Throughout our conversation, we unravel Donna’s unique view on time usage and the vital importance of the time of the day we choose to perform each task. We talk about Donna’s extraordinary upbringing surrounded and influenced by military discipline and art. We also talk about the four parts of the day and maximize time working from home and the office.
Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. And we have a special guest with us today all the way from Australia. Donna is passionate about enhancing the large amount of time we spend in our workplace – too much for many – to ensure it is effective and productive, as well as enjoyable. She’s worked with managers and leaders throughout Australia and the Asian Pacific area for over 20 years. So, welcome Donna McGeorge.
Donna McGeorge: Thanks for having me, Steve. I feel like I’m on a game show; “Yay! Donna McGeorge from Australia.”
Steve Shallenberger: You deserve to be on one. You’re such a great personality and so fun to visit with, we’re going to have a great show today. And before we get started, I’d like to tell you a little bit more about Donna. She delivers practical skills training, workshops, and facilitation to corporates such as Nissan Motor Company, Jetstar, MetaBank, Private and Ford Motor Company. So, they learn to manage their people well and produce great performance and get great results. So, Donna believes that the workplaces are complex but not hard. And more often than not, it’s getting the simple things right, consistently, that has the greatest impact. She also knows that when we decide to be intentional, we can surprise, even ourselves, with what we can achieve. So, this is right down the wheelhouse of what we talk about; what highly successful leaders do. So, Donna, let’s start off with, if you don’t mind, just telling us about your background and including any turning points in your life that has had a significant impact on you and on what you’re doing today.
Donna McGeorge: So, I think probably the most relevant stuff around how I’ve come about to do what I do really is my father was in the Navy. So, we had that classic military upbringing, where we moved around a lot. We had a very structured orderly life. My dad had a bunch of catchphrases that have totally influenced my work. So, things like, “You’re always heading for a ship that’s sailing.” “It’s a long swim home if you miss it.” “If it’s predictable, it’s preventable.” And so all these things have kind of informed our world. But the interesting thing about Dad was he was a musician in the Navy. So, I’ve also had a bit of theatrical stage kind of lifestyle as well. And then my mom reminded me, recently, I was telling her that I often talk about Dad in podcasts and interviews, you know, Navy life. And she said, “Look, you probably don’t remember this, but because we moved a lot, we had a very lean lifestyle as well because we were able to pack up and move quickly, and then move into places.” And she said, “And as a kid, I used to watch you get into a school, and you would be doing homework, you’d hit the ground running, you’d be knowing that because you were the new kid, you had to get in and get involved pretty quickly.” So, I would say all of those things then created an adult who got things done, was pretty adaptable, able to build relationships quickly and focus on the important things. And at some point, I went, “You know what? I think I need to write some books about this.”
Steve Shallenberger: That’s great. That’s a good background. And Donna has written a very interesting and useful book, it’s about time, “The 1 Day Refund: Take Back Time, Spend it Wisely.” So, this is a great subject that really can help all of our listeners as they reflect on how they can better prioritize their time. And it’s not just a mechanical thing, there are quite a few other things that go into it. And so that’s what Donna is going to help us think about today. So, Donna, as we start off with this, why are the first two hours of the day so important for people?
Donna McGeorge: I want to separate it just slightly. It’s not necessarily the two hours from waking, there are plenty of good things you can do there; lots of books have been written about the habits we have about getting up, making beds, exercising, eating breakfast. I think it’s the first two hours upon sitting down and starting work that are critical. Now, why I think the first two hours are important, I think we should pay more attention to the clock in our body than the one on the wall. And our natural body rhythms are such that in the morning, we tend to be more mentally alert. And the afternoon, we have more physical dexterity – so, things that require mental intensity. You’d like to think our most important work, our genius, our smarts, the reason that we’re hired in positions is probably the stuff we should focus on in the morning. And then our routine ritual stuff that we don’t need our brainpower for, we should leave for the afternoon. So, I always say, particularly to leaders, you should be protecting that first two hours or your best two hours. For me, it’s from eight to 10. For someone else, it might be seven to nine, whatever it is for you, what’s your best two hours, and protect that vehemently. You shouldn’t do meetings. I know a lot of leaders feel like lots of people want a piece of them. One of my mates who is a CEO says that sometimes he feels like he opens the door to his office and it’s chirping birds; everyone is kind of wanting to get a piece of something. So, I say, “Well, protect your first two hours,” because then if you give away the rest of your day, at least you’ve done your most important stuff up front.
