A three-step process to spending time at work on the right things

Priorities at Work

Maybe the biggest challenge of the modern-day work environment — and there are many — is figuring out what to spend time on. It seems like work can pile up, new projects can be added, and most managers are inclined to define everything as a priority. The thing is, everything can’t be a priority — humans simply don’t have the ability to focus on, and complete, 10-12 different things at once. (Here’s more on that idea.) When people leave jobs, the most interesting dichotomy is always this:

  • Managers assume they left because of money.
  • People report leaving because of bad communication and unclear priorities.

Taking all that together, then, it would seem pretty important to figure out a way to determine what the right things are, why those are the right things, and how you begin attacking the “right” to-do list. Thing is, most managers aren’t very good at this (see also), so … what can be done?

What if it was as simple as three steps?

In reality, nothing is ever as simple as three steps — aside from maybe the process of sex, and even that has about 10,241 steps that come before it — but here’s an idea:

  • Sharpen the vision of what the unit needs to do in the next year (make the priorities clearer)
  • Free up time to actually do work towards those visions, by consolidating/streamlining current activities
  • Consider short-term experiments to help them be more flexible to getting to the vision without going through a long, drawn-out process

This isn’t bad. It has holes, and those holes are very similar to most “This one process will make your workplace better!” ideas: namely, people are involved in any workplace, and people are different, and they have different belief structures, and OMG this sentence is pretty long, and frankly, at most maybe 3-5 people are really on the same page with anything. People being unique is the biggest challenge of the workforce, straight-up. You can’t corral people into pens, but you can corral projects and spreadsheets into pens. That’s why managers get more comfortable with those things and forget about the people side. That’s a problem.

But I digress.

If you start by sharpening the focus on what needs to be done — and why it needs to be done, because the why is essential for work to resonate with people — and then move to the how, that is a good first step. I can’t tell you how many jobs I’ve had where people have said “This is a priority now!” but if you ask them why, they say “Because it is!”

News flash: if you’re using the same logic you used in kindergarten to make a business decision (“It’s my toy because it is!”), you’re a fucking wreck.

The idea of freeing up time is harder — honestly, most managers aren’t very good. They look at work as tasks to be done. Freeing up time means taking away from deliverables. That scares people. That’s where this three-step process starts to fall down a little.

Short-term experiments is a good idea, though — in reality, most work is short-term experiments anyway, because most companies adhere to a quarter system (if publicly-traded), or think about things in 3-4 month spans anyway (in terms of operations). I’ve long wondered why organizations do anything in terms of “long play” strategy. That shit is great on paper, but it’s an utopia. Things change so fast with people, meetings, objectives, priorities, deliverables, etc. — it’s really hard to tangibly plan more than about 1 year down the road, even in terms of budget.

This is all a long way of saying that there’s no optimal “Improve your workforce in this way!” plan. Rather, each workforce is different, just like each individual is different. That’s how you improve yours: you look at the problems and the people, and you go from there. But this three-step is a good way of starting to think about it, if nothing else.

Ted Bauer