Which of these 4 traps makes you work longer hours?

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

Practical help to get more from your time each week

In a previous post, I described how to check that your overall time allocation is aligned with your strategic goals, and offered a few tips to make that time more effective. As a follow up, here is another quick, practical suggestion on how to apply those concepts I have uninspiringly named Calendar Partitioning. Fans of The One Minute Manager will jump on this concept. If you try this, please let me know your feedback on how well it worked (or didn’t). If you are reluctant to take the risk, please let me know what stands in the way!

What is Calendar Partitioning?

  • Divide your work week into blocks of time to address one topic of strategic importance during each and make larger steps of progress overall

How do I do this?

  1. Make a list of five categories of your work with strategic importance to your goals
  2. Map each category to a 3 hour block of time
  3. Group your current (or upcoming) projects or recurring tasks into these categories, including a list of deliverables for each
  4. Prioritize within the groups as needed, and then work on only one category per block on time.

Example of the idea at work: in words and image

This morning I am going to finish my revisions to the capability definitions for service managers, and get some input from our current managers before sending them to HR. When my IT guru came in to show me a mock up of our new checkout page for the website, I told him to leave a copy and showed him my schedule, asking him to come back tomorrow afternoon.

Calendar Partitioning applied to a 10 hour x 5 day work week using examples above (adjust as needed)

Top Tips:

  • Close your email program, or at least disable email notifications, while you work
  • Use your phones ring profile settings so that your phone will only disturb you with urgent messages from “VIPs” (e.g., family, your partners or boss)
  • As new and unexpected items arise, let the person know when you will address them (i.e., during the next appropriate block of time)
  • Each week (Friday afternoons work well to clear your mind for the weekend), review how much progress you have made on each project and pick your projects for the following week. When you get to work on Monday, pick up your plan and get started without giving in to the temptations of urgency.

Why will this help me?

  • You will focus on important work with fewer interruptions from urgent concerns
  • You will spend longer working on one topic, reaching a deeper level of thought and a more thorough level of completion
  • By making decisions on urgent matters under less pressure or deferring the decision, you will act with a longer-term perspective. Smaller matters will take care of themselves without your input and you will be able to build accountability and effective decision making skills in your direct reports.
  • You will become more aware of the connections between projects before you start working
  • You will work on the same topics at different times of the day/week, and notice which topics fit better with changes in your energy level

image: kecuk.com