These past two months for me have seen a number of unexpected events. Between the passing of two family members and an overwhelming workload, there have been many challenges to productivity. I begrudgingly let a number of things slide (blogging and learning projects included). I decided to step back and evaluate how I’m doing with my prioritizing and my follow through. This time around, I thought I would do it in a more open forum.
The area where I’ve noticed myself struggling the most lately is with prioritizing an assortment of tasks under the constraint that not all of them can possibly be completed in a given period of time. Ask any client, especially in the medical profession, and they will tell you that all issues are high priority issues, especially theirs, which are critical and demand your immediate attention. Due dates can have little meaning and estimation only helps to a point. It’s easy to know which tasks should fall to the extremes of the spectrum, but what about everything between?
For me, I split my tracking between my email inbox and a spreadsheet derived from application reports at the start of each week. First, I start by clearing out the clutter and distilling down to the things that actually need doing. Then I institute a basic prioritization scheme. Emails that need to get dealt with as soon as possible stay in my inbox; emails that need follow up, but have a longer time horizon go into a “to-do” folder; the remainder get filed away. Finally, I use a spreadsheet to catch the remainder of follow up tasks and start fresh each week. Keep what you need to maintain to a minimum: rough prioritization, when was the last action taken, what are the next steps toward resolution, who is responsible.
When selecting tasks to work on, vary your priorities. I’ve found that doing this over time helps maintain an even balance in tackling everything. Some of my priorities have included:
- Who are the current sensitive clients
- Which clients are the most responsive
- What’s the quickest to achieve resolution
- Which tasks have gone the longest without follow up
- What tasks are unfinished from yesterday/this week/last week/etc…
You need to just be aware of what’s important to you and your workload, and above all, be flexible. I regularly set up a block of time (usually 2+ hours) to help limit any outside interruptions and pick a small number of tasks to solely focus on to completion. The key here is to only focus on the tasks selected because switching between too many tasks at once actually makes you less productive. Task switching is a big trap I noticed I am prone to falling in to.
Don’t have 2 hours? Are you confronting that thing you’ve been putting off for weeks? Use the 10 minute hack to get you going. For the quick response tasks, carving out 10-15 min to target easy response items is effective for quickly crossing things off your lists. If it’s something you’ve procrastinating on, knowing that you can stop after 10 min if you so desire has a great psychological liberation – you don’t have to see it all the way through, you just need to put in 10-15 uninterrupted minutes of effort (and that might be enough to break through whatever was holding you back in the first place). Again, the key here is to dedicate time to single tasks.
First, and this seems like a small thing, but having the right sense of productivity is important. To give a work example, my support queue typically numbers between 10-20 items regularly. I initially started tracking the beginning and ending count of items in my queue to help get a sense of my progress each week. However, what I came to realize this past week is that this does not accurately distinguish subtractions from additions and introduced significant mental drag. Simply changing this tracking from a start/end count to start/resolved/new count changes the mental image from the “I finished the week where I started” trap to the more enabling “I dealt with X items”. Even after just one week, I have noticed a remarkable difference.
The second thing I noticed recently is that some of the tasks and tracking that I do fall into a category that might be best described as “Empty” or “Fake” productivity – doing things of little or no value. (Email conversations are the worst for this. Just pick up the phone!) For me, I notice myself doing these to compensate when my input greatly exceeds my throughput. These empty tasks are actually working against me. They become a sort of To-Do static noise, and require you to step back when you embark down an unproductive path to ask the question “what am I really accomplishing here”. This self-awareness is the only way out of this trap and can be a difficult thing to adjust. Learn to recognize busy work for what it really is: fake productivity. I had several false starts here as I recently attempted to reign in my workload rather than diving in to get things done. Don’t be afraid to question the true value of something.
Finally, I wanted to share a quick video that I found interesting, but couldn’t weave into the above discussion: How to get up early. He makes several good points about how work life isn’t isolated from our personal lives, and that taking care of ourselves can have great impact on our work life.
In some ways, this post was more of a cathartic exercise than anything else. The main take away here is to not get hung up on little things and to seek out whatever tools & habits will help you. Attitude has an incredible effect on productivity. Doing little things here and there was enough to get past some of my mental road blocks and put things back in check. Now, the challenge is to maintain the balance.