Prioritize Ruthlessly

“I think the most important thing we’ve learned as we’ve grown is that we have to prioritize,” said Sandberg. “We talk about it as ruthless prioritization. And by that what we mean is only do the very best of the ideas. Lots of times you have very good ideas. But they’re not as good as the most important thing you could be doing. And you have to make the hard choices.” – interview with Inc. Magazine

When the COO of Facebook talks about prioritization we would all do well to sit up and take note.

We all want to be more productive; squeezing more out of the day and crushing that to-do list.  But at what point does ”productive” degrade into “busy”?  Just because we can be working on something doesn’t mean that we should.  It may not be the best use of our time, but how to choose those activities that will have the greatest impact?

Adding to the trouble these days is that as we transition further towards a knowledge worker based economy, there just isn’t as much physical evidence of completion.  Working with your hands offers tangible evidence of how hard you work.  Pound enough nails and eventually you’ll build a house.  But what evidence is left after a day of crunching numbers on a spreadsheet and collaborating online?

This has inadvertently given rise to the “always on” phenomenon, where emails are replied to immediately and colleagues eat lunch with their cellphones on the table.  Each email sent represents a unit of work completed, so you can get feedback about how much you are doing feel good about what you’ve accomplished.  At least until the end of the day when you look back and can’t think of a single thing you did that was actually valuable.

Ruthless Prioritization

The key to success is to focus on the things that truly matter, to the exclusion of all else.  Easy to say, hard to do.

Defining what truly matters can be tricky and takes time.  The employee handbook at work is a good place to start but won’t take you all the way.  Your job description is just the baseline of what is expected of you in order to maintain the status quo.  Those that shine learn to read between the lines and focus on the unspoken tasks that really matter; the 20% of activities that make 80% of the difference.

Modeling others who you feel are high performers in your industry is another good place to look.  Watch what they do and ask questions about what they feel is important.  They may not be able to articulate what it is they are doing however, as it might just come naturally.  But the more information you can gather the better a position you’ll be in to make informed choices.

Priority = One

Prioritization is the act of ranking items in their order of importance.  Ruthless Prioritization then is to eliminate everything on the lower end of that list that doesn’t provide enough value for your time invested.

In business, we all want more sales.  So do we focus on making sales calls, or should we focus on doing an amazing job so that our sales are driven by referrals?  If we are trying to both do the work and generate the work, are we doing our best work?  Or is it better to focus on the work and let the results generate more work?  I argue the latter, and we all know of a company or individual who stays so busy from referrals that they have to turn work away.  It is no coincidence that those individuals are also typically at the top of the pay scale as well.

Focus on one thing at a time to the exclusion of all else and your results will skyrocket.  The hard part is cutting out the non-essentials, because we feel obliged to work on them too.  But think back to how much busywork you completed last month and ask what value it truly generated.

Reducing the number of things you focus on allows you more time to focus on what matters.  You’ll do a better job, achieve better results, and will actually have more time to spend doing what you want; because focused work gets finished quicker.

Choose one thing, block out a chunk of time, and get after it.

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?

Career Success in 3 Easy Steps – Step 3: Do the Work

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.

In this final installment of the series we are going to look at techniques for getting the work done that is going to give the greatest benefit to you, both personally and professionally.

Works that matter are not typically easy to complete.  They require focus, and will stretch your capabilities.  And if they don’t then you should choose something more challenging to do.  Because the area of greatest advancement lies just beyond the threshold of your comfort zone.

The key is to choose projects that push you outside of your comfort zone, without going farther from your skill set than you can handle.  Once the skill you are working on has improved enough it will eventually fall within your comfort zone and you will need to push out even further the next time in order to continuing to expand.

Repetition of tasks that are well within your comfort zone remains valuable for consolidating the knowledge learned and you can continue to improve at them, however the improvements now become more about efficiency than new learning.  That is, until you focus on a select part of that work and push the limits of it outside your comfort zone again.

Choosing the Projects – A Systems Based Approach

The path towards continuous improvement in your profession is to choose the right kind of work to do.  At first glance it may seem like this means that you need to do extra credit projects on top of your usual daily tasks, but that isn’t the case.  The key is to build projects around your usual daily tasks that incorporate the new skills you are trying to practice or develop.

Remember in part 2 of this series where we discussed Systems Thinking?  This is the exact area that this concept is directly applied.  By focusing on the system, rather than the goal, you come out ahead in the end even if the project itself was unsuccessful.  This concept was popularized by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert.

An example of this type of approach is this very website.  It takes a fair bit of time, and doesn’t return any monetary reward, so why do it?  Because it allows me to improve my writing and my web design skills, both of which have cross over into other areas.  And I am further improving my system this year by focusing on longer, multi-part articles (like this one), and developing them into presentations, which will further my presenting and speaking skills.  So even if only one person ever reads my work (Hi Mom!) it will still be a worthwhile endeavor because I approach it with a systems based approach that makes it a guaranteed win.

The Value of Meta Skills

Each project that you do should incorporate some type of meta skill.  What is that you ask?  A meta skill is a higher order skill that enables other skills to occur.  This means that it will help you do better at anything you do.  A rising tide raises all ships.

The two most common and overarching meta skills are Writing and Speaking.  These skills are used in every profession and improving them will only help you excel in the long run as they are transferable to any endeavor.  Try to build in ways to improve these skills during your regular work.

