Career Success in 3 Easy Steps – Step 2: Clear the Path

Career Success in 3 Easy StepsThe first step is to Define what success actually looks like and decide what tasks, if performed regularly, will provide the greatest return on time invested.  The second step is to Clear the Path; automate your workflow and reduce the amount of time that you spend focusing on low-value activities.  The third step is to Do the Work that matters most.  In this series we will examine each step in turn.

Last week we looked at techniques to help you identify those tasks that will give you the greatest reward for time spent working.  The end goal is to focus your greatest energies on these most important items, however there is an intermediate step that must first be addressed.  You need to clear the clutter from your workday to create the space required to apply that focus.

Have you ever had one of those days at work that was like a whirlwind, leaving you at quitting time exhausted and with little recollection of what was accomplished?  Worse, does your last month look like that?  The last year?

While work that requires an immediate response does come up, this type of reactive completion should be curtailed as much as possible if you are going to get ahead.  Most so called emergencies can be traced back to a lack of planning at some stage, and that lack of planning can be attributed to not having a system in place for getting the work done.

Systems Thinking

The beauty of having a system in place that details how, why, and when work gets done is that the result can be directly measured.  And what gets measured gets… well you know.  If something isn’t working as it should then the system can be modified, the result examined, and the outcome improved.

Having a robust system in place also frees you up to concentrate on the work that matters.  Because your tasks and processes are already defined they don’t require very much mental RAM once they’ve been implemented.

Out of all the tasks you perform on a daily basis many can be systematized, whether that be with a checklist, a standard operating procedure (SOP), or an automation tool such as Zapier.  By putting repetitive tasks on autopilot you’ll accomplish two things:

  1. Streamline your workflow to create time and space to do the work that matters – our ultimate goal
  2. Get more efficient at those repetitive tasks, by implementing improvements to your systems over time

A process should be put into place for any job that you have to perform more than twice.  That means it should be documented.  You can use something like Dropbox to save written instructions, or a web app like Process.St for this.  By defining the steps to take it can show you where improvements can be made, and will help you eventually scale by quickly showing others how to perform those jobs in the most efficient manner.

A final benefit to implementing these SOP’s is that if you are having trouble figuring out what important work you should be focusing on, once you’ve detailed all of your processes, the important work will probably be the only thing that is left.

Time Management

Much has been written about managing your time wisely over the years.  That is because it is a necessity if you want to get things done effectively.  While the sheer volume of information on the topic can be intimidating it has also yielded a number of powerful techniques.  These are the ones I find the most useful:

Deep Scheduling – Time to do important work needs to be in the calendar.  Treat it like a client meeting and guard that time.  Performing a time audit on what you do every day and how long you spend on each task should give you a good idea of where the time goes.  Once you’ve identified the key areas that you need to focus on every day you can assign each one a block of time.  Thanks to Cal Newport for this one.

You can even go a step further and plan out every hour of your work day.

Chunking – This goes hand in hand with the scheduling concept.  Keep similar activities together.  Have a time (or two) where you check and write emails every day.  Same for phone calls, and for administrative work, and for any task that repeats daily.

Emails, phone calls, administrative tasks, and meetings all respond very well to this strategy.

The Four D’s – The Four D’s of Completion are a way to quickly assign priority to tasks and get the decision making out of the way.  It stands for Do it, Delegate it, Defer it, or Delete it.  I’ve written an article on this concept previously.  It is a quick method of triaging your to-do list.

Eliminate Distractions

If you want to get important work done you need to eliminate distractions.  This means email, internet surfing, and to an extent; your co-workers.

Email and surfing social media are the two biggest time sinks there is, with people spending an average of 50 minutes per day on Facebook alone 1, while it is estimated that employees spend 40% of their workday checking emails 2.  While email is likely a necessary activity in your work, if you are allowing it to dominate your day then you need a strategy to use that tool smarter.  But unless your last name starts with a Z you probably don’t need to spend so much (any?) time on Facebook.

My strategy for dealing with these distractions is two steps, and is simple.  It doesn’t require any additional software installed, although you can use something like StayFocusd to limit your time spent aimlessly browsing, but I prefer analogue solutions.

  1. Schedule it – I start my workday with an hour of clearing my inbox if required (I’m an inbox zero guy), sending, and replying to emails.  I’ll alsospend some time checkingthe news.  This allows me to get it out of my system early.  After this I won’t check it again until 1pm, when I can reply again to any messages received that day.
  2. Eliminate the distraction – Any time a bell dings and a light starts to flash your focus is shattered.  And if you’ve been working in a flow state it can be tough to get back there.  So as a minimum you should turn off ALL notifications on your phone and computer.  This allows you to check your accounts on your own terms rather than like a slobbering Pavlovian dog.
    The more extreme (and effective) version of this is to delete it entirely.  If you take a hard look at the value that social media adds to your professional life you’ll probably find that it is very little, if any.  While getting off the social media merry-go-round is a topic for another day, consider what you could accomplish without it.
    Personally, I’ve removed Social from my phone so that I only check it on my computer at a time of my choosing.

Working with Coworkers 

I like to joke that I try to only spend one day each month in the office.  Come in, say hi to everyone, submit my expenses, then hit the road again.  Just to make sure nobody forgets what my face looks like.  And there is a grain of truth in this statement.

I have great coworkers and I love the culture in my office.  That said, I typically get more work done when I’m not doing it in the office, with the best work being completed either from a cabin on a ship (with a port hole!) or at a desk in a hotel (preferably on the beach…).

There are many opportunities for distraction while at work, from coffee break chit-chat, to birthdays, to meetings.  And by being present it is often mistaken that you are available, resulting in unplanned work dropping in your lap.  All of these things are important, as are the relationships you build, but it helps to have a strategy for dealing with the distraction while getting your work done.  A couple of techniques that I’ve used and seen used:

  1. Close the door.  While this obviously applies only if you have an office, it is really more about the signal that it presents.  My company has moved to an open plan style space, so this isn’t really an option anymore.  So people (myself included) have started putting on headphones or earplugs to signal that they are concentrating.  Try it with a brown noise generator to block out the sound if your office is particularly noisy.
  2. Work remotely.  If you find yourself constantly on the reactive then perhaps a change of venue is in order.  Your home may not be the best place to do so, especially if you have kids, so try working from a different location when you are on deadline.  The library is always a great place.

Master Your Current Job

Spending some time to remove barriers to your productivity will allow you to move towards completing the work that really matters in your field with ease.  Automating tasks where possible and defining checklists and procedures for your processes will ensure that you are completing your core duties to a high, consistent standard each time.  It will also make you work more efficiently which will provide more time to focus on the big wins.

The beauty of this system is that it is a constant work in progress.  Once the system is in place you can make small adjustments to increase the effectiveness of each step.  This can be applied to any task that you repeat on a regular basis, almost until they are on autopilot.

Bonus Tip!  

Having worked through this process I would add one thing – don’t overthink it.  Make a list of tasks and processes to put together, then put them together.  Better the good system that you use than the perfect system you don’t.

What types of systems are in place at your work?  Did you develop them yourself or are they part of the companies work culture?

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Stewart, J. (2016, May 5) Facebook has 50 minutes of your time each day.  It wants moreNY Times.  Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/business/facebook-bends-the-rules-of-audience-engagement-to-its-advantage.html
  2. Atkin, N. (2012, December 17) 40% of staff time is wasted reading internal emails. The Guardian.  Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2012/dec/17/ban-staff-email-halton-housing-trust

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