Steve Shallenberger: Donna, how do you find the best way to protect that? When all those chirping little birds want that time? How do you do it? What’s the discipline?
Donna McGeorge: Well, the discipline is you put it in your diary, time blocking, as anyone would expect, and then you lock it. There’s a little thing, most calendar apps have an ability for you to lock that time, which means no one can see what you’re doing there. So, a lot of times when people see that locked time, they assume it’s some personal thing that you’re dealing with. Now, they’ll notice the pattern. Over time, people will see you’ve protected it. But it’s interesting when people talk about boundaries, people say to me things like, “You know, Donna, I tried to protect my time, but other people book meetings overtop of it, or people just interrupt me.” That only happens because you allow it. So, I, 100%, believe that everyone comes to work to do the best they can with the resources they have available to them and that everyone is reasonable, and all you need to do is be reasonable and say, “Hey, team, I’m protecting the first two hours, it would be great. Most of my days are open-door time, this is closed-door time.” So, I think if you announce it upfront, you let people know. But it’s on you, it really is on you just to politely and respectfully say, “No, I can’t do a meeting at that time,” or “Can you just give me another 10 minutes, and then I’ll come out?” Or “I’ll come out of 10,” or whatever your answer might be to that.
Steve Shallenberger: Oh, thanks. That’s really great advice. I like that, and a good thought about it. One of the things that you talk about, Donna, are the four parts of your day. So, what tasks should be scheduled for each of these parts? What are the four parts? And how can this be helpful to us?
Donna McGeorge: So, when I looked at the research around circadian rhythms, and the body clock, and all that sort of stuff; it immediately became apparent to me that the application of this around the types of work we do, that there are certain things that are just suited to morning and afternoon. And the other thing I thought about was, no wonder we’re exhausted because we’re trying to do things that just don’t fit with our natural rhythms. And so the mornings, as I said– and I’m talking about an eight-hour workday, and many people will be like, “Oh, you’re dreaming, I work much longer.” But you know what? Figure out the maths for yourself. But let’s just go first, second, third, fourth, two hours; it’s easy for the maths. So, the first two hours are your most important; it’s high intensity, high impact; the stuff that makes the most difference to you. So, it’s going to be solving problems, conflict (if you have to have a meeting around conflict), big decisions, complex emails that require a lot of thought, preparing the content for an important presentation or a proposal – the stuff that if you get that done, it kind of doesn’t matter if you did nothing else for the rest of the day, because that’s in Stephen Covey language, the good old seven habits, it would be “the biggest rocks.” You’re trying to make sure you focus on the first step. But because we can’t just say to the world, “Go away, I’m working on my stuff.” You have to be able to be available to others. So, the second two hours is when you do that, it’s when other people need your smarts. So, that’s when you book meetings with others when you need to contribute, collaborate. If you have this much control over your diary, this is what I recommend. So, probably from mid-morning onwards, you can make yourself available to others. The third two hours, most listeners would have had the experience of the after-lunch slump, it’s where we just have low energy, we don’t feel as upbeat, we tend to plan a drift off, that’s when we try to whack caffeine into our system, we try everything to try and boost our energy. But you don’t fight city hall on this one, you’re probably better to surrender to it. And this is the time when you do the things that are routine. So, this might make it make your listeners feel a bit uncomfortable, but this is when you should do your email. And so the fact that I’m suggesting that you don’t really do your email and address your email until after lunch, that makes people feel very nervous. So, I’m going to say you’re allowed to scan it just to look for urgent things. But in terms of processing your email, the best time is after lunch. And you want to go for a walk, you want to have a rest, you want to make sure you fuel your system – so have something to eat to head into the afternoon.
