Managers at Work
“I just got lambasted by my boss for not doing enough on the strategic plan, something which frankly had to take a back seat to other pressing problems, including replacing people who recently left, ironing out customer problems, dealing with budgets, orienting new employees, managing daily operations and overseeing four new projects. If there’s another way to fit one more thing in, I don’t know what it is. Any advice?”
It takes superior time and priority management skills to manage all of that successfully. Most managers really struggle to balance short-term day-to-day crises while still keeping an eye on the longer term strategic projects.
“It seems like this gets worse year after year,” says Michael Lennington, vice president of the Execution Co. and co-author of “The 12-Week Year: Get More Done in 12 Weeks than Others Do in 12 Months.”
“More companies continue to operate with fewer and fewer resources,” he says. “People can only run so fast.”
Unfortunately, today most professionals operate under the illusion that they can get everything done, but the truth is they can’t. In fact, Lennington says a recent study showed the average professional has about 40 hours of unfinished work on his desk at any given time.
“If they operate under that illusion, it actually diminishes what they do accomplish and makes the problem worse,” he says.
All of this time pressure and stress is taking its toll on the American workforce and the companies they work for. A recent study reported in the New York Times by a consulting firm called The Energy Project, for example, showed that most Americans lack engagement in their jobs and that many senior leaders report signs of burnout. One of the key contributors is the pressure on time.
“The study found that demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity—draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life. Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession workforce add to the pressures,” wrote authors Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath. “The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.”
Lennington believes many of the issues around balancing constant priorities are forcing us to think about time a little differently.
“We all have so many priorities that nothing is a priority anymore,” he says. “In reality, there are priorities but we have to be more intentional about how we spend our time.”
Being intentional is common advice among time management experts. Many professionals, for example, use the Steven Covey time-management system which calls for classifying projects and tasks into different categories, including “Urgent and Important, Not Urgent and Important, Urgent but Not Important and Non-Urgent and Not Important.” By categorizing projects and addressing important items before they become urgent, Covey said, people can begin to prioritize their work based on achieving the outcomes they need to reach their goals.
Managing priorities is not just about classifying work projects appropriately, it is also about finding ways to “be intentional” on a regular basis about doing important (but non-urgent) work, even if it means working off site to get away from distractions.
One key factor is understanding “work triggers,” Lennington says. These are the things that happen—like customer requests and complaints or human resources problems that interrupt your day and send your schedule off-track.
“It’s very difficult to be strategic when you’re bombarded with urgent demands,” Lennington says.
These day-to-day type problems call for immediate attention and they frequently affect other people in the office.
“It’s difficult to walk away from a burning fire,” Lennington says.
On the other hand, the strategic plan is not a burning issue. It may be a high priority for the boss, but “who will notice if you spend time on it today?” Lennington asks.
So it takes discipline to isolate yourself, carve two or three hours— even away from the office— to work on the plan. If you do that, you will be amazed at how much you can get done, Lennington says.
Another issue affecting time and priority management is comfort level. People tend to do what is comfortable and easy, Lennington says.
“I feel productive when I’m doing my email. It’s calming,” he says.
But it’s also reactive and doesn’t create enough value to help you move toward your goals.
“So you have to ask, ‘Am I working on high-value stuff? Where is the greater value created?’” Lennington says. “You might have to step up to uncertainty and discomfort.”
So if the strategic plan causes uncertainty and discomfort, for example, break it down into smaller steps. Design the first step in such a way that it’s not overwhelming.
What Lennington wants to do is help people address the gap between what they know they should do on the job and what they are actually willing to do. That is what keeps most people from accomplishing their goals, he says.
Lennington advocates designing 12-week action plans for projects.
“When you’re looking at a project, ask yourself where you need to be in 12 weeks. Create an action-based plan around it that you can share with stakeholders,” he says.
That will help prevent procrastination and optimize chances of making substantial progress. Be sure to break the action plan down into weekly action plans with tactics, Lennington says. If you execute 85 percent of your tactics in a given week, then chances are you will reach your 12-week goal. The 12-week model came as a result of working with people in financial services, which focuses heavily on “annualized thinking” and puts pressure for results on the last three months of the year.
By switching the focus from 12 months to 12 weeks, Lennington says you can create deadlines for important work throughout the year and generate the urgency needed to meet deadlines.
“If you feel like you’ve got a deadline coming up, your stress will drop because you feel like you’re doing the right stuff every day,” he says.
Managers at Work is a monthly column exploring the issues and challenges facing managers. Contact Kathleen Driscoll with questions or comments by phone at (585) 249-9295 or by email at email@example.com.
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