We all complain about being busy: too much to do, too many emails, too many meetings. Our modern workplace demands so much from us.
Technology promised us an increase in productivity that never really eventuated. You may have all of the high-tech productivity tools at your disposal to help you plan your time and manage your priorities, but are you really leveraging this technology to meet the challenges of the 21st century workplace? Are you working smart?
1. Centralize your actions
Most of us made the transition from paper planners to electronic calendars more than a decade ago. We have one place where we centralize all of our meetings, and we collaborate with other people’s schedules using an electronic scheduling system.
Yet, when it comes to the other side of our activity management and task management, most of us are still very reliant on paper systems, and tend to manage our priorities in fragmented, ineffective piles – piles of emails in our inbox, piles of paper on our desk, piles of actions in our notepad and piles of thoughts in our head. No wonder we are stressed, reactive and behind the eight-ball.
One of the most powerful ways of getting in control of your priorities is to embrace technology and centralize all of your tasks into the task system that sits alongside your calendar in your scheduling tool.
Most organizations use Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes or Google Calendar as their email and scheduling tool. All of these tools have powerful task systems built into them, yet few people use electronic task systems to manage their priorities. It’s time to pull yourself into the 21st century!
The benefits are huge. You will be able to schedule tasks by date and create action lists for specific days. This will ensure you manage your priorities more proactively, and will help you to balance your meeting and task workloads. Best of all, as many of your actions are driven by email, you will be able to schedule emails into your task list or into your calendar for action at the appropriate time.
2. Organize your inputs
Once you have a solid system in place for managing your actions, you need to think about how you deal with inputs. You probably receive many inputs every day – emails, paperwork, phone calls, interruptions, meeting actions.
Inputs present a number of challenges for the modern worker. First, there is the volume. Where a few years ago, 100 emails per day was a lot, now 300 per day is common. Second, the way most people tend to manage these inputs is problematic. Many of us have hundreds (if not thousands) of emails piled up in our inboxes. We desperately try to stay on top of the pile, marking emails unread or flagging them to maintain visibility of the emails that still need our attention. But it just causes stress, reactivity and missed deadlines.
*The secret to staying on top of your incoming work is to treat your inbox like a mailbox. It is simply where you receive emails. It should not be used as a to-do list or a filing system. It should be cleared to zero atm least once per week. When you process your emails, be decisive. Delete what you don’t need. File the things you are finished with but feel you need to keep (and remember that a few well thought-out folders will be quicker and more effective than a complicated filing hierarchy). Delegate anything that is not a good use of your time.*
Most importantly, schedule your actions into your task list or calendar rather than keeping them highlighted in your inbox. This will give you greater control over your actions, as you will be managing the priority within the context of your time.
3. Realize your outcomes
How often do you feel like your job has become a series of endless meetings and emails? What about the time you need to work on the really meaningful work? That time just seems to evaporate or get stolen by somebody else’s urgent crises. While meetings and emails are a critical way of getting stuff done, your ability to deliver in your role requires more. It requires time to think, to plan and to work on the activities that are driven by your outcomes, rather than just your inputs.
Many executives I work with complain about not being able to find time for the important work. But you will never find time for this – you have to make time in your schedule. You need to proactively schedule time for the important stuff and then protect it fiercely. You should protect it from the other people who want to steal your time away, but also from yourself, as it is easy to procrastinate over the more complex work that contributes to our outcomes.
The best way to create a connection between your outcomes and your actions is to invest time in personal planning. Sometimes we need to stop doing and take some time to plan and prioritize. Having a robust weekly planning routine in place is a good way to build a habit around this. Each week, review last week, organize next week, anticipate what is coming up and realign your priorities with what you are trying to achieve – your outcomes.
Tools like Microsoft Outlook are seen as email clients, but they are so much more. They are designed to help you manage your actions, inputs and outcomes. If they are used in a coordinated way, they can give you the leverage you need to stay productive in the modern workplace.
Nelson Jackson once said, “I do not believe you can do today’s job with yesterday’s methods and be in business tomorrow.” I would also suggest that we cannot do today’s job with yesterday’s tools and be in business tomorrow. Technology has contributed to our productivity challenges over the past decade, and it can also be a part of the solution – but only if we learn to use it in a smart way.