Work Better

(This piece is the third (and final) in a three-part series on “Working Less“.)

We have already discussed why the way we work isn’t working and why working fewer (quality) hours works in our best interest. In this piece, we’ll look at ways of working fewer hours to get the right work done.

It’s not about working longer, but working smarter; think output (results), instead of input (the time you spend). Nobody cares how many hours you worked. What matters is what you produced in the time you worked. It’s about results.

Before we delve into how we work fewer hours to get the results we want, first understand that there are potentially three kinds of knowledge work. I learned this from David Allen.

  • Work we have defined in advance (Next list).
  • Ad hoc work or work that shows up in the moment.
  • Work of defining the work (Admin Work).

Here are some strategies for working fewer, higher quality hours and getting the right work done:

Define your work hours and your personal threshold for work. At some point, doing the work results in diminishing returns; for instance, you can have a threshold for working no more than 30-40 hours a week. Whatever it is, block time for both work and play.

Once you define those hours, understand that when you’re at work, you’re just working. That requires a great amount of self-discipline. Spend the fewer hours actually doing the work, and focus on results/outcomes.

Stop trying to do it all, and have fewer commitments to work on at any given time. You can either do a few things well or many things poorly. When you do the latter, you’re spreading yourself too thin. Use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process to figure out those few projects for you, and then commit most of your work time to doing those projects; working on fewer projects at any given time ensures that you make meaningful progress on them.

Remember, you can do anything, but not everything. That means any work you undertake is worth doing well. Avoid task-switching. That means you give your work your complete attention by doing one thing well at any given time. This can be your single biggest competitive advantage at work that will improve the quality of your work and the time it takes you to do it.

Have and use a trusted system to manage your agreements with yourself and to stay on top of your commitments with others. Use the Think, Review, Do process to make the Trusted System work for you.

Get work done to understand how to structure your work day and week in terms of your areas of focus. When you have time for each of your work areas, nothing slips through the cracks, thus allowing you to stay on top of your commitments.

When you’re at work, work in sprints. We work best when we alternate between work/effort and rest/recovery.

Any knowledge work typically involves doing some work in solitude and some working with others. Try to do your personal work as early in the day as possible and schedule team work for later in the day. The reality is that our attention, will, and capacity for intense focus diminishes over the course of a given day. So, it’s best that we schedule work based on attention.

Figure out your dealbreakers. Stop making other people’s problems your own. Stop others from siphoning off your time and attention for their own purposes, agendas, and urgencies. Define your boundaries and set them. Unless you create boundaries, you’ll never have time for things you want to do — you have to make time for things that matter to you, and that won’t happen by itself. Learn to say no to others’ requests, especially when their agendas don’t overlap with your own. Being proactive and having focus can also help a great deal.

Here are some best practices to doing your work better:

  • Remember you’re a pro. That means when you show up at work every day, you’re driven by values, not feelings.

  • When you’re working, spend some time every day defining your work. This is where you do the thinking required (not actions). Unless you spend the time to think about your work, how will you do the work? You need to think about your work and then do the work. When you try to do both at the same time, you will fail. It never works. For more on this, please read Thinking and Doing.

  • Try to keep ad hoc work to a minimum in order to provide more time for doing predefined work and the work of defining the work.

  • When you’re planning your week, schedule time for play in your calendar and then decide what you’re going to do in that time in advance. This way, you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of a typical work day.

  • If you’re having trouble procrastinating and getting started at work, give yourself just 25 minutes to make progress on a project. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself motivated to get back to work. More on this in a future piece.

  • Begin your day by warming up and writing for a few minutes each morning. This helps you transition to work better. Similarly, define your work at the end of your work day to review what you accomplished and to plan for what’s to come the next day. This brings closure to your work day and helps you transition to Play better.

  • Spend a few minutes in the morning to do a daily review. If you’re doing this regularly, you only need a few minutes each day to do this. This helps you plan your day better. The point I’m trying to make is you spend some time defining your work in the morning and evening, while you spend the day doing the work. This goes back to thinking about your work and then doing it.

  • As part of defining your work in advance, have a Next list ready at work, so you’re not thinking about what to work on when you have any discretionary time at all. You’re just doing the work.

  • Take some time to figure out your tools for work, and then use the heck out of them.

  • When you take frequent breaks, give yourself the space to think about what you’re doing instead of constantly focusing on inputs, such as using your cellphone without purpose.

  • Have a process for when you’re at work; let that process determine the outcome of your work. Using a trusted system is an example of such a process.

  • There is always enough time to do everything you want to do. If there isn’t, either you’ve taken more than you can chew, or you need more time to do the work you’ve taken.

We need to work fewer hours on the right things. That way, we’ll have enough time for both Work and Play because that is what works in the long-term. The problem is that we are not focused enough and lack the discipline to work and do one thing at a time. There are times where we need to work in solitude, and then there are times we need to work with others.

As an individual, team, or organization, focus on results, set appropriate parameters, and then give sufficient autonomy and space to knowledge workers so they can thrive.

The point I’m trying to make is that working fewer hours is in the best interest of everyone — worker, organization, and customer. There is no downside here. Everybody gets to play more, and, as a result, better work happens.

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