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WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE'S TOO MUCH TO DOReduce Tasks, Increase Results, and Save 90 Minutes a Day
By LAURA STACK
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Laura Stack
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDetermine What to Do
The first step in the Productivity Workflow Formula is to determine what you should be working on. When you implement this step correctly, instead of having 117 things on your to-do list, you may end up with just ten tasks, or five, or even three ... but they'll be the right ones. And don't worry: Once you have the proper processes in place, you can revisit all the others systematically and get them done in their place.
In this chapter, I'll show you how to reduce your commitments to an efficient core group of tasks. In the end, you'll produce for your organization at a record level and work fewer hours than ever before.
Workplace productivity, in its most meaningful sense, is all about achieving high-value goals—preferably in the shortest time possible. And make no mistake about it: At the end of the day, all that truly matters is results. What did you actually accomplish? Did your accomplishments advance the organization's goals in some measurable way? If not, why not? If you just kept busy while not appreciably moving forward, why did you bother?
Never confuse activity with productivity. Everyone has too much to do, and nobody really cares how many tasks you crossed off a list or how busy you were last week if key projects keep falling through the cracks.
Therefore, you must pare down your commitments to include only those things that truly matter for you and your organization. Remember: your goal here is to reduce your responsibilities to a reasonable level, so you can go home at a sensible time and have a life outside of work—not try to take on everything, and punish yourself constantly with sixteen-hour days. That will result in plummeting productivity and burnout.
WHY DO YOU HAVE SO MUCH TO DO?
When you look at your to-do list, does it scare you? Your list is so long, an entire team of people couldn't finish it all. Looking at your huge to-do list, you might feel as though you'll be buried forever and never see the light of day. So before I begin to describe how to reduce your commitments to a reasonable, consistently workable level, let's take a step back and look at the reasons why most of us always seem to have too much to do.
Too many options. There are so many seemingly "good" things to do, and often we want to do as many as we can. The result is a huge running to-do list that doesn't distinguish between today, next week, next month, and next year. Without a separation between the lists, many people stare at a to-do list with hundreds of items on it and have a difficult time choosing what to do when faced with an open thirty minutes.
Bad math. We take inputs without producing outputs. We accept projects, allow interruptions, go to meetings, answer calls, and check e-mail ... and our to-do list grows longer, but nothing valuable gets checked off.
Pavlovian response. We're slaves to our technology, environment, noises, and brains. We can't overcome inertia, get in the flow, and focus on completing a single task. We respond immediately to every chime, ding, and noise.
Indecision. We don't determine whether tasks are in or out or even relevant or not, so we leave them on our lists, which causes us to have to repeat the evaluation process again—putting them back into our 'decide later' consciousness, lengthening our to-do lists, filling our inboxes, and expanding our perceptions of how much we have to do.
Disorganization. Our tech toys can't keep up with the speed of thought. This is especially inconvenient if you're in a restaurant, meeting, or on a plane with all your electronic devices off, and you think of something to do. We need ways to capture inputs back into the system.
Fear. We can't say no to anything that doesn't meet our stated objectives. We're afraid to take action to cut out the time we waste each day on nonproductive activities.
Lack of direction. We lack clarity from our leadership and haven't taken the time to harness our own focus to determine what really matters. Or we're not aligned with strategy from top to bottom; consequently, we don't have clear priorities. Often, our actual work doesn't reflect our job descriptions or what the boss actually thinks we are/should be doing.
In reality, many of the things on our to-do lists are unnecessary time-stealers. In most cases, they were added because somebody thought it might be a good idea. Watch out for "somebody"; they're not necessarily interested in helping you be productive. In fact, the things they're giving you to do are the things they don't want to do. In other words, they feel those tasks aren't worth their time ... so they decide to steal your time instead. To top it off, many of us voluntarily take on tasks that are seemingly unnecessary at first glance (and may actually be), but end up burning time we could otherwise use to be productive.
To get control over your schedule, you must first eliminate anything that doesn't have long-term consequences for your work. Philosopher William James once wrote, "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." In other words, in trying to determine what to do, you must first eliminate those tasks that don't enhance your productive value.
WHAT IS YOUR PRODUCTIVE VALUE?
