In a flexible, lean startup environment, the biggest enemy of real, meaningful work is the task “treadmill”—the cycle of meeting, email-answering and planning that seems to cannibalize all other forms work in its path.
Companies that aren’t careful about the way they approach urgent tasks, set deadlines, and break down larger projects often find themselves in this state, constantly ’getting started’ on a million tasks tasks without finishing any of them.
Protecting real work time
One of the best ways to prevent your to-do lists and calendars from filling up with meaningless work is to be relentlessly defensive in the way you schedule your time.
People who understand the value of their time know that their schedule is not an endless to-do list to which anyone can add tasks—on the contrary, a schedule should be a tool for defending your time and protecting work that you think is important enough to schedule.
One way to encourage this is to literally, physically block off parts of your calendar for the most important things on your todo list.
Don’t let anything but emergencies enter these spaces. If someone needs to meet with you, too bad, that’s protected time, you’ll have to reschedule. Protecting this time might seem hard at first, but it’s the only way your work won’t be eroded by distractions in the long run.
Defensive calendaring allows you to take control of your schedule and identify key recurring time slots where you can accomplish specific activities. Short of a true emergency taking place, these blocks of time help you defend against over-committing, getting pulled into meetings,and losing yourself in an endless barrage of spontaneous calls and drop-ins from clients and associates.
Not sure which blocks of time to protect? Studies have shown that most people are at their most effective and focused in the morning, so that might be a good place to start. Saving your mornings for the most important work also means you’ll have time later in the day for follow up, if need be.
Knowing that you have a few hours of protected, blocked-off time every morning also means you can schedule your days more precisely and confidently, knowing that your plans won’t be derailed by unwelcome distractions.
The best (and simple/effective) project management tip I’ve ever received is to create your to-do list the night before. That way when you walk in that next morning, you’re ready to go and don’t need to spend time digging through emails and time creating that list.
It may save you five minutes, or it might save you a half an hour. Having a focused list first thing in the morning is what will help jumpstart your day in the right direction.
— Ryan Kwiatkowski, Retirement Solutions, Director of Marketing
Not sure whether an urgent distraction merits your attention during your protected hours?
A good test for this is to simply ask yourself, “is this urgent thing actually important?” If it’s urgent, but not important, then guess what? It’s not important, or urgent!Another thing that might try to impinge on your protected time is information. If you’re not careful, you can spend all day reacting to every bit of new information and not doing any real work in the process. Recognize what data is worth acting upon, and which is worth ignoring. Checking your email and analytics all day is not real work.
Breaking larger tasks into smaller ones
We are at our most distractible and least focused when we feel overwhelmed by big, seemingly intractable projects. When presented with a task that we can’t quite wrap our heads around, we default to looking for smaller tasks, like emails and meetings, and real work goes out the window.
In these circumstances, one of the most useful project management steps you can take is to break down large, complicated projects into similarly-sized small chunks.
Some of the benefit here is psychological: when we break large projects down to their constituent parts, they immediately seem smaller and more manageable. People are far more likely to tackle something optimistically if they can fit the entire task in their head.
If you’re overwhelmed by a project, break it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Actually write them down, too, until you get to a level where you can deal with each bit. Then keep your head down and JUST focus on one small piece at a time.
Breaking things down into smaller chunks can also help you remain flexible, particularly if your projects involve working closely with picky clients. What might seem like a complete 180 from far away might, once you’ve zoomed in, really only involve minor tweaking.
The importance of flexible deadlines
The most valuable thing that project managers can do to protect real work, even more than encouraging it, is making sure their project management methodology isn’t actively destroying it.
If defensive scheduling is the best way to defend real work, aggressive scheduling, in the form of arbitrary deadlines and overly-ambitious timelines, is the best way to quash it.
And by far the best way to ensure that you aren’t eroding a team’s real work time is to let team members set their own deadlines.
This might strike some managers as being overly accommodating or charitable, but flexible deadlines are often more beneficial to a project manager than they are to any individual team member. They often immediately provide a project manager with extra information about how much time a task should take to get done, and how realistic a deadline actually is.
People have a tendency to over-promise and be overly-eager to agree to impossible deadlines, especially when the deadlines come from superiors. Letting employees set their own deadlines also eliminates this social pressure and moves the focus from pleasing a superior to increasing efficiency.
Let employees set their own deadlines. You may be assigning some aspect of a project that you believe will take a week, but maybe that employee can get it done in 4 days, or even just a few hours. By asking employees to set their own deadlines, you can also ensure that they are held accountable to their word.