Overworked: Why Not Do One Thing at a Time?

I hear on all sides, people tell me they are too busy.  When I get into the reasons why, it often seems their worklife (not to mention trying to get so called work-life balance, don’t get me started on that one) is riddled with conflicts about what they think they should/should not be doing at any given moment. So they try to do two or three things at the same time. And doing two things at once is not what our brain was designed by evolution to do. Try doing a budget analysis in your head, while remembering a 7 digit phone number if you doubt this. Most people are usually spending most of their day trying to do more than one thing at a time, which is like three people trying to go through a one person door. Unlike Buddhists they don’t walk when they walk, talk when they talk, deeply focus when they deeply focus. They are not mindful at work. And so are “over-worked” and don’t get much done for all their efforts.

With this in mind, I am going to suggest some approaches to address over work through the lens of conflict about what exactly we are trying to get done, and about how to do one thing at a time, as much of the time we should. They are thought starters, challenges to our thinking (and yes I need them too) if you like, in no particular order, but I hope they may help us.

  • Keep a rough log of how you spend your time (e.g. meetings, email, real work, networking, pretending to multi-task, achieving nothing etc.) so you can see how much time you are currently wasting And  if any of these suggestions works, you can see the progress. And if you see no progress: guess what, it’s not working and you should try something else. And if it is working do more of what works.
  • Try to figure out what exactly you are trying to get done and how you might measure it, with what timing and whose the customer and what do they think of the result? Then when you finish something you can spend maybe five minutes seeing what you really achieved.
  • Remember the 80/20 rule: if we just leave it to chance, 20% of our efforts produce 80% of the results. So figure out what these efforts are and make sure you do them in quality time with all your focus and how about making these areas occupy 80% of your time? Which leads me to the next rule, that will create some time for that:
  • The Non Value Add rule: This was invented by my old friend, wise before his years, Mike Murray. In his very first job after university, he noticed that about 25-40% of what his boss, his internal customers, the system asked him to do, didn’t seem to add any value to anyone. So he jotted down the task, printed the email, whatever, and put it in a filing system where it was easy to retrieve in case in his innocence he was wrong. This could today of course be electronic. Then he only did this suspected non value add work if the person asking followed up meaningfully like it mattered, and then he did it very fast that evening by working a bit late. About 80% of the requests were never followed up, so he ended up with four drawers full of the stuff which he threw out at the end of the year. By this simple approach, he freed up about 20% of his time to do really well  the real work, or to go find value add work he could do, and got promoted soon after. He does it to every job he has had
  • One touch: set aside some time each day to one touch all the routine easy to handle emails etc. If they need much thought, put them in another pile, the real work pile. But if they don’t, then just handle them there and then; bom, bom, bom…knock out 30+ email replies an hour until the inbox is empty…I used to end my day with this so there was nothing in my inbox at the start of the next day except new stuff.
  • File compress your day: a huge amount of our day can be diffuse effort, appearing to be busy, but really worry bead time displacement activity or time when you are frozen between two conflicting priorities and doing neither. So actually you could get a lot more done in the time if you wanted to. However massively vital, as you can’t do two things at once, even with two life or death priorities, if you can’t decide between them, toss a coin and just do one of them. Which brings me to:
  • Meetings bloody meetings. In all my 35 years professional career  I don’t remember many meetings that actually achieved much. So go to as few meetings as is politically possible in your organization. But I guess some you have to show up to. One way to make them better, if you have any say in the matter, is to very tightly agenda meetings with fixed time slots for each topic and no over-runs, and categorize the agenda into: information, discussion, decision. Only real emergencies need all three steps in one meeting. Mostly it is better to give a quick information input for later discussion, spend most of the meeting discussing key issues in a structured way, and make decisions if obvious, right then: if not at the next meeting. But if not easy to decide, this may mean there is conflict that needs surfacing and dealing with using the Seven Step Creative Conflict Model of this blog. Most meetings are pretence that there isn’t some real conflict, so they achieve little. Oh and having meetings standing up works well to cut them short… 🙂 The shorter the meeting the better….Of course as @LoupLoup2 points out below, what I say applies to meetings inside organizations. Meetings to rally a political cause are something else….
  • Method improvement: pick a few routine chores that take a lot of your time and spend a few hours making them into a streamlined process you can do when you are too uninspired to do anything else. This is another form of file compression.
  • Expense Reports. Those of us who travel postpone doing our expense reports until they become a pain because we have forgotten what we spent what on what and have lost the receipts. Given much travel time is low mental energy, do expense reports in real time: as you spend, add it to your expense report on your tablet or the actual report. And as you fly or train it back home, finish it and send it as soon as feasible.
  • When are you at your best? Morning, afternoon, evening? Try to use that time to do your best work on the 20% that produces 80% of the results
  • Multi-task when you really have to, and set aside time for this largely useless activity ideally where lots of people can see you to show people you can do the “waste time while looking busy” trick consummately. The rest of the time focus, focus, focus on key result areas. Our brains are absolutely useless at multi-tasking on anything, but the most routines simple tasks. So if you have something important to do:
  • Hide early, hide often. Shut the door, or even better go hide, go to a library, coffee shop, swap desks with a colleague who has figured this out too, who wants to do the same to get rid of drop-in visitors, wherever works best for you. Switch off all devices and focus, focus, focus on the task in hand. And diary (ideally for the time of the day you are at your best) perhaps three or four hours a day as hide time and in each hour, work 55 minutes intense concentration, then take 5 minutes doodling, go for a walk or whatever you like to do as a change. Though for real thought, I like walking with a pad to jot down any insights. The thinking for this posting was partly done while walking on a treadmill. Most of us can’t do more than four hours real focused work a day. Use this well.
  • After Action Reviews: for significant work, projects etc do quick five minute After Action Reviews in writing: what went well, not so well, what would do differently next time? And at the start of each week have a quick at recent AARs to plan the week ahead.
  • Process Discipline: these tips are useless unless you have the process discipline to try them, and continue for the rest of your professional career to use those that work, the 20% of these tips that deliver 80% improvement. Good luck
  • And please send me any experience you have of using these tips so I can improve them

Footnote: This post is dedicated to my friend the Wave Rider to help her ride the waves of over-work.


About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Conflict Processes, PERSONAL CONFLICT RESOLUTION: CREATIVE STRATEGIES, Uncategorized, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Overworked: Why Not Do One Thing at a Time?

  1. louploup2 says:

    Good stuff. One caveat on “Meetings bloody meetings”: I have been engaged in political activism for 40 years. The truism is “decision making belongs to those who show up.” That means meetings. I agree with points about “tight agendas” etc to the extent possible, but it is important to gauge the value of meetings beyond the specific results that may or may not occur in any particular session. Relationship building is critical to developing political power.

    Perhaps you’re speaking about a different category of meeting (i.e., inside “organizations”); I’m dealing with political organizing and lobbying and networking. Some of these meetings are accompanied by beer, so it’s not all bad. 😉

    • @louploup2. Thanks. Yes I was thinking of the inside organization meetings. Though I think even for the political organizing meeting it helps if it is well thought through. I sometime think that people make such meetings boring in order to hoard power in a few hands. 🙂 As a former student organizer I think we did back in the day. I tend to like an extreme opposite free flow meeting too in which group cohesion is built via forming, storming, norming, performing; almost a sort of group therapy that creates a group that can go out and storm the world. But that is something else from your average work meeting. I will amend my post as per your point.

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