Top Priorities First

But you can’t put off forever those minor things on your To Do List that must be done. Set aside regular times for them and then reward yourself.

Q: I’m torn. Is it better to bang through my to-do list, or prioritize? When I prioritize, there are tasks I literally never get around to – hello, expense reports from November 2017. But if I go straight down the list, I feel anxious because I’m wasting time on manini stuff, like expense reports from November 2017. Which is the better approach?   

A: I love to-do lists. Paper, electronic … swoon! But as I am not an actual personal productivity expert, I took your question to Peggy Duncan, author of “The Time Management Memory Jogger.”

“For work you deem unimportant but needs to be done, set aside a place to put it (a desk tray, file drawer, etc.),” she says. “Then block time on your calendar to get it done by scheduling a recurring meeting with the work.” No email, phone calls or other disruptions during this set meeting time – you’ve got a hot date with your backlog. Then it’s positive reinforcement time: “Afterward, treat yourself to something special,” says Duncan. “For me, it’s ice cream.” Funny, I feel a sudden urge to deal with my long-postponed filing.

Q: I own a marketing and communications firm and feel like my team is a little burned out. I want to help them think more creatively. Should I make them try improv?    

A: Yes, and…

Sorry, to back up, “Yes, and,” is a key concept of improv – the idea that you agree with whatever is happening and build on it. Otherwise, the whole skit screeches to a halt. It’s a pretty liberating and creative way to experience life, and a reason that improv training can help with a variety of issues and settings, from enhancing relationships in the workplace, to improving presentation skills, even building compassion among caregivers for Alzheimer’s patients.

“Improv teaches us how to be comfortable trying new ideas, and more importantly, how to accept new ideas,” says Rory Franzen, one of the directors of the Honolulu-based nonprofit, Improv in Paradise. The “yes, and” is especially important to you as the owner of the company.

“The first thing I make clear is that management has to be prepared to change their style, along with that of their employees,” says Aaron Pughes, another director at Improv in Paradise. When managers say “yes,” they’re accepting that change is needed to make work life better, he explains. The second part of the improv concept, the “and,” means they’re willing to make the change and want to bring everybody else along for the ride, he says. “If only one side changes and the other remains stagnant, work life becomes frustrating, with creative ideas being denied, using old reasons. Both sides need to be excited to get out of their comfort zone, try something new and work together to create something unexpected.”

Business workshops can be about two to three hours long or broken into multiple shorter workshops. To find a good fit, contact Improv in Paradise. (

Choose a program that focuses on relationships, suggests Franzen. “All improv will help with communication, creative thinking and teamwork. Relationship-based improv is the most adaptable to real-world situations and is directly relatable to your workplace.”

Q: I’ve got a great job with fabulous colleagues and management that looks out for the staff. What’s the problem? I’m single with no kids – the lone wolf in an office of happy family people. Management encourages everybody to take time off for their kids’ games, recitals and parent-teacher conferences, but what about me? Just because I don’t have kids doesn’t mean I don’t have stuff. Do I have to have a kid before I can slip out for two hours occasionally to do something I want to do?

A: Sorry to disillusion you but “happy family people” are complicated. There are exhausted family people, trying to cram in the work they missed while attending that recital or urgent school-council update on campus safety. There are grateful family people, because watching a keiki’s face light up when you walk into an auditorium is a tremendous feeling. And there are underpaid family people. According to the National Women’s Law Center, women overall make 80 cents for every dollar that men make, but mothers who work full time outside the home make even less: 71 cents for every dollar dads make. That’s what researchers call the “motherhood penalty.”

It may be hard for you to imagine, but for many a juggling, stressed parent, a day of uninterrupted productivity at work – no one calling about an ear infection – is considered a luxury.

What about you? By all means, you can and should take time off for activities that benefit your health, your education or the community, if your company allows it. Maybe you’re leaving early for your canoe club or an MBA class. Or you’re civic minded and want to take a day off to be a poll worker on Election Day. Hats off! And just because you are child-free, you should not be expected to work extra-long hours, take more than your fair share of business trips or be denied a pay raise “because you don’t need it.” You have the right to a full life, no matter your reproductive and marital status. Equality needs to go both ways.

Q: My co-workers are constantly interrupting me, and I feel like I’m getting nothing done all day. Can you help me, before I stab someone with one of the kitchenette’s plastic forks? 

A: Ouch. Slow death by dull cutlery. Try this method from the University of Washington instead. A new study from Sophie Leroy, an assistant professor at the UW Bothell School of Business, says the problem of being interrupted is actually twofold. One, you’re pulled out of your work, and two, there’s an “attention residue,” where you continue to worry about Task A, even while being pulled on to Task B. The human brain does not like to switch away from incomplete work, she notes. This attention residue is especially keen, Leroy found in her research, if there are deadlines. Her solution? Help your brain disengage and re-engage seamlessly by having a “ready-to-resume” plan. Jot down a note, a line, something: where you were, where to resume, what you were doing, what action you need to take next. Then look Ms. or Mr. Interruptus in the eye, rather than stabbing them there with that sporkette.


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