Tame the Work Monster
OfficePRO magazine, March 2004
When you understand and manage your workflow, you really can ‘work smarter, not harder’
BY TOM WARNEY
You’ve heard the expression “work smarter, not harder.” Sure, it makes sense, but how exactly do you “work smarter, not harder”? Or perhaps the techniques suggested for doing so are too complicated, are not your style, or require some expensive piece of equipment to go with it.
The reality today is that work is complex, fast-paced, and unpredictable. Too much work, conflicting priorities, stretching resources to the limit, multitasking demands, stress resulting in illness, wasted time and energies due to miscommunication, misunderstanding or lack of system, confusing organizational structure, insecurity about one’s job situation, lack of meaningful reward, anxiety, depression, and workaholism are common. This is the workplace today, and we need some powerful tools to adapt to it and survive.
For many people, work has become an evil, many-headed, multi-armed monster looming over their lives, whether they’re working at work, working at home to “catch up,” or working in their sleep, plagued by dreams about forgetting to do some-thing or being unprepared for a meeting. Some people have traded their lives for their work, giving up family, hobbies, and vacations just to keep up. The great monster called work has made them anxious, fearful, stressed, and depressed, and, frankly, not much fun. It’s good news for therapists, but not for the work force.
Most workers know that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, but they don’t know how to go about getting what they do want from work, which typically is just to do a good job at what they have chosen to do. Professionals want engagement and satisfaction and to have the feeling of pride that comes from handling each and every situation well.
Let’s learn how to tame the monster and begin to return to a more natural, productive, and enjoyable experience at work.
Types of Work
A lot of the problems associated with work come from the anxiety caused by having too much to do, being over-whelmed by tasks, and not knowing what to do next. This usually stems from a lack of focus on types of work. Once you recognize there are different types of work likely to occur in your job situation, and that each type can be handled with a specific method or tool, you can choose to organize your work in a practical and flexible way, using certain basic tools and systems.
Here are the main types of work that are likely to come your way:
• Routine. These include recurring tasks that can be scheduled regularly, such as reports, computer back-up, client check-ins, and ordering supplies. They go on and on, and can be safely not-thought-of when they are neatly scheduled in your calendar or diary.
• Projects. The aim of a project is usually to find a better way to do something, and sometimes it actually works out that way. Examples of projects are updating a sys-tem, purchasing a system, implementing a system, sourcing new equipment, and developing a new marketing plan. You might be in charge of the project, or part of the team, or just a victim. Projects need to be handled separately, with a file (paper or electronic) and a schedule for each one that you can refer to easily and regularly.
• Communications. This involves people you want to communicate with and can include phoning, returning calls, e-mailing and answering e-mails, checking voice mails, dealing with correspondence, chatting, coaching, or chewing out the mail delivery person.
• Delegated. This is work assigned to someone else. No one knows why it was given to you in the first place. Your challenge is to give it to somebody who won’t try to give it back until it’s done. They’ll try.
• Delayed. This includes certain things that you are waiting for, such as a report or quote that’s due, information that’s being prepared, and results of delegated work. These are other things you can not-think-about once you’ve scheduled reminders for yourself.
• Meetings. This type of work includes regular meetings and specially scheduled meetings, necessary meetings, unnecessary meetings, and just plain silly meetings.
• Reports. Regular reports and special reports, necessary, unnecessary, and silly are all included.
• Presentations. Anything that you need to prepare to present for others, individu-ally or in a group, applies here. The bigger the group, the more scared you can let yourself be, and the more PowerPoint slides you can generate.
• Immediately Doable. Anything that can be done right now, within a minute or two, fits into this work type. Just do it now and you can forget it. Crossing things off your list always gives you a lift, right?
• Emergencies. This includes real emergencies (“The factory is on fire!”) and perceived emergencies that someone has come up with (“Some of this stationery is less blue than the rest.”) Let’s face it: some people thrive on coming up with self-created “emergencies,” and some-times you’re stuck dealing with them. Deal with the real ones; maybe you can delegate the other ones.
• Review. Anything you’d like to look at and consider later is included in this work type. Items for review might include certain reports, magazine articles, new reference material, brochures for upcoming events, or a funny but lengthy e-mail you don’t want people to see you laughing over.
• Dumb. These are things that you know are crazy and/or silly, but that you have to do to keep your job.
• Life. This includes items that come up related to certain areas in your life, such as family, health, home, financial, and personal development. These have a way of suddenly appearing in the middle of your workday. (“You broke a tooth, how?”)
Building the System
Each type of work can best be dealt with in a specific appropriate way. Some types of work can be noted in a calendar/diary (routine items, meetings, appointments, when delegated or delayed work is due, when a report or a presentation must be made, etc.). Other types require files—either paper or electronic—of their own (projects, reports, and presentations). Some types require placement in a file and a reminder as to when you might want to look at it later (reading material, brochures, etc.). And immediately doable items are, of course, best done immediately.
The idea is to get back control of the “monster” by labeling each drooling head or waving arm and deciding the best way to deal with each. A “master list” is useful to make it easy for you to know where everything is and when each item needs to be reviewed, worked on, and finished.
This is your basic system for streaming work into the appropriate places and dealing with each item in a timely manner. Each of us is different, and each of us will choose the best system for our own personality and work style. Feel free to add your own bells and whistles (colors, artistic symbols, etc.).
The beauty of this system, once you get everything labeled and into it, is that you no longer have to think about all that stuff. You can focus on what you’re currently doing, knowing that everything else is tagged, flagged, and organized for when you want to get to it. Scientists say the human brain can only consciously think of around five to nine items at once (depending on how much caffeine you’ve had) before it starts to get confused and drop some items. And you’ve probably been trying to juggle 50 or 70, right? Does this help to explain the anxiety and stress?
Now, though, you can put everything in its proper place for either preparing or doing, and you can let your brain do what it does best: Deal creatively and skillfully with the task at hand.
Work need not be a giant fearsome monster; with a little training and guidance, it can become a real source of satisfaction and personal power.
Thomas Warney is a speaker, writer, and workshop leader and owner of Thomas Warney Communications & Development in Toronto, Ontario. Reach him at email@example.com 905/713-3389.
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