Some examples of other transferable skills that can be rolled up into typical work projects are:

  • Proficiency at Microsoft Office products
  • Coding / Programming
  • Organizational skills
  • Math and accounting
  • Leadership, influence, and people skills
  • Photography

Each of these will have a return on time invested that is greater than just the project completed.

Putting It All Together

With those two concepts firmly in mind, it is time to apply it to your own unique situation.  It may be that you already work at your dream job and want to do the best work possible, or perhaps you feel stuck in a thankless career and want to find something better.  This concept applies equally well to both situations.

The first step is to perform a Gap Analysis.  All this means is that you first define where you are currently, then defining where you want to be.  This is important because if you don’t have an end result in mind, you’ll never know when you’ve arrived.  The difference in skill set and resources required to move from here to there is the gap.

With a general understanding of where you are deficient in skills, you can now examine this skill on the macro level; the 30,000 foot view.  This is another form of gap analysis; this time focusing on the particular skill you wish to acquire.  Where are you already pretty good?  Where do you need work?  When you’ve identified holes in your knowledge base you can finally drill down to the Micro level where you identify the specific skills required and reduce them to the smallest actionable unit possible.

Then you come up with a project, or impose a restriction on your regular workflow that will force you to practice that skill during the course of your work.

It is important to program the development of these skills so that they build on one another, which is why you examine them under the microscope and reduce them down to their base components.  Use each small win as a stepping stone to the next and don’t try to take on too much at one time.  Consistency is key and we can only learn so much on our own that is outside of our comfort zone.  That is, unless you have some help.

Everyday Mentors

When learning a new skill, it is important to have immediate feedback so you know when a correction is required.  It can be hard to assess yourself honestly so this is a great place to get some help.

A mentor doesn’t have to be a wise old sage in a robe.  It can be the lady in the office who kicks ass at Powerpoint presentations, or the yard foreman that knows what everybody is doing at all times, or the welder that stacks dimes all day long.  People get hung up on finding a mentor to guide them through life, when the fact of the matter is that anyone who does a skill better than you can be a mentor.

By utilizing the skills and experience of these people to further your own, you’ll be building your knowledge using theirs as a scaffolding; allowing faster improvements.

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky pioneered the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development.  The idea (originally used in childhood development, but applies to any type of learning) is that there is a zone within which the learner can perform tasks on their own, then a zone where they can learn with guidance (this is the ZPD), and finally a zone where they cannot learn – no matter how much help they get.

The takeaway is that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum.  The fastest path to improvement is within the Zone of Proximal Development – and this requires some assistance.  Fortunately for us, this assistance is all around us in our careers.  We just need to ask for it.

Back to School and Permission Culture

One point I’d like to make during this discussion is that it is common for people to work towards secondary education in their free time in order to get ahead in their current field.  I’ve attempted this myself.  The conclusion I’ve come to is that this is nothing but a delaying tactic and provides minimal value towards your stated end goal.

If you are working one job while studying to get another job then I see the validity.  But if you like your job and intend to stay within your field, and just want to gain the skills needed to ascend the dizzying heights, then I believe the ROI of further secondary education is minimal.  The reason for this is twofold:

  1. You won’t use half (most?) of what you learn. That’s just how school is; you’ve got to finish with a certain number of credit hours, so there is bound to be some filler.
  2. You have access to the true skills required right in front of you. Letters behind your name won’t make you better at something.  Practice and getting better will make you better.  The people who have the skills you need are sitting right next to you in the lunch room.

If you want something, then go after it.  Provided you have a base level of experience to build on there is nothing stopping you from moving ahead.  Too many people wait for permission from somebody else, be that in the form of a degree or promotion, to actually do something.

Just do it.

There is always an exception.  Any type of extra training that you can take that is specific to your field or desired skill set is always worthwhile.  Many companies will pay for certain courses; all you need to do is ask.

Another great option is Udemy or similar online platforms.  If you are a programmer that needs to build proficiency in a new language, or an Excel user who needs to learn Macros, then a short focused online course is a great way to get started.  I am a big proponent of training courses that drill down into a specific skill and provide a certification at the end.

Consolidation

The final step in the whole process is to reflect on what you’ve learned at the end of each project, and identify ways you can improve next time.  This is performed during a simple exercise called an After Action Review (AAR).

Developed by the US Military, the AAR differs from a debriefing in that it doesn’t just review what happened, but it clearly identifies the gap between the intended result and the actual result.  It requires answering three simple questions:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. Why was there a difference and what can we do to improve next time?

By incorporating an AAR into every project cycle it will provide the focus needed to accelerate your results, rather than just shooting in the dark.  This serves to consolidate the lessons learned and examine areas for improvement, so that the next cycle or evolution works better.

Conclusion

Doing your best work first requires that you identify what tasks are the most important, and will provide the greatest value to you, your clients, and your organization.

The next step is to organize your workflow in such a way that allows you as much time as possible to focus on those tasks.

Finally, do the important work.  Incorporate it into your core tasks by designing projects within your work, that will push your boundaries and increase your skills with every pass.

This process takes some work to implement but the reward is worth it.  Your time will be used in a more productive manner and your skill set will improve in all areas.  This is not a quick fix though; this is the long game.  But by structuring your work in this fashion you’ll continue to develop throughout your career, while also building transferable metaskills at the same time.

Consistency, time management, and choosing projects (or restrictions) that allow you to improve both at your core tasks and stretch goals is the key.  Productivity isn’t about getting more done in less time; it’s about getting more done in the same amount of time.

Do you use any of these tactics now?  Do you have something in your toolkit that works better?  I’d love to hear about it!