Make your outcomes visible

‘Are you outcomes-driven or are you inputs-driven?’ 

– This is a question I often pose during my productivity presentations and workshops. 

By outcomes-driven, I mean do you let the bigger picture drive how you spend your time? The significant work, the work that makes the most difference over the long term.  By inputs-driven, I mean do you let the immediate drive how you spend your time? The stuff that’s just turned up in your inbox, interruptions, “drive-by” meetings. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that way too often, much of our precious time is driven by our inputs – they’re noisier, and more in your face. 

Monthly planning is a sure-fire way to achieve greater balance between being inputs- and outcomes-driven.  At the start of every month, think about and record your ‘Top 10’ – the significant, meaningful pieces of work that require your time and attention, the biggest priorities for the month ahead. 

When I invite participants to do this during workshops, I often find people struggle to come up with something even close to 10. 

I am positive the outcomes would exist somewhere, since most businesses engage in setting goals and objectives each year.  But perhaps they are buried in a document or plan that’s gathering dust somewhere; perhaps they exist in your head only.  This lack of visibility of the most important work often results in people being driven by their inputs instead – living in the inbox; reacting way too quickly to urgency; being very, very busy, but not necessarily as effective as you could or need to be

Stopping at least once a month to connect with your outcomes helps you to stay focused on the right work, and to prioritise how you spend your time each week. Making your outcomes visible and tangible by thinking about them and getting them out of your head, or the pile they are buried in, will help you to connect with them more frequently.

How connected are you with your outcomes?           

A sense of perspective

At the start of each month I have a recurring priority scheduled in my task list. It reminds me that at some stage in that week, I need to sit down and get some perspective. To take some time out from doing, and spend some time thinking about my top 10 BIG priorities for the month ahead.

So, when the time comes, I set myself up in a quiet space with a coffee and print-out a two-page template that helps me to prioritise. It is my version of a prioritisation strategy used in the project management industry to prioritise competing projects called forced-ranked prioritisation. Essentially it forces me to compare my list of ten priorities against each other to come up with a sequenced list from most important, to least important.

Now, this list is not a list of things to do. It is not at the task level of granularity. It is a list of projects, issues or opportunities that I would like to move forward in a significant way this month. This is about the BIG picture, and about getting some perspective into my thinking.

Once I have ranked each priority against the other priorities and come up with a prioritised sequence, I gain some valuable perspective about what I should be spending my time on over the coming weeks. Out of this list should drop next-step actions that get scheduled into my calendar or task list. This creates traction, and ensures that how my time is being spent is a healthy balance of proactive as well as reactive work. It focuses my attention, and ensure that my work is driven by importance, not just by urgency.

This week, a pretty busy few days turned into a light few days as two client engagements rescheduled at short notice. Some days in the office – gold! How could I best use that time? To work that out, I turned to my Top 10 list and eyed my top three priorities on the list. Two days later I have moved several significant pieces of work forward. Work that will add substantial value to my business in the long term.

My suspicion is that without doing the prioritisation exercise last week, I might have spent the last two days ‘catching up’ with myself. Clearing emails and faffing around with the small stuff. Instead, I knew exactly what deserved my time.

What is your strategy for gaining perspective? Do you have one? If not, please send me an email and it would be my pleasure to send my Monthly Top 10 prioritisation tool to you

Getting traction with complex tasks

A recent question from a participant in our Productive Leadership program got me thinking about a solution to managing more the complex tasks on our list. You see, he had a fairly busy meeting workload, but was pretty organised and managed to stay on top of most of his simple tasks all the same. What was killing him were the few more complex pieces of work in his role that he invariably procrastinated about and left until the last minute. These tasks were highly valuable but also highly stressful.

Every task, simple or complex, has three stages – Deadline, Planning and Execution. A simple task, like sending an email or making a phone call, will usually roll all three of these stages into one. With a simple email, we try to get to the task before it is overdue. We then open the email, have a think about what we need to say, write it and then send it. The deadline, planning and execution all happen at once.

