The Grand Delusion of Time Management and Writing

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Imagine a new kind of material so elastic that you can use it to create a container with infinite capacity. No matter the original size of the container, its sides can stretch and stretch to fit whatever you put in it. And here’s the really amazing part: as it stretches, the container takes up no more space than it did in its original shape.

Now, I know there’s some incredible work going on right now in the world of materials engineering, some of it right here in Atlantic Canada. But I also know that certain physical laws are inescapable. When something expands into a space, it must displace what’s there.

Why, then, do I persist in viewing the space in my calendar as if it were endlessly stretchable within a fixed 24 hours? This is a challenge I’ve struggled with my entire life, and I have a shelf of time management books to prove it.

My time-management issue reminds me of a similar struggle I see playing out in a lot of client writing. Within the bounds of a single document, such as a sales email or proposal, writers try to cram in every feature and benefit the target audience could possibly be interested in, today or tomorrow.

In both cases, the symptom of over-stuffing the container comes from the same root cause: confusion over priorities.

What does “priority” mean to you? In my distorted approach to time management, I tend to think of a priority as just one of several pressing issues. That’s why I’ve never been able to work with the famous Eisenhower matrix (popularized by Stephen Covey as the four quadrants). When I look at my to-do list or my calendar, everything looks urgent to me. I have trouble identifying the items that take precedence over the others. I find it hard to create a hierarchy of importance, with just one “number one” at the top.

In truth, we can have just one priority. A priority isn’t just one of a handful of important things. It’s THE most important thing.

In any given day, my task list includes at least a few mission-critical items. But only one of them is the most critical, the true priority. And, as I’m slowly learning, once I get focused on that one task, the rest of my to-do’s somehow all fall into line. I stop trying to over-expand my calendar, and zero in on what I can realistically do within the number of hours available to me.

Picking a priority for the day requires a ruthlessness that is new to me—but only in the context of my calendar. As a writer, I learned long ago that it’s impossible to produce a clear, cogent document unless you choose one main, controlling idea and refuse all distractions.

Sounds a lot like Porter’s definition of business strategy, doesn’t it? To move a business forward, you need to decide not just what you will do but also what you WON’T do. And you need to stick to that decision like a bride dieting to fit into her wedding dress.

When you’re crafting a piece of writing—whether that’s an email, a report, a proposal, or the copy for your website—you also need to practice strategic refusal. Don’t fall into the grand delusion I’ve fallen into with my calendar. Don’t pretend the writing space you have available is endlessly expandable. Sure, you can easily add another page, and yes, web users can easily scroll down. But the real space you’re working with isn’t physical. It’s the limited attention span of your readers, which is related to the way our brains process information.

The grand delusion tells us a document can target multiple priorities, that we can address, in a single piece of writing, all the potential needs and interests an audience might have. But here’s the harsh reality: in most situations, you have just seconds to capture an audience’s attention. You can do that only by focusing in on a single priority that aligns with what matters to them.

Persuasion is a game of ultimates. You must show your audience, as quickly as you can, that their ultimate priority is your ultimate priority. And you must adhere to that priority with extreme dedication so as to create a consistent, memorable message. Consistent focus builds trust, even though it may mean sacrificing ideas and data you find compelling.

Pick one key message for a document and own it. Otherwise, you’ll confuse your readers because the human brain requires a clear hierarchy of ideas in order to make sense of written content.

Moment by moment, our brains take in far more information than they can ever store in a way that makes it retrievable. Make it easy for your readers to recognize, file, and remember the information you’re presenting. Give them one big idea they can hold on to rather than three biggish ideas that will be difficult to sort and recall.

Yes, this means making some tough decisions. That’s what producing persuasive writing is all about. It’s a strategic process that requires laser-like focus and commitment.

For instance, let’s say you’re trying to sell a potential client on the benefits of a new textile material your company has developed. That material can do many things. It can repel water, stretch to twice its original size, last for 20 years, reflect light, and the list goes on. If your client is a manufacturer of athletic outerwear, then you might focus on the ability to repel water, linking that property of the fabric to the manufacturing process, which also ensures durability. In this case, you would decide NOT to emphasize the fabric’s stretchiness. However, if you were pitching a manufacturer of outerwear for the plus-sized market, then your pitch might center on the value of stretchiness, with some of the fabric’s other virtues taking a supporting role in presenting that core idea.

If my calendar struggles remind you of writing challenges you face, then make this your new mantra: Tune into your audience’s priority and tune out any content irrelevant to that.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never mention the rest of the juicy content you have to share. It just means you’ll need to create the right opportunity to offer it to your audience in a way that will enable them to focus on it. If you focus on one priority message at a time, you’ll open the door to additional messages and to live conversations, through which you can explore issues in more depth while building credibility and trust.

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