Do you know anyone who isn’t busy? In fact, don’t we all wear that “badge of busy” all too frequently? In today’s always-on culture, pretty much everyone needs to do more with less, get great results and balance multiple projects. That’s why it can feel counter-intuitive to narrow your focus at work. But sharper focus is the most direct path to higher impact.
Going through life “crazy busy” might feel like high social status or that your time and attention are highly valued. But busy does not equal productive. Often a lack of clear priorities and focus at work leads to the busyness trap and results that are less than desired.
Do these sound familiar?
- You could have done better if you had more time.
- After a day of meetings and emails, you wonder when the real work gets done.
- Your day expands to include earlier starts or later finishes.
- You fill your review with things you did, but you didn’t move anything meaningful forward.
If these ring true, you are not alone. The U.S. is one of the most overworked nations in the world: we are faced with limited capacity, resources and money. Many add time to balance the equation, but time alone doesn’t drive impact. So how do you prioritize the right things and find focus at work?
Why Is It So Hard to Prioritize?
Let’s look at the common issues and get the easy answers out of the way.
- My job requires immediate responses.
- We don’t have enough people.
- The customer wants what they want.
Those issues exist everywhere and some environments are more difficult than others. Then there are some trickier issues:
- It’s hard to say no in our company.
- There is social pressure to be responsive.
- The organizational strategy isn’t clearly communicated.
Those are fair. These issues can certainly interfere with your ability to prioritize. There are some internal assumptions that are even more challenging:
- I don’t have the discipline.
- I’m not confident I can accomplish the goals.
- I’m afraid that if I go for it and miss, they might fire me.
These are real issues. But why are some people still able to get beyond the noise and focus on the critical issues? How are they getting around the barriers so they can focus at work and make real impact?
Five Approaches to Increase Impact and Decrease Stress
Without priorities, it’s common for people to work on too many tasks—sometimes at the same time. Research points out the negative impacts of multitasking, including reduced efficiency, lower performance, lower attention spans, IQ drops and lower EQ (emotional intelligence).
To increase impact, here are five approaches to prioritizing that can dramatically increase your impact at work and at home.
1. The Key Questions
When starting a new project, ask a few questions to determine the relative impact:
- Does the project directly connect to goals, objectives or OKRs? (performance)
- Does the project align with customer/stakeholder needs? (alignment)
- Does the project align with the team/company purpose? (direction)
If you answered “no” to any of the questions, stop and think. Is this project really worthwhile? If you were the owner, would you do it? The Key Questions approach prevents the “thin” projects that don’t get enough impact. Focus at work on projects where you can say “yes” to all three questions.
2. The Pareto Analysis
The Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of results come from 20 percent of effort. Simply put, 20 percent of your time gets you 80 percent of the impact. The trick is to find the 20 percent. Take a look at your goals and keep a log of how much time you spend directly working on the goals this week. As you analyze the time, see if you invest enough time focused on your goals. Next week, double the time spent on the 20 percent. Cut the 80 percent. No one ever wrote “managed my inbox” on their review.
3. The Plan and Capacity Forecast
Most people misjudge the time required for tasks. In this approach, identify a small number of tasks to complete each week and each day. Estimate the time required for all tasks. Before beginning a project, make sure you:
- Know the steps needed to complete it.
- Know the time required to complete each step.
- Plan enough time to get the work done on time.
- Schedule calendar time to complete each step.
Once you know the steps and how long they take, work each task until complete.
4. The Tactful No
When approached with a new project or task, evaluate it relative to your existing workload. If the new project is less impactful, then push back (gently to your boss). You can also take the agile approach and let others know that it’s “on the backlog.” This tells them it’s captured, but not a priority now. Gandhi said, “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” If the project isn’t impactful, say no.
5. The Unconventional
“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” – Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs used to face his own mortality every morning to make each day impactful. Morning coffee with a side dose of perspective encouraged impact and focus.
Warren Buffet would make a list of 25 items and circle five. “Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list.’ No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top five.”
Rather than split his time between the five and the 20, he focused on specifically avoiding anything outside of the five. Can you name your top five?
The higher you go within an organization, the better you need to get at prioritizing. Those that truly achieve stay on task for longer. Sharpening your focus at work by spending your time on critical issues will make the quality and quantity of your impact increase.
Do you lead a team that needs more focus? Get an inside view of how well your team is positioned for high impact— sign up for a free demo of RallyBright’s Resilient Teams™ assessment.