Complex tasks, such as preparing for a presentation, writing a report or finalising a budget are a different beast. With complex work, there is a much greater risk that we will procrastinate, leave it until the last minute, and run out of time. This drags down the quality of the task and increases the stress levels. It also puts pressure on those around you if you then need to pass it downstream at the last minute.

So, next time you have a complex task to manage, break it down into the following three stages, and manage each with the appropriate tool in your action management system.

Deadline – Make it visible
Even though this is the final stage, it is where we should start. Clarify the deadline, and make it visible in your schedule. All Day Events in your calendar are a great way to show upcoming deadlines. As deadlines are zero duration milestones rather than activities, we just need to be able to have them in our line of sight, and be aware as we draw close to them. It is a good idea to review your upcoming deadlines as a part of your weekly planning and make sure you are still on track.

Planning – Create a thumbnail sketch
Now that the deadline is in place, we need to come right back to now and start planning the task. Schedule no more than 20 minutes to roughly outline the scope of the task – quickly brainstorm the key components, stages or points involved. This is what I call a thumbnail sketch. It is a very rough outline, and it will help you to estimate how much work is involved, and clarify your thinking about how to approach the task. This planning stage can simply be scheduled as a task in your action list, and it should be prioritised to happen as soon as possible.

Execution – Block out time
Once you have roughly planned the task, decide when you will protect some time for the actual work. You should now have a better feel for how much time will be needed. This is best blocked out in your calendar, ideally far enough ahead of the deadline to provide some wriggle room. Other things will invariably come up, and it always takes longer than we thought. Plan for this. When you block this time out, protect it and view it as being as important as any meeting in your schedule. The beauty of having created the thumbnail sketch before you do the work is that your mind will begin working on the task in the time between planning and execution.

So, what complex tasks are you procrastinating on right now?

If you follow this process, you will find that things are rarely quite as complex as we first thought!!

Fight for your priorities

Over the past few months, I have put a lot of effort into spending most of my core working hours doing meaningful, appropriate work that will help me achieve my goals and objectives for this year. A worthy endeavor indeed, but as you will know, there are many things that distract us from our important work every day. We are all extremely busy but sometimes we are busy doing the wrong stuff.

I will put my hand up and declare that I have been guilty in the past. One reason for this is that I had not clarified what I was trying to achieve, so therefore I did not prioritise my time and attention effectively. When you are not clear about what you are trying to achieve, everything that comes your way seems a reasonable use of your time. But when you get crystal clear about your objectives, you protect your time fiercely and fight for the work that is most important.

A good example of this for me is my new podcast – 21st Century Productivity (see sidebar for details on how to listen). I recently joined a gym, and decided that this time I would stick it out more than the usual 4 weeks. So i decided to make gym time also learning time, and started listening to podcasts on my iPhone. A whole new world of learning opened up for me, and I realised that a productivity podcast would be a great way to help our clients embed the system, as well as promote Adapt in the marketplace.

Here is the catch. It takes a lot of time to script, record and produce a podcast (not to mention the time needed to learn how to podcast). How do I fit it in around a full schedule of training, coaching, sales meetings and the day-to-day activities of running a lively small business? The answer – I fight for it! I fight fiercely to make and protect time for the important activities that will make a real difference at the end of the day.

You see, I have decided that the podcast is a valuable strategy to help me to achieve one of my key goals for this year – to position myself as a productivity thought leader in the Australian marketplace. I know that the time invested in creating the podcasts will not only help my clients, it will showcase our brand and will also push my creative thinking on productivity.

“If you really believe in what you are doing, work hard, take nothing personally and if something blocks one route, find another. Never give up”. Laurie Notaro

So there is no doubt in my mind on the importance of this work. The problem is, there is no urgency. You see, nobody has asked me to create a podcast. I don’t have any clients that have contracted me to create a podcast, and there is no deadline looming that will force my hand and make me commit to action. This has to be driven by me, and if I am going to commit to delivering a podcast every two weeks, I will need to fight for that time in my schedule. The fight will mostly be against myself, and my desire to procrastinate if I can.