How do you determine your value? Look at what you do from your employer's viewpoint. Simply put, the more productive you are, the more valuable you are to your organization. And let me qualify that by saying where this really matters is in the long term. If you shine brightly for a year by working eighty-hour weeks until your body gives up and literally falls over, then your productive value, while extraordinary for a little while, isn't particularly impressive when viewed from a wider perspective. Your organization would rather get ten years of steadily productive work out of you than one extraordinary year before you burn out.
Reducing your commitment load to the bare minimum, so you can most effectively use your time at work (and still enjoy life and recharge for more work), makes you more valuable to the organization. Some bosses lose sight of that sometimes; but most will realize this is in fact the case (especially if you send them a photocopy or scan of this section of the book), and will prefer to keep you rather than lose you permanently ... one way or another. If you're self-employed, this isn't as much of an issue. But it's still apropos in terms of how it affects your organization, whether you operate a sole proprietorship or an up-and-coming Inc. 500 firm.
So What's Your Personal ROI?
The concept of Personal Return on Investment (PROI) is one that's been steadily gaining currency in the business world over the past few years. While the term can be defined in several ways, in common usage it's just what it sounds like: the investment potential that you, as an employee, offer to your organization. Now, I realize that it may seem somewhat degrading to be treated (and especially to treat yourself) as a mere investment ... but to some extent, that's precisely what you are: your organization's investment in its human capital.
Like any other resource, you're only as good as your PROI. The harsh realities of survival in the Great Recession have hammered this point home to employers and employees alike. As a modern worker, you've got to be hard-nosed about your ultimate value to your employer. You ignore this at your peril.
Elsewhere in the business world, ROI is defined as the profit realized from a resource minus the original and ongoing investment. It's no different with Personal ROI. In addition to your pay, the organization is probably providing you with various benefits, as well as regular training and/or education, experience in your field, and personal stability. What are you providing in return? The organization is pumping resources and cash into you, so how are you repaying them?
You'd better be returning a substantial multiple of your investment on a consistent basis—and, more important, you have to be able to prove you are. Before you can do that effectively, you'll need to sit down and determine what you bring to the table. Perform a tough, even brutal self-assessment of your value, focusing on these factors:
What are you really good at?
What makes you special?
What distinguishes you from your peers?
How do you personally help the organization achieve its corporate goals?
As a business resource, your value is dollar-driven. A good rule of thumb is you should be able to prove you've earned or saved the organization at least three times your base salary every single year.
In some jobs, proving your PROI is easy. If you're a salesman who's just landed a $5,000,000 account, it's easy to point to that accomplishment. But not every job directly results in corporate income. For example, what if you work in Human Resources or Customer Service? Well, you'll need to dig deeper for your provable PROI, by showing how deft you are at hiring profitable, productive workers, or maintaining intra-departmental harmony, or soothing the feathers of irate customers—whatever the case may be for your particular position.
If you ever find yourself coming up short, you must be willing to invest your personal capital, especially your time and energy, toward increasing your PROI, so you can thereby make yourself more attractive. In addition to working hard, fast, and smart, don't hesitate to ask for more training or institute new systems to maximize efficiency and performance in your job. These preventive measures are short-term in nature, and they'll pay time-saving (and PROI) dividends for a long time to come.
In calculating your PROI, be reasonably creative about what you've accomplished, and don't leave out anything that might be relevant. Do you have a tendency to finish projects early and under budget? Include that in your assessment, because you've saved the organization money. Are you good with clients, able to develop a positive relationship that lasts for years? Then you've earned the organization money, because that's where profits come from: multiple sales to repeat customers (at a decent margin, of course).
You may not be able to provide a specific dollar amount or percentage for your personal PROI, but you should be able to demonstrate that without you, the organization would be worse off. This is also a great exercise to perform prior to your performance evaluation, so you can have an intelligent conversation with your supervisor about what you've accomplished in the past period.
And never forget this: You can't assume anyone will automatically realize your worth. So in addition to being able to prove your PROI when called upon, be proactive about stepping forward and demonstrating that hiring you was a positive investment decision. This is especially true if you feel you're undervalued, or if some unscrupulous coworker attempts to take the credit for your work. As the saying goes, the squeaky wheel gets the grease; but be careful here, because obnoxious squeakiness can get you the boot instead.
