It’s easy to get caught up in what we think needs to be done, today, and always putting future projects on the back burner. When we do this, though, we typically never get to those projects. These could be projects that would allow us to work more efficiently, or to innovate or streamline a work process, or even to create a new and valuable product or service.
I have recently been thinking about the way in which we spend time at work. I often see people, and sometimes myself, getting caught in a cycle of striving to get seemingly urgent, day-to-day tasks done, with no time left to spend on other projects, projects which may be less urgent, but which are even more important.
As an example of what I mean, imagine someone in an office, Frank, who needs to fill a vacancy in his department. To really find the right person for the job, someone who will contribute and stay with the team for the long haul, he needs to invest a lot of time in reviewing and interviewing candidates and working with the recruiting team.
At the same time, Frank also needs to get his usual work done. In fact, he and his team have more work to do than ever because they are down one member. Instead of working on strategy and tackling projects that will help his department perform better, Frank is struggling to get the day-to-day work done while also trying to find time to make the right hire. Reaching that important goal gets further and further away as he focuses on the immediate, urgent, daily needs of the team. Frank is caught in the cycle with no hope of getting out unless he makes a change.
I believe that it’s important to make time for these tasks that constantly get pushed to the next day, the next week, or the next month. If we don’t consciously make the time for them, we will never do them. I believe that we should make a rule of devoting at least ten percent of our time, mental capacity, and effort to future projects, to those goals that don’t seem immediate, but are important. Ninety percent of our time should be enough to get the routine, daily tasks done.
Devoting just 10 percent, on a daily or weekly basis, to focusing on those tasks that will help innovate, streamline, or improve efficiency could make a world of difference in what can be accomplished at work. As soon as we let the day-to-day take up 100 percent of our time, the cycle has begun, and breaking out of it is a challenge.
The Google 20 Percent
Google is famous for its innovative workplace, and one of the early ways in which it distinguished itself from other companies began back in 2006 with “20 percent time”. This concept allowed engineers to devote 20 percent of their working time to projects that interested them, that were not immediately related to their daily work. This rule resulted in the creation of such important Google products asGmail and AdSense. Without being given the time to innovate, engineers may never have developed these.
Today, Google’s 20 percent time isn’t quite what it used to be, although other companies have followed the example. In 2013 Google scaled back 20 percent time and refocused. They struggled to find the balance between giving engineers so much free reign and still keeping them focused on the daily grind and the tasks that had to get done. The 20 percent time isn’t totally dead, but it is more limited.
Apple introduced “BlueSky” in 2012, which is similar to the new, more limited 20 percent time at Google. Certain groups of workers at Apple are allowed a couple of weeks to work on pet engineering projects. Apple isn’t the only company to take the lead from Google. Whirlpool devotes 20 percent of its capital budget each year to projects that are innovative, but not immediate. Microsoft has “the Garage,” which gives engineers the freedom to work on anything. And, it’s not just tech companies giving workers more freedom. Advertising companies, product design firms, and others are initiating similar concepts to drive innovation.
How to Free up Extra Time
Whether your company has a 10 or 20 percent policy or not, take the steps to improve your work time by following the rule independently. Finding extra time in the day or week to devote to future projects is easier said than done, though. It’s a matter of priorities and time management, a concept that most of us find difficult.
A major issue is the difference between tasks that are urgent versus those that are important. President Eisenhower famously made the distinction in a speech when he explained that his urgent problems are never important and his important problems are never urgent. In other words, we tend to spend too much time on things that are urgent, while the truly important tasks sit on the back burner. To be effective and efficient you need to work on both the urgent and the important.
In the typical office job, urgent tasks are those day-to-day things that take up most of your time, like responding to emails or filing paperwork. Sometimes they are important, but often they are not. Do you really need to answer that email now? Or could it wait until the end of the day?
Important tasks are those that you put off because you don’t have time, because they aren’t immediate. These are the tasks that will help you meet more distant goals, like finally hiring just the right person that will take some of that busy work off your plate.
In a small study by the Harvard Business Review, 15 executives were asked to free up time each day or week for important but not urgent tasks. Using certain strategies they were able to cut out an average of six hours per week of busy work and saw the benefits. For example, one executive used her free hours to better support her team and saw a five percent increase in sales as a result. So how did they do it? By taking these steps:
- Identifying unimportant tasks. Look at the things you do on a daily basis. Which tasks have low-value? These are things that are routine, easy to do, and are not very important to you or the company. They are outsourceable.
- Getting rid of unimportant tasks. Once you have identified the low-value tasks in your day, you need to decide how to eliminate them from your schedule, or at least some of them. Consider delegating tasks if possible. In the HBR study the executives found delegating difficult, but ultimately the most rewarding way to offload busy work. If you can’t delegate something think about how you can complete the task more efficiently, or even drop it entirely if it is not needed.
- Using free time well. Now that you have the extra time, decide which of the long-term tasks you have been putting off are most important. Make a list and focus on those that will make the most impact for you, your team, and the company.
- Share the plan with others. The study stressed that executives needed to really commit to this new plan to make it work. Part of that is sharing your ideas with others. Most participants found that managers and other workers supported their new goals and helped keep them accountable.
Getting to tackle those important projects when you devote a portion of your time to them will not only help you achieve goals, it will make your job more rewarding. When you stop rushing around, cycling through the busy work, you will find that work is fun again, that you get to be creative and drive innovation. Find your ten percent and get off the merry-go-round of urgent, day-to-day tasks.
By freeing up just a little bit of time for the important, if not urgent, projects, we will unleash creativity and progressive thinking to make processes more efficient and to create new and innovative products and services.
It is difficult to get out of the cycle of busy work because urgent tasks seem important. It also is not easy to delegate or to eliminate these urgent tasks that seem important.
The first step is to identify tasks that take up too much time and that are not very important. These then need to be cleared out by either eliminating them or delegating them to other workers.