In this week’s episode of the Working With... Podcast, I answer a question about getting the important work done.
Hello and welcome to episode 21 of my Working With Podcast. A podcast created to answer all your questions about productivity, GTD, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.
This week I have a great question about managing the different types of work that gets thrown at us each day and how to make sure the important work is getting done.
Before we get in to this week’s question though, if you don’t already know, I launched a new online course last week—Your Digital Life 2.0 Online. It’s a course designed to help you to build your very own productivity system and one that works for you. If you want to learn more about this course there is a link to the course details in the show notes.
Okay, without further ado, let me hand you over to the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.
This week’s question comes from Alan. Alan asks, every day I feel I am swamped with work and I feel I get a lot done. The trouble is when I look and see what I have done for the day, none of it is really important. Is there anything I can do that will help me to get more important work done?
Hi Alan, thank you for your wonderful question. The situation you describe is very common. I too find the same thing happening from time to time and it can be very disheartening to get to the end of the day, feel exhausted and yet realise that you haven’t done anything important all day. You’ve spent the day fighting fires and have had no time to do any of that important fire preventing work.
So what can you do to make sure you are doing the important work each day? Well the first thing to understand is you will always have to take care of the fires. The unimportant, but urgent work that gets thrown at us everyday. That’s just part of life and is never going to change. A couple of years ago I analysed the work I was doing in details and discovered that no matter how hard I tried, there was no way I could avoid the busy work. It’s there, it comes at us through email, meetings and other people’s requests. It just has to be done. What I discovered is that around 70% of my work was busy work. It still is. So for me I realised I needed to be very clear on how I would spend the other 30% of my work time. It’s the 30% for me that really matters each day.
These numbers are very close to the 80/20 principle. For work that means 20% of your work will bring 80% of your positive results. The other 80% of you work will have no real impact on your work. I would guess this is pretty much the same for everyone. So the big question is, what are you going to do with the 20%?
The thing is, we do not have to spend all our working time doing the unimportant, but urgent work. If we take some time at the end of everyday and look at what we should be working on, the work that really matters and the work that will take us forward and grow us as individuals and select one or two tasks that will move us forward on those projects or goals each day, then each day you will have a focus. These tasks or goals do not have to be big, they can be little twenty minute tasks. Exercise is a good example. If you decided that no matter what, you were going to do at least twenty minutes exercise tomorrow, when you wake up in the morning, you will actively seek out those twenty minutes to make sure it happens. Likewise, if you know you need to work on the important report or essay, you can make sure you spend one or two hours on writing the report or essay.
I’ve just launched a new online course and each morning, when I wake up, there are a lot of admin tasks that came in overnight associated with that course. Student questions, enrolment issues etc. Although I don’t consider these to be busy work tasks, answering student questions is a very important part of my work, they are tasks that were not on my to-to list for the day. Yet, no matter what, the two objectives I set for myself the evening before do not get changed. I might change other, less important tasks so I have time to deal with the course work, there is no way I will allow anything to get in the way of doing the two important tasks I set myself for the day.
Setting those two important tasks is part of my Golden 10 evening schedule. This is where I take ten minutes at the end of the day to process my inboxes, review my calendar for the next day and set my objectives and focus for the next day. It only takes ten minutes, but it is one of the most important parts of the day for me. Without those ten minutes, I know my life would drift and I would be spending all my time doing the busy work tasks that come in on a day to day basis.
Why just ten minutes? Well, I have found if I limit the time I have to make a decision about what I want to focus on tomorrow I choose the focus that means the most to me at that moment. Likewise with my two objectives. If I spend too long thinking about what I want to accomplish tomorrow I end up choosing things that sound nice, but do not have a very big impact on my life. When I restrict the time for thinking, the things that are most important to me right now come immediately to mind and I put them down on my list. And of course, everyone can find ten minutes at the end of the day to plan the next day.
In order to get control of what you are working on, you do need to know what the important things are and what the unimportant is. For me, the important things are related to creating content. It is content that keeps me moving forward and it is content that I enjoy doing the most. I have never liked admin, but I know it does need doing. Like almost everyone else, I also get a lot of email each day, some of it I enjoy dealing with—student questions for example—other stuff I don’t enjoy dealing with—paying bills, sending attendance records and having to reschedule my English students’ classes. But this work still has to be done. For the stuff I do not enjoy doing, I have tried to automate as much as possible. Keeping track of student attendance records for example is done in the most automated way I can do it using my phone, calendar and Apple’s Numbers.
I also restrict the time I spend on admin tasks. I allocate thirty minutes after my dinner to sit down at my computer and update all the day’s admin. If I left it all until it was required—usually the end of the month—it would take me hours of work. I can manage thirty minutes each day. I even clock watch it. I note the time I start and I calculate when I need to stop. That way my brain knows it’s on a deadline and the work always seems to get done in the time frame.
The thing about all this unimportant, but necessary work is we will never be able to escape it. Whether you are a student, an office worker, doctor or construction worker, you will still get it. And, it is likely to take up the majority of the time you spend working. The key is to develop methods to deal with it, without you letting it interfere with the work that is important.
One final part to making sure you are focused on the important work is to do a weekly review. This is where you sit down, usually on a weekend when there is little being thrown at you, and review all your open projects and make sure you are moving forward on your goals. When you do a weekly review it helps you to focus on what you want to work on, what you want to get completed the following week and make sure you are on track with your goals. A weekly review takes anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes to complete. I sit down at my desk, put on some relaxing music, have a nice cup of tea and go though my calendar, to-do list and make sure I have collected everything from my various inboxes and notebooks. It allows me quiet time to make sure I am doing the work that matters and that the busy work hasn’t overtaken my life.
So there you go. That’s how you can make sure you are doing the important work and not getting tied up in unimportant busy work. Set yourself two objectives for the day the night before, make sure you have a focus for the day and accept that busy, unimportant work still needs to be done and just get it done. There will be days where you spend all day on busy work, that just the nature of things, but the important thing to do is to make sure that those days do not become the majority of days.
Thank you very much for listen to this podcast. Don’t forget, if you have a question you would like answering on productivity, time management, GTD or goal planning, then please get in touch. All the various way to contact me are in the show notes.
It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.