By Andy Posner
If you’re reading this during your lunch break, there is a solid chance that you’re behind schedule on your upcoming report, you’ve pushed your 1:30 meeting to 3 p.m., and there are at least two or three half-written emails in your draft box.
This day-to-day pileup is the frustrating reality from which Cameron Morrissey, principal consultant of CLM Consulting, presented “Tame Your To-Do List: Top Strategies to Overcome Your Overwhelm and Make Time for What Matters Most” during a recent American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) Not-For-Profit Industry Conference.
Time isn’t spent, Morrissey noted. It’s invested, and a few practices and principles can yield significant returns.
Prioritization comes first, according to Morrissey. One cannot do absolutely everything that they need or want to do. “Notice that today’s session is named ‘Tame Your To-Do List,’ not ‘Finish Your To-Do List,’” he quipped.
Morrissey suggested taking the first 15 minutes of every day to be alone and start something that you want to get done. That way, with the task now underway, it is easier to chip away at it at spare points throughout the day. There is a reason why magnates such as Jeff Bezos, Jack Dorsey, Tim Cook, and Richard Branson are all early-risers. By starting early in the morning, they have more time to themselves to start on important tasks. Even without showing up at the crack of dawn, important steps can be made by saving the first 15 minutes of the day for yourself.
Prioritization also means avoiding traps. Morrissey separates tasks by importance and urgency. Hitting the important and urgent tasks is obvious. Tasks that are urgent, but not important — priorities of others — are tempting, but have the potential to push your day off track. Tasks can also be divided into effort to complete and importance. Morrissey suggests tackling tasks that are easiest while also important to build momentum for more challenging projects.
Negotiation is the second principle for which Morrissey advocated. Hours of everyday can be wasted just in switching from task to task. If someone comes to your office with a problem, ask them to wait for 10 minutes and you’ll follow up with them. Those 10 minutes can help you finish the task at hand and, so long as you really do follow up, there is seldom an issue among coworkers.
A few easy practices include the two-minute drill — if it takes two minutes or less, finish it; Only Handle It Once (OHIO) — get projects out of the way, don’t repeat the same task multiple stops only to stop and repeat; and Do Defer Delegate or Delete (DDDD) emails. Try to cut the number, length, and amount of people attending meetings in half to improve efficiency.
Schedule emergencies, set aside 30 minutes in the morning and afternoon to recalibrate with primary tasks after dealing with an urgent matter, and avoid decision fatigue. If there is an important decision to be made, save it for after a break. The reason that you buy junk near the supermarket register is that your brain has tired from making a host of other decisions in the aisles. Avoid the workplace equivalent of a Whatchamacallit.
Delegation is the final principle and comes in three forms: delegating work, where you receive information, and how you train others. When delegating work to others, evaluate the difficulty and frequency of the task. Start delegation with your best employees with the simplest tasks. Set a deadline for the work and also a checkpoint so that you can monitor progress and quality. Explain why the task is important.
Delegation also ties into how you listen and how you train. Ask these five questions:
- What do you see going right in the organization;
- What do you see going wrong with the organization;
- What are opportunities we need to take advantage of;
- What problems do we need to fix; and,
- How can I help you do your job better?
When in doubt, ask employees what they think. You don’t always have to follow their advice, but when people understand that you are listening, they tend to open up more. Create similar buy-in with trainings, whether they include stretch assignments, outside classes, mentoring, lateral moves, or promotions. Trainings need to suit the sorts of skills your organization will need down the road, but input from employees is important so that they feel as though they have some skin in the game.
Andy Posner is founder of the Capital Good Fund in Providence, RI. He is treasurer of the national board of directors of the Credit Builders Alliance in Washington, D.C., and a board member of the Community Reinvestment Fund in Minneapolis, Minn.
NPT Editor’s Note: This column should not be considered investment advice. Seek a trusted financial specialist before embarking on this type of transaction.