Does this resonate for you? Have you got a proactive piece of work that you should be fighting for? If so, here are some tips that might help you fight the good fight:

  • Don’t just think it and mean to do it – schedule time to do it in your calendar or task list
  • Resist the urge to defer the activity as soon as something urgent comes along
  • Review your objectives regularly to reconnect with what is actually important in your role
  • If something does come up, reschedule the activity, don’t just cancel it
  • Learn to keep commitments you make to yourself in the same way as you keep commitments to others

My new-found clarity about what is really important in my role has helped me get so much really valuable work done that in the past would have drifted. It has helped me to remember the things that are worth fighting for!

Do your bit

I recently spent a whole day working on a video for our website. I considered this to be an excellent use of my time because it helps to position our business and helps potential clients to understand our approach to productivity. It did take much longer than I anticipated though, and I began to question the true value of me doing the whole task. 

You see, the part of the task that was a really good use of my time was scripting and shooting the video itself. That is a creative piece that fits my skill set and is appropriate to my role.

But out of the eight hours that I spent on the activity, only 2 hours was actually spent on the creation. The rest of the time was spent editing, uploading, creating intro screens, tweaking, reloading, fixing errors, tweaking again, reviewing, tweaking yet again (you get the picture). Instead of doing my bit, I did the whole thing, and convinced myself that the whole thing was an appropriate use of my time.

I wonder how often we find ourselves in similar situations? How often do we end up spending way more time on something than it is worth, and convince ourselves that it is necessary because the outcome is important?

I believe that if we want to save time and get more done, we need to examine everything we do, and work out what is our bit, and how can we get the other bits done without spending significant amounts of our time on them. Here are some ideas:

  • Delegate some of the task to someone else. Either delegate the front end and then review and finalise, or delegate the back end and get someone to finish what you have created.
  • Streamline or automate the lower-value parts of tasks you repeat often. Set up templates or systems that make this part of the task more efficient.
  • Consider outsourcing if delegation is not an option. There are many online services in the cloud that can do basic process work quickly and cheaply.
  • Worst case scenario – do it yourself, but set a limit to the time you will spend on it. Don’t go for perfect when good enough will do.

Over the next few weeks, try to catch yourself in the act of doing work that is not the best use of your time and ask yourself how you could get it off your plate. Remember the opportunity cost – every time you are working on one thing, there is something else you are not doing!

Fight for your time

This week I learned how powerful it can be when you fight for your time. I am involved in a year long training and coaching program as a participant. The main focus is on implementation, and there is a very high level of accountability to ensure that we do what we say we will do.

I have attended many training programs in the past and like a lot of people have not implemented afterwards. A part of the problem was that I would come out with so many ideas and actions,that I would get overwhelmed and not implement any. But this program did things a bit differently. Each quarter we just have one major project to launch, and therefore just need to focus on one thing. 

Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to do in relation to this one project, but by keeping focus on one big thing, I am finding that I can integrate the work in with my business as usual work. I also find I am fighting for the time to work on this project more, and my resolve to see this one through to the end is paying dividends. I had a hugely busy week last week between delivering training, coaching and running the business. But I scheduled time into my system to work on this project (fought inertia), and I protected that time fiercely (fought others) and I honored that time even though I had other seemingly urgent things to do (fought myself). 

So, if you are flat out with your normal day to day work, and are struggling to get time for the proactive projects, try the ‘less is more’ approach. 

Instead of overwhelming yourself with ten projects that you will not do, choose one project and start actually doing it! Your motivation will increase, you will feel more balanced and you will get better results if you just get a bit of the high-value proactive work mixed in with the urgent day-to-day.

By the way, a project is any chunk of work that will require more than one task or activity to complete it. Choose a chunk, break it down and just do it! 

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