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In today’s “always on” business world, containing the workday becomes increasingly difficult. For many people, the concept of a 9 to 5 job is a fantasy, as projects, meetings, and inbox wrangling can easily consume nights and weekends if left unrestrained.

But blaming your boss, colleagues, or clients for having to work longer hours provides false satisfaction. Which of your own work habits are the cause? Watch out for these four traps:

  1. Goal not defined clearly: if you are the type of person who immediately jumps into a project or task without stopping to define the outcome, this trap is the most likely cause of your long work hours. Even if you “begin with the end in mind,” you must take the time to think about your work product and deliverables from the perspective of your customer (or manager, or peer; whoever is the recipient of your work). What does success look like from his or her perspective? What problem are you working to solve? What are the acceptance criteria? For larger projects, it is worthwhile to outline your answers in a few concise bullet points, and review them with your customer before beginning work.
  2. Process to achieve the goal not well understood: Once you understand the goal, you must understand how to get there. Often re-work and delays arise when the process of getting from point A to point B is undefined. If the work is new to you, but not to your organization, invest a bit of time in researching the group’s documentation for the processes you will follow (examples: procurement, maintenance, software release management). Then, talk to people you trust to understand the “tribal knowledge” that isn’t captured in any formal document. If the work is new to everyone, take a few minutes to sketch out a swimlane diagram (see basic and advanced examples) to clarify who does what, when.
  3. Time not reserved to do the work: Block out a few hours per day in your calendar with working time to discourage people to invite you to meetings for for whole day. If you don’t you’ll find independent work time creeping into your nights and weekends (in many organizations, the meetings will too, sadly).

    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed.

    Meetings are productivity eating zombies if not tightly managed..

  4. Unproductive during work time: There are three main causes of low productivity during the time you’ve blocked out to work independently. First, you can be distracted: phone calls, drop ins (different from hop ons), reading mildly informative blogs and other unrelated interruptions (for starters, just close your email client!). Second, you can have relatively low domain knowledge: “newbies” in any industry will be less productive as they learn new vocabulary and concepts (although they may find novel solutions without suffering from the same constraints as the veterans). Third, you can have low process proficiency. In plain English, you are slow to complete tasks despite having both process and domain knowledge.

Everyone makes different choices about how much time to devote to career and how much to family, friends, and hobbies. If you’re interested in reclaiming more of  your weekly hours to non-working pursuits, check whether you are susceptible to any of these four traps. Leave a comment if you have other feedback, questions, or ideas!

image credit: myconfinedspace.com