Steve Shallenberger: We can do a podcast after lunch!
Donna McGeorge: Absolutely, we can do a podcast after lunch. The thing about podcasting after lunch is that you pretty much have a system and a process. So, it’s not like you do it without thinking because there’s a lot of thought that goes into this. But it is a routine, there’s a routine about how you do it. And so, yeah, absolutely, you do a podcast after lunch. Can I suggest that’s a great time to listen to podcasts? So, it’s a great way to rest your mind because you’re taking in great information. In fact, there have been lots of studies done on the best time of day to do lots of things, and one of them says, “Learning is the afternoon.” So, great opportunity. Now, the last two hours are actually my favorite. Now, maybe I should have talked about the last two hours because the fourth two hours of the day is I think where the magic happens to set the next day up. So, this is where you make as many decisions as possible that then you don’t have to make the next day. So, it can be trivial things – seemingly trivial things – like what am I going to wear? What am I going to eat? If I’m traveling somewhere, what’s the route? Have I booked a taxi? Just double-check my flight times. If I’ve got meetings the next day, what preparation might they need? And then if I’m prioritizing, which I know is one of the 12 key things in your book, what are the three most important things I need to get done particularly in my first two hours so that that kicks you off in the next day in a really great place?
Steve Shallenberger: That’s a very interesting way to break up the day. How have you found that people can form the habit to get this clear? I’ve got a couple of follow-up questions on this, but this would be the first one. So, how do you get that clear in mind so that you can apply it? Where it depends a little bit on your profession, and then what you’re required to do, but nonetheless, I really liked this thinking, it’s a good thought.
Donna McGeorge: So, not all professions can do it. So, I’ve worked with school teachers who say it’s very hard for them to carve up their day. This is a different kind of need, and people who are on shift work in the medical profession, sometimes they don’t as well. For the rest of us, it starts with– I’m a fan of to-do lists. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in getting stuff out of your head and onto paper because I’m a big fan of private thinking space. So, as David Allen says, “The human mind is for having ideas, not storing them.” So, get stuff out of your head, so I’m a fan of to-do lists. But where it becomes really more powerful is that instead of just immediately writing a big long list, I think just before I write it down I go, “When is the best time for me to do that?” So, I have a model. I’ll share this with you, I’ll share a PDF and you can put up with the notes for the podcast. It’s basically a page carved in four. And when I go, “What kind of task is this?” And I go, “This is the first two hours, I need some thinking for this.” Or “This is the second two hours, I’m gonna talk to a bunch of people about this.” Or “This the third two hours.” So, the third two hours are follow-up, make a call, book something in, that real routine stuff. And fourth two hours are my preparation place, it’s things that my future self will thank me for. So, when I do that, there’s no point at which I go, “What should I be doing now?” I can look down at my schedule. So, that’s the first thing; you get yourself into a rhythm of before adding a task to a list just thinking “When’s the best time for me to do that?” So, if I was to show mine to you or if I was to look at someone else’s, I would expect the third two hours would have the most items in there because they’re usually the shortest, quickest, just get-through stuff, “Yes, yes, no, no, tick, tick,” that sort of stuff. The least amount of things would be in the first two hours because it’s two or three critical things that require my brain to be on. And then it’s possibly evenly spread amongst the second and fourth. So, I’ll share that with you, because that’s one of the first things you’ve got to do is get into the idea that there is a good time of day or get into the rhythm of a good time of day to do stuff.
Steve Shallenberger: Okay, we’ll be sure to provide that in the written transcript for the listeners. Thank you, Donna, for doing that. One of the follow-on questions I have, and I really enjoy this, this is helpful for me. I like thinking about how we can become more efficient. One of our very favorite poems, Donna, is “Good, better, best. Never let it rest. ‘Til the good is better and the better is best.” And what we’re talking about today is how do we make our good better and our better best in terms of time management? And I love the recommendations that you’re offering. How do you handle the interruptions, the unexpected things that come up during the day? And how do you manage those, Donna?
