Your day starts. A blank sheet, full of opportunity. What will it bring? What wonderful work will you get done? Then, on the way to work, you check your email on your mobile…
A complaint from a customer.
Your boss urgently needs a few additional slides done for his presentation.
A colleague wants some input on a new marketing plan.
Oh, and where are those files the designer had promised to deliver last night?
Before you’ve even started, your blank sheet of a day is crumpled. Non-stop firefighting guaranteed, and who knows what else will come up before day’s end?
Of course, as you always do, you manage…
- Using all your charms, the customer is happy once again.
- Your boss gets his slides and delivers a killer presentation.
- You manage to squeeze in a meeting to provide some feedback to your colleague.
- After chasing the designer, you get the files and pass them on to the web developer.
But somehow you don’t feel good, not fulfilled. Yes, you handled the daily chaos well, but did you get to work on those things that are important to you? Activities related to your actual role and responsibilities? And let’s not even begin to think about the long-term, important tasks; those you haven’t worked on in weeks.
Office life in the 21st century
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. For most people working in the modern day office environment, this is the normal state of affairs. A never-ending stream of emergencies, usually dictated by the drum of the inbox, complemented with useless meetings and colleagues showing up at your desk unannounced to interrupt you.
While there are viable escapes out of this reality, such as quitting your job and working remotely for another company, those types of options might be too drastic and risky for you. Instead, we can at least partly cure the problem by finding a better way to prepare ourselves.
Asking yourself the following seven questions while planning your day will help you do just that.
Question #1: “Which things should I not be doing at all?”
There is no easier way to get more done and free up your schedule, than by deciding not to do a whole bunch of stuff:
- Is it part of your responsibilities in the first place, or are you just doing a colleague a favor?
- Did you make the commitment under social pressure, but it doesn’t really do anything for you?
- Will anyone care if you stop working on this task?
- Are you doing something just to please your own ego?
Have a critical review of what’s on your list, start eliminating stuff, and repeat regularly!
Question #2: “What is causing me stress?”
When you have lots on your plate, any small issue can become a trigger for a panicked brain: an offhand remark from a colleague, an unexpected bill or an unhappy email from a customer. But when you pause and take five minutes to clear your head by writing down everything that is bothering you, you’ll usually find the actual culprit to be something completely different.
It might be an unfinished project lingering in the back of your head, but it could also be something unrelated to work: personal financial troubles, an argument you had with your spouse in the morning, problems with your health.
Figuring out what is truly causing anxiety and then addressing it should always be a priority, as a troubled mind affects everything else you’re doing.
Question #3: “Which tasks need to be broken down into smaller pieces?”
Few things are more frustrating and counter-productive than having elephants on your todo list. They’re projects masquerading as a task. Things like “redo company website” or “organize customer event.”
These are items you can’t actually do. They’re so huge they’ll require a good amount of thinking just to understand how you could even get started on them. As long as that’s not done, you’ll likely keep skipping them until it’s too late.
Make sure to break down these elephants into smaller tasks you can actually execute on, else those beasts will remain on your list forever and never get done.
Question #4: “Which 20% of actions delivers 80% of the results?”
The Pareto principle (also known as the 80 – 20 rule) states that “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.” This also applies to most people’s work and todo lists.
- Which customers are bringing you the most revenue?
- Which feature of your product is most used?
- What marketing activity has proved most effective?
Finding the answers to these questions and then making sure you spend most, if not all, of your time on those activities is one of the best things you can do with your time. A lot of stuff we do barely moves the needle and should never be prioritized or done at all.
Question #5: “What is the Frog?”
The Frog is the activity you’re most likely to delay. Sometimes it’s something important, other times a thing you just dread getting started on. Often it’s a combination of both.
Eating the Frog means getting that thing out of the way first thing in the morning. Instead of having that Frog stare at you all day long, tackling it immediately ensures you’re off to a great start.
Bonus tip: to make sure you actually get your Frog out of the way, make sure you eat it before you open your email or even turn on your phone.
Question #6: “What holds up everything else?”
This one is about finding bottlenecks; is there some task or project which holds up everything else? A clear roadblock that prohibits you and maybe even others from continuing important work? An approval from your boss, a file you need to receive from a vendor, or simply a task you dread to get started on.
Removing this kind of obstacle should clearly get a high priority. Reviewing your todo list through the what-holds-up-everything-else-lens can be a great way to make progress quickly, both for you and your colleagues.
Question #7: “What is the most important thing I could be doing right now?”
Even if you follow the previous six questions as you’re preparing your day, you might still get “lost” as you go about your daily business. New requests are thrown at you, emergencies come up (luckily you already ate your Frog in the morning, right?), meetings are called.
If you find yourself at such a point and feel overwhelmed, pause for a few minutes. Ask yourself: “what is the most important thing I could be doing right now?” Basically it means looking at the tasks in front of you, briefly considering why they need to get done and what the expected consequence of each action is. This usually makes it pretty obvious which one is the most important.
Off to battle!
Equipped with these seven questions, you’re ready for anything. Hold them close at hand and make sure to pull them out when faced with another one of those overwhelming days; you’ll be just fine.