a recurring basis (e.g. weekly or monthly).
  • Determine which of the tasks can be eliminated entirely; there is no point in automating activities which do not really need to be done at all.
  • Identify at least three ways you could automate it (e.g. automatic bill payment, set a reminder in your digital calendar or use simple software).
  • Automate the task.
  • Monitor the task for quality. (This step is especially important for high risk tasks.)

As a starting point, I suggest automating saving money and/or automating bill payments. Reducing time spent on these mundane financial tasks will free up capacity for you to work on high-value activities.

4. Practice the art of saying no to maintain focus on your priorities.

Saying no is a valuable skill to develop, yet it can be difficult. Given the importance of relationships, especially for project managers, it is important to be diplomatic. Fortunately, there are several ways you can decline thoughtfully:

  • Say that you will think about the request before saying yes.
  • Refer the person to other resources or people who can address the question.
  • Politely say no and wish the person well.

Of course, your no strategy needs to be tailored to the context. If you are interacting with a senior manager, saying no could have negative consequences for you. For many of the minor interruptions we face at work, saying no respectfully and regularly is well worth the effort.

Now it is time for you to act. Which of these principles will you put into effect?


For more brilliant insights, check out Bruce’s website: Project Management Hacks

Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham, PMP, is the editor of, a resource for growing IT project managers. Bruce's experience includes leading projects in the financial services industry and in higher education. Bruce received his Honours Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Toronto, Master of Arts (History) from the University of Western Ontario and Master of Information Studies degree from the University of Toronto. Outside of his professional pursuits, Bruce's interests include history, world travel, wine and science fiction. Bruce lives in Toronto, Canada. You can view Project Management Hacks at the button below.

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