Let’s talk about workload.
I often get asked about prioritisation, especially now, it seems that more than ever people have significantly more work than they have hours to do it in, and so the question that gets asked is “How can I manage my time to get all this done?”
Back in 2019 when I was leading a finance team, I had a member who came to me and asked that question. He had a list of things that he needed to do, and he recognised that there was no way that he could do it all, so, rightly, he came to me, his manager, and asked how he was going to get through it all before he went on holiday.
We sat down with a coffee that afternoon to go through the list together, and I quickly spotted that about 50% of the list didn’t actually need doing, at all. It could just have a line put through it and an email sent to the requestor saying “No”. Of the remainder about half of that didn’t need doing right now, meaning that what he actually had to prioritise was about 25% of the original list, which was easy to deliver in the timescales he had.
So, when someone comes to you and says, “How can I get all of this done?”, or when you think as a team, “How will we achieve all this?”, or even as an individual you look at your list and thinking, “How will I get through all this?”, stop.
You’re asking the wrong question.
The question you need to ask is, “What on this list doesn’t need doing?”.
Now, this is a pretty challenging question, surely everything on your list needs doing, otherwise it wouldn’t be on your list; but, no, your list is probably full of things that you’ve picked up for, or from, someone else. It’s probably got actions on it that are better done by another person, that relate to someone’s pet project, or that are simply no longer valid.
There’s undoubtedly some stuff on there that you just don’t need to be involved in, we all have that email chain that we want to reply to (even though your response will add no value, but you want to be seen to respond).
So, how can you get rid of all that? How can you do less, to focus on the stuff that’s actually important?
Start With What’s Required
There will be things in your list that aren’t required, that are straight up nice to haves.
There will be things that you’re involved in that you don’t need to be; things that someone else can (and probably should) be doing; things that you’re trying to solve because your ego won’t let it go, even though you’re not the right person to solve it.
You need to get rid of all of this stuff; if you don’t need to be involved in it, then step out of it. Send a message that says, “It looks like you guys have got this, so I’m going to step out, let me know if you need me.”.
The things that someone else should be doing, or that someone else would do better than you; delegate to the people who should be doing them, or that are better able to do them.
In short, if it isn’t required, then get rid of it. This will require that you learn to delegate, watch out for a post on this in the future.
What’s Not Adding Value
There will be things that you’ve been asked to do, sometimes by a senior leader, that aren’t adding any value, either to you or to the organisation.
A one off report that you’ve been asked to produce, or a repeating report that always just vanishes into a black hole. The meeting that you’ve been asked to set up so that one group of people that you’re not involved in can talk to another group of people you’re not involved in. The pet project that you’ve found yourself caught up in, either someone else’s or your own.
Just stop doing these things, stop doing them, and wait to see if anyone notices.
If someone does notice, you can say you were focussing on higher value work, and put in back on your task list, but if they don’t (and they probably won’t), then you just saved yourself a lot of time and stress.
What Doesn’t Need Doing Right Now
So, now we’re into things that are required and that do have a value, so you should probably do them, but do they need to be done right now?
If your list just looks like a pile of things all of which look like they need doing right now, then you’re likely to find yourself paralysed by the sheer quantity of it all. So, you need to find a way to hide out all the things that need doing, add value, but that can wait until the future.
There’s a couple of ways that you can do this, you can use your diary, you can use a filter, or you can use a someday bucket.
One of the most effective strategies I found was to put a date filter on my task list in outlook that meant I didn’t see anything that was scheduled for more than 10 days out. That way I could schedule long-term project tasks and then have them hide in the future, filtered out of my view, until I needed to be aware of them.
You’ve got rid of the things that other people should be doing, the things that don’t need doing at all, and the things that doing need doing right now. You’re left with tasks that are required, are due soon, and that are best done by you.
Perfect, so what order should you do them in? What should you do first?
For that, you’re going to need additional information on each item:
- How Does it Fit In? — What’s the point? Why does it need doing? What strategic goal does this piece of work enable or deliver? Understanding the strategic importance helps you understand the priority you should give the task, and if the task has no strategic priority, then maybe it should be in one of the other buckets that we’ve been talking about.
- When is it Needed For? — How can you understand the priority of one thing against all the other things if you don’t know the various deadlines? We blindly accept so many tasks by email or in a meeting without establishing the actual deadline, instead we assume that everything needs to be done now, no wonder we freeze when it comes to figuring out which to do first!
- What Does the Output Look Like? — Flexible leaders who are focussed on output should be establishing this directly, but if they aren’t, then you need to find out, you want to avoid wasting your time producing one thing when really you should be doing something different. Equally, you want to avoid spending hours making something beautiful when something functional will do. Remember the 80/20 principle; you can almost always get 80% of the benefit from 20% of the work.
And how do you get this information? Well, you ask.
If you ask these questions from a genuine place, seeking to understand, and explain that without this information you can’t really prioritise your workload, then people will respond.
If you ask from a place of wanting to push your agenda, or of wanting to ‘get out of’ doing this work, people will sense that too.
Do Less, Achieve More.
Now you have a list of only the things that you actually need to do, and you can prioritise those things based on their strategic importance, when they need to be completed, and the effort required.
Your list will be shorter than it was at the beginning, but also, you will understand that not everything needs to be done right now, or even today, and not everything is of earth-shattering strategic importance. In short; you will have a sense of proportion.
Be open and honest about the decisions you’re making, if you think a task is better done by someone, then tell them, and tell them why you think that.
Equally, if you’re dumping something because it adds no value, then be brave and be honest about it, you might find that it has value that you’ve missed, if that’s the case, then you can bring it back, and you’ve learned something to boot.
Culture tells us that we need to do more, be more productive, fit more in to less time, be more efficient, but what if we just tried to accomplish only the things that matter? What if we did less, but achieved more? Wouldn’t that be better?