Productivity Rx – Ask These Four Questions to Make Your Work Easier

We need a better way! A better way to deal with all the stuff; the stuff coming at us all day long; the stuff we have to do – today, tomorrow and the days that follow.

What we need is a simple, clear way to process everything that’s already in and coming into our day. A simple way to identify what each thing is, where it needs to go, and, if it’s something that needs doing, who will do it and when that’s going to occur. Oops, it appears I’ve given it away, but read on if you want to find out how this four-corner approach can work for you.

These Amazing Times – The Miracle and Its Price

We live in amazing times, but so did the generations before us for some time back. So what’s so amazing about these times? Affordable instantaneous global communication. That’s my response. The wiring of the world over the last 20 years has created the ability for virtually every person on earth to reach out and engage with virtually every other person in an affordable and nearly instantanenous manner. This is our contribution to the myriad human accomplishments over the eons.

Of course, with the good comes the bad. Joining this new ability has been mobile technology in the form of laptops, smartphones and wireless networks. We can literally communicate to anywhere from anywhere. And we do, all the time! Consequently, the number of inputs we each process daily – phone calls, emails, texts, etc. – has grown in orders of magnitude (which is a lot!).

Unfortunately, the price is an expensive two-fold whammy. First, we have to process all of the new stuff. Second, the expected response times have shrunk to nanoseconds. The result is that we constantly feel behind the curve and can quickly become mired in the sheer volume of it all.

In short, we can do so much more but we feel so much worse about it!

The Rx – An Updated Way to Process All That Stuff

I’m an ops guy – operations that is.  Good or bad, it’s what I do best – make things work better, faster, cheaper. I’ve always wanted to be better at more interesting things, like marketing or sales, but I’m stuck with this particular talent, so I’ve made the most of it.

Fortunately, this skill – known as Productivity in the professional development world – has timely application given this overwhelming number of inputs we each deal with daily. My work with clients has focused primarily on how to quickly identify and process all this stuff, then get back to focused efforts on the things that need doing today. The foundation of this work centers on the productivity method I created – QuietSpacing – and customizing it to each group’s or individual’s needs.

To spread the love a bit further than just to my clients, I’m going to lay out the basis for the method in this article and demonstrate how it solves the problem of feeling overwhelmed and out of control with your workload.

Ask and You Shall Receive

Great answers are often found when we ask simple questions. When you’re trying to power through the various things you need to process at any time during the day, try these questions and their corresponding answers to see if they help you more efficient and effective:

1.  What Is It?

In the world of Stuff, this is a multiple choice question with ONLY four answers – Trash, Archive, Reference or Work. Trash is self-explanatory – something you don’t ever need again. Archive is something you may need again but not very often, if ever – like a contract or a letter that relates to a specific project. Reference is stuff you use (refer to) to do your work – like a phone book. Work is anything that needs to be done.

In fact, if you’re not sure what a particular item is, ask yourself this yes/no question: Does anything further need to be done with this? If the answer is Yes, then it is necessarily Work. If the answer is No, then it is necessarily one of the other three – Trash, Archive or Reference.

Phew, that’s the hard part. If you’re struggling with this first question, create a sticky note listing all four types of stuff and put it some place you’ll see it regularly. Practice getting used to quickly assessing what each thing you touch is. Once the list is ingrained in your psyche, you’ll become adept at slicing and dicing the onslaught of stuff coming at you.

(Note, also, that I’ve been doing this for six years and those are the only four categories of stuff I’ve ever been able to identify. Everything easily fits into one of those four. If you come up with a fifth, email me and we can discuss why it’s not one of the four.)

2.  Where Does It Go?

Now that we know what each particular thing is, we need to put it in the right place. Things get much easier now:

  • Trash = Throw it away (or delete it if it’s electronic)
  • Archive = File it away in your long term storage system (file cabinets, hard drives, etc.)
  • Reference = Put it away near your work area such that it’s easily accessed
  • Work = We can’t move on with Work until we determine what Type of Work it is:
    • Action Item: These are things you need to do or you need to have someone else do (delegate); the ball’s in your court.
    • Awaiting Response: These are things you are waiting for someone else to get back to you on; the ball’s in their court.
    • Pending: These are things that aren’t ripe yet, things that need another event to occur or a date to pass before they become “ready” for you to do or someone else to do; the ball’s in no one’s court … yet.
    • Reading: This is professional reading, things you read to stay abreast in your field; ball’s in your court.

3.  Who Will Do It?

We have neatly and quickly dispensed with three of the four Categories of stuff in our lives leaving only the Work items left open. This next question – Who Will Do It? – is really a sub-question of Work and provides the most clarity with respect to anything you’re going to delegate to others.

If you are dealing with an Action Item, it’s often effective to ask if it’s something You should do of if it’s something you can Delegate to another. Of course, once delegated, the Action Item becomes an Awaiting Response, right?  See how this works?   Thus, this mini-question serves a focused, but highly useful, purpose in getting things into the right funnel for completion.

4.  When Does It Next Need Attention?

Notice that I have totally side-stepped the deadline question. The reason is that I believe “When is it due?” is a trap for the unwary. There are two reasons for this. First, most Work gets handled out with due dates like “ASAP” or “Urgent” or “Immediately.” The first two are unclear – my ASAP may be different than your ASAP and “Urgent” is also relative. Immediately rarely means immediately, except possibly in an emergency room. These types of deadlines are further symptoms of the problems we experience with our always-on world.

Off the diatribe and back to the point, the actual deadline is less meaningful in our analysis than the question of when do we need to think about it again to make sure it gets done “in time.” A project that will take two days to complete is best thought of several days out from that beginning date to maximize our flexibility in triaging all the rest of the inputs that constantly come at us, while also bringing the project in on time. Using some form of flexible reminder or tickler system is the best way to manage these deadlines so that you can adjust each day’s puzzle pieces in such a way as to move through your stuff in the most efficient and effective way.  This gets you back to the producing efforts quickly and with a sense of command and control over the work.

That’s right Virginia, I Didn’t Give It All Away

The framework laid out above is the fundamental workflow model I developed to help my clients quickly move through the near-overwhelming inputs that come at them every day. It’s a short process to move through several times a day or hour and leaves you feeling in command over your workflow.

Of course, I haven’t given the whole baby away, but there’s more than enough there for you to face each day with the tools you need to stay in front of the curve and feel more successful in your career.

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