Donna McGeorge: So, there are a couple of things. First of all, if you’re still working in a virtual work-from-home, remote hybrid context; it’s a bit easier to stop interruptions because you can, quite frankly, just turn all notifications off, and not answer your phone, and check your email down, or put an auto-responder on or Do Not Disturb, whatever the technology is. So, that’s the first thing. And if anyone’s thinking, “Oh, I could never do that, what if my team needs me?” The first thing to overcome is your own limitations around that. So many people say to me, “Oh, I feel guilty when I protect my own time,” or “I should be available.” I’m like, “No, you’re allowed to have two hours to yourself. You’re allowed to. Permission granted, in case you need it. You’re allowed to.” If you’re in a physical context, there’s a whole bunch of physical things we can do that indicate to someone that you’re not to be interrupted. Because I think sometimes in our desire to be nice, we allow the interruption. So, one of the things I used to practice a bit when I worked in a context where people could interrupt me is if someone came to my desk, I would turn my body away from them but turn my head towards them. And just that signal says, “I’m not giving you my full attention right now.” That indicates that my full attention is elsewhere, but I’m acknowledging you. And it’s interesting how quickly people get that unconscious message that says, “Are you busy right now?” And so what they’ll say is, “Oh, do you have a second?” And I get to say, “No, actually, I’m actually working on something right now.” And they go, “Oh, it’ll only take five minutes.” It never takes five minutes, I’m telling you that for nothing. “Have you got a minute?” It’s never a minute; “You got five minutes?” It’s never five minutes. So, I would say to them, “Look, I will, in about half an hour.” And then I go find them. So, there’s that.
Donna McGeorge: Because it’s funny when people see you at your desk or door opening your office, they just assume you’re available. So, you can shut your door if you want to, that’s great. As long as people get the idea that the door is shut for only two hours a day. But I used to also leave my headset on. So, sometimes with my headset on, with my microphone, and stuff at my desk; people would assume I was then on a call or something like that. And you could see, they walk past you, and they look at you as “Are you available?” And you kind of give them that rushed smile with a nodding head saying, “Yeah, five minutes.” And you’d hold your thing and say, “Five minutes.” And those are the kinds of things. But really, the biggest thing is people, people learn really quickly about what your boundaries are. So, I’ve got a mate of mine who works in a really large professional services firm, very senior role. And everyone knows they never book a meeting with her at three o’clock because she does tea at three. She’s British. So, she has a cup of tea at three o’clock for half an hour every day. No one books a meeting with her. Now, I don’t think she’s particularly terrible. I don’t think she’s anything like that. They just know, “Amory has her tea at three, so we don’t book meetings around that time.” So, people learn quickly if you set the pattern.
Steve Shallenberger: Now, one of the things that I found interesting in your book, maybe you could just touch on it before we wrap things up today and get any final tips from you, and that is about how to spend time wisely. You talk about a thinking space, a breathing space, a living space, or a working space. Can you describe what those are? You described them in your book. And just give us a brief overview, what are those and how could those be helpful to us?
Donna McGeorge: Sure. So, I think of thinking and breathing space as our mental capacity, and so you’ll know you’re struggling. And sometimes people overlay these, but for the purposes of a book and a really clean model, I separated them out. But anyone that says things like, “I don’t have space to think. I don’t have the bandwidth. I feel like I’m being pulled in all directions.” Sometimes people will even say, “I just feel like I can’t breathe.” You just feel like the walls are closing in, and they may not physically be closing in, it’s just a mental thing; that would say to me that you don’t have enough mental capacity. So, in the book, I talk about how you get a little bit more thinking space in your world. And it’s things like wiping the mind, protecting some time. In breathing space I talked about, you’ve got to be very selective about who you give your time and attention to. In the living and working space, it’s a bit more of the physical capacity. So, I think about, when people say to me, “I’m always running late. I can never get going. The kids are a hassle. I just feel like everything’s hard.” That would say to me that there’s too much friction in your world that everything you got to do is full of friction. So, where can you remove friction? And it’s little things – good old Ben Franklin, “A place for everything and everything in its place.” The car keys go in a spot, the school bags go in a spot. So, that’s your living space. So, then working space is quite literally, “Am I delegating appropriately? Am I clustering and batching my work? Am I doing things like the first two hours framework to make sure that my day is being used at its most effective?” They are four spaces. Now, are there other spaces? You bet, yeah. But they’re the four that I refer to in the book.