Demonstrate by your actions and initiative that you're worthy. Then be politely assertive, though not aggressive, in pointing out your PROI to those who matter in your organization— so you can maximize your value both to the organization and to yourself.
You may discover that determining what's truly important is one of your biggest challenges. How do you know if something you do is important? Sometimes a task's importance isn't immediately obvious. You need some simple guidelines to channel your efforts.
First, start with your job requirements. Think in terms of results, not a vague-sounding title or general tasks. What did the organization really hire you to do? Ask yourself, "Why am I here?" At the very minimum, what do your superiors expect you to accomplish on a daily, weekly, monthly, or even an annual basis?
If you made a list of the top ten things you believe you're responsible for, and then asked your manager to do the same, and compared the two lists, would they be the same? If not, you have a problem, because you aren't spending your time in ways that are valuable to your best customer. Know your manager's requirements cold, both the formal ones on your job description and the informal ones your boss expects you to do anyway. Keep the notes from your last performance review front and center, and make sure you're making progress on them daily.
For example, in a small company such as mine, I'm both the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO). As the CEO of my organization, I'm responsible for mapping our strategic direction and building our brand. I need to understand trends, conduct research, and write books. As the President, I'm the rainmaker. My job is to give killer keynotes and seminars on strategic platforms, so the referrals and recommendations continue to build the business. This requires me to practice my performances, continuously update my programs, and talk to clients. It's incumbent on me to delegate, hire out, contract, ignore, or eliminate anything that doesn't "fit" into one of those buckets. I don't know how to use the fax machine or the postage meter. I could use them, of course, but I shouldn't be doing that at my level, so I simply refuse to touch it.
Just because a task is important doesn't mean you're the right person to do it, and even if you are, you still might be doing more work than is necessary. Ask yourself:
Are you doing things someone else could or should be doing? If so, take steps to rectify the situation.
Are you working below your pay grade? It's a mistake to waste time on something if someone else can do it more cheaply. Delegate everything you can.
Are you letting brushfires and crises take up your time? Why? Whose crisis is it?
Can you cut back on the output of some tasks without others complaining? Do they matter in the end analysis?
Second, determine what's personally important to you: What do you need to do before you leave the office to feel good about what you've accomplished? Be sensible and try to limit yourself to a few core tasks. If you're having trouble determining a task's value, then weigh the consequences of not getting it done. Consider how much each task is really worth, based on the results you achieve and the amount of time you have to spend on it. Who or what would suffer? You? Anyone? If you didn't do it at all, would anyone notice? If you can't figure out why a task needs to be done at all, stop doing it and see what happens. I'm serious. If someone screams, consider putting it back on your list—but only if it's something that affects you in some significant way. As my father (a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force) used to tell me, "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than to get permission." I tested that one a lot and it generally worked. If I got yelled at, that was a pretty good clue.
For every task, ask, "Who is affected by it, and how?" Remember, you're the most important person in this equation. Is the task a job requirement? Formal or informal? Does it contribute to your immediate objectives? Is it related to your long-term goals? (Do you have long-term goals?) Is it necessary to achieve those goals? If the task only benefits someone else without noticeably impacting you in any way, then why are you doing it? If possible, hand it off to the person whom it directly affects, and tell them you won't be doing it anymore.
The general idea here is to cut, cut, and cut more. It's best to not have a task on a list in the first place than to continue to think about it, prioritize it, and organize it. Simplify your goals and objectives to a point where you feel good about what you've accomplished each day, week, or month, and your employer feels even better about the results (you've exceeded your PROI).
TRACKING DOWN TIME-WASTERS
Of all the resources available to us, time is certainly the most precious. Unlike office supplies or even money, it's impossible to get more; there's no box marked "Time" in the supply closet where you can grab a spare minute or two. Once time is spent, it's gone, and you can't get it back. And yet, we invariably waste it. Every minute wasted keeps us from doing things we've determined we should be doing.
You can't afford to waste time at work. A firm grasp of time management is absolutely crucial if you want to succeed in your workload reduction efforts. When you "manage time," you're ultimately just managing yourself. Where do you need to practice better self-management?
Excerpted from WHAT TO DO WHEN THERE'S TOO MUCH TO DO by LAURA STACK Copyright © 2012 by Laura Stack. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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