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October 24, 2011
What Tina Fey Taught Me About Time Management
 
When Tina Fey was first promoted to head writer at SNL, she was stressed over all the sketches she had to edit and felt there was no way she could have the show ready in time. So she asked Lorne Michaels, the executive producer, “What happens if it’s not ready? And Lorne replied, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30.”
 
Nothing like a hard-stop deadline to give you focus.
When you’re facing 90 minutes of dead air time on national TV, not having the show ready is not an option. If you’ve ever watched an entire SNL show (not just the Will Ferrell highlights), you know that some of the sketches could probably have used a little more attention and tweaking. Big whoop. Because that’s nothing compared to the fact that they have never missed creating a full show for 36 years. While you may not have such a highly public deadline for your projects, you know the feeling of having to get something done when there is absolutely, positively no extension. The last train of the night is taking off. The new buyers take possession tomorrow morning. The bin Laden story has to be written in an hour or it will miss getting in the print version. It focuses you and somehow you get the job done in the time you have.
 
Do you spend an hour on a five-minute job?
In addition to helping you get tasks done, deadlines also keep you from spending too much time on projects that should only take a few minutes. Replying to a meeting request, straightening your desk, or sorting through your home mail should take just a short time. It’s easy to get sidetracked and suddenly an hour has gone by with no tangible results. There’s a famous saying called Parkinson’s Law that states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” You know how much time it takes to get basic tasks done. So limit yourself to that amount of time, then move on.
 
How do you create deadlines when there’s no hard-stop deadline?
As exciting as running on adrenaline can be, you don’t want to have crushing, hard-stop deadlines as the only way to get things done. So how do you create deadlines when there isn’t a do-or-die one? Here are some suggestions:
  1. Allot a specific chunk of time to just focus on one task — no multitasking.  I will spend 60 minutes writing a post and nothing else.
  2. Commit to someone in person or on the phone. Sounds simple?  It’s the main reason Alcoholic Anonymous works so well. If it can keep drinkers sober, it can keep you on task.
  3. Consider getting a professional coach. They’re like a Wingman on steroids.
Just go for 95% perfect.
You may be thinking, though, that some things really do require an extra amount of love and attention because you want it to be just perfect. Your big presentation at an industry show, your proposal for a book, or your dinner party with your in-laws. Absolutely; you want to spend a good amount of time creating something magnificent. But where is the point of diminishing returns? Here’s what a wise creative mentor told me when I was producing my first radio commercial. After a couple of hours it sounded great but I still wanted to edit it to Be Perfect. The mentor pulled me aside and explained that these little perfectionist tweaks could take at least another two hours. He explained that you want to get something so it’s 95% perfect, because that last 5% is at going to at least double the effort and expense. And besides, that last 5% is usually subjective anyway.
 
Remember, if Tina Fey waited until she thought all her scripts were 100% perfect in her opinion, you would have no idea who she is because Lorne Michaels would have fired her at the start.

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As the editorial director of Mojo40.com, Susan Kim’s goal is to help people over 40 get their career mojo back with content that is helpful, entertaining, and free of marketing-ese like shifting paradigms. She previously was the creative director at advertising.com (AOL). You can connect with her via LinkedIn and Twitter.
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