Steve Shallenberger: I love it. And I love the idea on the little things. Donna has mentioned, for example, having a place to put your keys. One of our sons, Stephen, along with Rob were both F-16 fighter pilots. And so their world is a very precise world. And Stephen, along with his wife and children, happened to be visiting during a holiday. And he took the opportunity to organize a key space and create little boxes with the little tag for each key that went there, and it’s right inside a cupboard in the back entry door where we come in. And that has now been three or four or five years, we go, “Knock on wood, don’t lose keys.”
Donna McGeorge: We don’t. And the other thing is when you think about when you’ve got to leave the house, what are you looking for? So, it could be a purse, a wallet, or it could be sunglasses, or keys, or lip balm. What are the things you know, that just always drive you crazy when you’re leaving the house? So, we’re the same, we’ve always had a spot for keys so I can get out of the car and the keys go back there, so I never have to think about it ever.
Steve Shallenberger: Same with your wallet. Fortunately, phones have little bells on.
Donna McGeorge: They do indeed. But that happens, people lose their phones. What’s the spot for your phone when you put it down? Most of the time, unfortunately, it’s in people’s hands most of the time. But that’s a topic for a whole other conversation.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that is a whole nother conversation. I loved one of those, the other day I had on a podcast when we were talking about communication, and the person said, “If you have your phone in your hand and you’re there with another person communicating, put it away.” There are a few things more offensive and saying, “I’m not listening.”
Donna McGeorge: Well, it implies that, at any moment, something more important than you is going to happen. So, it takes away the value and the importance of being in the moment, being fully present. Fully agree with that one.
Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, that’s true. Well, this has been a delight to have you on today. Final tips for our listeners, Donna.
Donna McGeorge: I think, probably, at least once a day, you should be thinking “Is there something I’m doing today? Am I protecting time today to do something that my future self will thank me for?” It could be physical exercise, it could be eating well, it can be protecting time or it could be working on a project that isn’t due for a couple of weeks. But just putting the work in today will make your future self happier and more relaxed, I guess.
Steve Shallenberger: Absolutely. I think that’s part of the bottom line of everything we’re talking about is, how can we be more at peace as we, at the same time, really make a big difference in the world? And that’s what we’re talking about today is how do we become more efficient, more effective, and these are really great tips. So, thank you. And Donna, tell us how we can find out more about you.
Donna McGeorge: Probably the easiest way is just DonnaMcGeorge.com. Having said that, I’ve been told I’m a shameless self-promoter on social media. So, you’ll find me on all good platforms. And my name is a bit unusual, Donna McGeorge, if you search it, you’ll find me. I think there’s only one of me on LinkedIn. So, that’s probably the best way to get ahold of me.
Steve Shallenberger: And how about the book? Where could they find the book?
Donna McGeorge: All major online providers. I know, I’m in some Brick & Mortar Books shops. But probably the easiest is whatever your favorite online bookstore is, you’ll find me there.
Steve Shallenberger: That’s awesome. And that’s “The 1 Day Refund” by Donna McGeorge. Thank you so much for being part of this show today.
Donna McGeorge: Thanks for having me, Steve. I appreciate it.
Steve Shallenberger: We’ve loved it. And we wish all of you all of our listeners, the very best we’re so grateful that you listen in. It’s a privilege for us and an honor to be able to share time with you. We wish you the best today. As always, this is Steve Shallenberger, signing off.
Global Authority in Time-Management and Productivity, Best-Selling Author