When work piles up so that all your efforts are focused on digging out, it might be more helpful to focus on managing actions rather than managing time.
We all have phases when we get slammed with a tremendous workload and the overwhelm sets in. On days like this, it’s easy to get focused on how little time there is to get it all done. And the more we focus on time, the faster it seems to go.
As productivity guru David Allen says in Getting Things Done, “You don’t manage five minutes and end up with six.” I would add: you manage five minutes and end up with three. By the time you’ve managed it, some of it is gone. It’s a losing battle.
Actions, on the other hand, when well-defined, actually get subtracted. If you define five actions well and do two, there are now only three. Ah, the relief!
The key word here is ‘well-defined.’ Also, the word ‘action’ takes the place of what we would usually call a ‘task.’
At the center of Allen’s productivity system is what he calls ‘next actions.’ A next action is the next, specific, do-able action you need to take on a given project or goal. And everything that involves taking more than one action is a project.
Let’s say I have three projects on my plate this week: I am giving a presentation, writing a report for my boss, and organizing a new team. Of course at any given moment there are probably a lot more projects circulating your to do list, but for the sake of example, let’s say there are these three plus the usual emails, meetings and phone calls.
One of the most common ways to get stuck and overwhelmed is to keep thinking, ‘oh crap, I have to work on the presentation … and then there’s the report …’ without identifying the next action for each one.
If you tackle these projects in terms of time, you might say, ‘ok, from 4:00 to 5:30pm, I am going to work on the presentation.’ Now 4:00pm comes around. You are already pretty spent from an intensive day of meetings. You might sit down at your desk and just as you wonder, ‘wait, where to start …,’ the phone rings. While you answer the call, you check your email and realize there is something important. Next thing you know, it’s 5:30pm and you’ve gone down the email rabbit hole. You might head home from work super stressed and be snappy with your family. Then you don’t sleep well because you are feeling badly that you didn’t work on the presentation and you worry about when you will get it done … plus you are regretting your snarky comment at the dinner table. Maybe you vow to wake up at 4:00am to work on it. Now you have totaled about 3 hours of real sleep. If this sounds familiar, know that it’s very common. It’s what often happens when you manage your projects with time.
So let’s do it over. The moment comes when you think ‘oh crap, I have to work on the presentation … and then there’s the report …’. Instead of deciding what time you will work on the project, you define the next action, right then and there. You think, ‘what is the next immediate step I need to take to prepare for the presentation on Thursday?’ Maybe you realize that in order to put your slides together, you need some data from another department. But who is the best person to ask? Should you email them or call them? Should you ask for a table or a graph, or just the numbers? These are the decisions you need to make right here and now as you identify your next action. The next action would be something like: ‘email Paul to ask for a chart with November’s sales figures.’ Once this is identified, you can write it on your to do list before you rush off to your meeting.
One reason this method is successful is that you process the decisions in advance. That helps because it’s the series of unmade decisions about projects and tasks that make them feel overwhelming. Now, when 4:00 comes around, and you’re tired and going through your email is terribly tempting, you don’t have to face a loop of decisions – all you have to do is execute.
The same method would apply to your project of starting a new team. The more vague and large a project is, the more tempting it is to put off, exactly because it’s not well-defined and all those micro-decisions stand in the way. Maybe the first step in starting a new team is deciding who should be on the team. In order to do that, you have to ask around to see who is interested and available. So the next action might be: ‘email Sue and Rob to set up a meeting.’ Or it might be ‘write down the goal of the group in 3 sentences,’ or it might be ‘write a list of 10 people who would work well on the team.’
With the next actions approach, your to do list goes from looking like this:
Prep Presentation (4:30pm)
Organize new team (Tomorrow 5:00am)
Write report (Maybe come to office on Saturday)
To looking like this:
Email Paul to ask for a chart with November’s sales figures
Email Sue and Rob to set up a meeting
Write down the goal of the group in 3 sentences
Write a list of 10 people who would work well on the team
Skim last month’s report
Glancing at the first list, you are likely to feel overwhelm with a little tinge of dread, while glancing at the second list, you might feel a bit of hope and even motivation to get going.
Notice that the second list does not have times attached to it – this is because the actions are ready for you to do as soon as an opportunity comes up, which might be at 2:55 between meetings, or at 3:05 when someone is late to a conference call, or at 4:00 when you get back to your desk. Since events are fluid during the day and things come up, it gets demoralizing to say, ‘I’ll do it at 2:55, wait, someone had to talk to me, ok, I’ll do it at 4:00, oh wait, I had to answer an email.’ Because of this fluid nature of a day in the office, it’s more useful to have a list of next actions ready to fire as soon as you can get to them. Of course, ideally, you would have some desk time allocated to work on your next actions, but let’s face it, that doesn’t always happen.
So next time the wave of overwhelm hits, consider identifying the next action for whatever you are worrying about. If you want to integrate this approach into your task and project management, Allen recommends a Weekly Review, or going through all of your projects to identify next actions for the week ahead.
To quote the productivity guru once again – “Things rarely get stuck because of lack of time. They get stuck because the doing of them has not been defined.”