We’re all managers, even if that’s not what it says on our business cards. We manage time, relationships, health and money. We also manage our careers which can include workload, people, performance, path and ambition. There are a lot of levers to be pulled in order to control when, how and why we allocate time and energy each day.
The challenge we all have is finite capacity and limited abilities. Recognizing and acknowledging these constraints is crucial. In my experience, survival requires self-awareness and simplification. I’m not just talking about physical survival, but survival in all aspects of our lives. There’s a balance that must exist to avoid being overwhelmed to the point of metaphorical paralysis.
Survival for me requires that I simplify. We’ve all heard the real estate mantra, ‘location, location, location’. ‘Simplify, simplify, simplify’ is what I have to keep top of mind when it comes to my professional life and interests. In order to do that I’m continually going through a process of prioritizing, sequencing and assigning.
The first step I take is to prioritize. At any given time I have 50+ work-related items on my plate. This could be anything from responding to a never-ending stream of emails to working on client deliverables to strategic planning to participating in meetings. Every one of these needs to be prioritized. Priorities range from Essential on the high end to Not A Priority on the low end (i.e. my priority buckets).
Sometimes prioritization is a formal, written-on-the-whiteboard exercise, whereas others it’s less formal and exists only in my head. Let’s take a step back though. I can’t prioritize if I don’t know what my goals are…In essence, what I’m working toward or prioritizing for. Back to prioritization…Once my tasks are in their priority buckets I need to figure out when they’re going to get done, so my next step is sequencing.
I use a nested-schedule technique to back into the sequence of what I do when. This means I have various-sized timeframes within which I sequence tasks, such as ‘sometime this month / week / day / hour’. Once I’ve decided how precise I need to be with a task, usually based on its urgency and importance, I then dive into that timeframe (i.e. month / week / day / hour) and finalize the sequence of activities.
Many tasks needing to be done are either formally scheduled or driven by deadlines so the sequencing is sometimes decided by others and / or it becomes more of a ‘what can I fit in between these things that can’t be moved?’ exercise. Because of this, sequencing is flexible and evolving as meetings, deadlines or tasks are added, changed or removed. Another factor I consider is whether the task is something I’ll do myself or if it requires input or action (in whole or in part) by others. That’s where the next step of assigning comes in.
At this point I need to determine both what I need to do and what I want to do, and also what I can do and what I can’t do. That’s why the assigning step is so important. It adds work in some respects because you must know the resources you have access to and their ability to help. Overall though, my objective here is to leverage the time and talents of others where possible, assuming the cost of doing so is reasonable, in order to simplify.
This doesn’t mean that if I don’t know how to do something, I always offload it on to someone else. My nature is one of curiosity and a desire to constantly learn so sometimes I ‘assign’ myself to the task even if I know that isn’t the most efficient solution. In the long-term my hope is it benefits me in some way to do this. The overarching goal of this step in is to identify and engage resources that can help me simplify.
Complexity is confusing. It’s easy to get buried in the minutiae and experience analysis paralysis. The way to mitigate this is to simplify. For me, simplification is a continual process of prioritizing, sequencing and assigning. Sometimes it takes just a few seconds because I’m continually processing inputs and outputs with regard to tasks, goals, deadlines, budgets and schedules. Other times, the situation is more complex, and it takes longer. Regardless, simplification is required for survival.