Time to do the work: Ten principles for achieving sanity in the workplace

Juggling balls by Marlon Bunday via Flickr

“Once you’ve seen a pattern, you can’t un-see it,” says Brené Brown in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection.

One pattern I see time and again is how loading people up with multiple simultaneous projects can dramatically reduce the quality of their work. Most managers and companies don’t understand this, or don’t want to understand it, because they are measured on throughput and not quality.

Organizations producing knowledge work as their primary output — consulting firms, the media, software companies, financial services, etc. — aim to hire employees who have managerial abilities. They should be able to multitask, attend to several projects at the same time and manage their own time conflicts.

But while the activities of managers are designed to fit into that pattern, those of us who work with the subject matter of our organizations (i.e. the ‘work product’) actually require uncontested time to perform the work.

Everybody understands that a factory worker needs time to perform his task. Distractions would slow down the line and reduce the plant’s throughput. Industrial capitalism has spent the last 200 years designing increasingly better methods to ensure that distractions and other adverse factors are minimized in production lines. Shifts are relatively short to ensure that workers don’t get over tired; tasks are just simple enough to perform easily but not too boring to ensure workers don’t nod off or quit in frustration.

In organizations staffed with mostly knowledge workers, the contrast between management and ‘those who do the work’ is much harder to see. And the fact that most knowledge workers are conversant with modern office culture and have the ability to be self-managing creates the illusion that everyone in the organization should be treated equally.

In a managerial role — where my responsibilities are primarily internal — I can choose to sacrifice quality in certain tasks in order to increase my throughout (or create the impression that I have increased it). But when I am tasked with actually delivering the ‘product’ (a report, a software program, etc.), I cannot do this. To do the work properly is to spend the time doing it.

Nobody gains anything from loading up knowledge workers beyond their capacity to perform the work. Both firm and employee stand to lose their reputations at every turn when work is performed poorly. Customers are likely to get bad advice that’s not tailored to their specific situation because the consultant has just recycled something he’s previously created for someone else. The work of downstream consumers of the product (software developers, for example, who receive a requirements document written by a time-pressure business analyst) becomes affected, too. And so the problem is compounded all the way down the line.

Smart knowledge workers should follow a number of basic principles to protect themselves against this pattern, whether sanctioned to do so by their employer or not.

I’ve learned these (usually the hard way) in the course of my ~15 year journey through the ‘knowledge economy.’

  • Learn to say no: Know and track your own time and capacity limits at all times. Capacity is not just related to the amount of time you have available; capacity is also your ability to multitask or time-slice your attention between multiple competing projects or activities. Some people are great at this and some aren’t. I’m not. When you say no to a request, do so in a polite but firm manner. And always be prepared to back up your refusal with numerical evidence.
  • Learn to quantify and estimate your work: The only way to truly understand how long something will take is to know precisely how much work it is. The art of estimating is not just for engineers or highway construction project managers; an experienced knowledge worker should be able to quantify the work effort for most common (and not-so-common) activities he typically performs. Always start by asking, “How much work is it if I had nothing else going on at the same time?” Then, take into account other factors, like the nature of the client, the number of other things you have going on at the same time, etc. Numbers, more than anything else, help convince managers of your point because numbers are the language of management.
  • Learn and understand your own limits: Some people really enjoy working long hours. They’re energized by it. I’m not one of those people. I have a built-in limit of being able to concentrate for only 2-3 hours at a time, and my daily ability to work stops at around 7.5 or 8 hours. Above that, I can make myself look like I’m working by sitting at a desk in front of a computer, but I’m not particularly productive or insightful. I also have limits when it comes to the number of projects/customers I can juggle at the same time – I top out at around three. Above that, the constant context-switching actually keeps me from working at all.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver: This is a good principle to follow in many areas of life, and work is no exception. This principle can be applied in all sorts of different contexts, but it’s basically designed to protect you while making you look great. Over time, as you become more experienced and build your library, over-delivering becomes easier because you have more items in your bag of tricks that won’t cost you any additional time to create and will wow your customer.
  • Build a library and know when to apply it: Regardless of the industry you work in, the employment agreement you signed when you were hired says that your employer owns everything you produce while you work there, and that you have to leave it all behind when you quit. Sure. And yet, every great marketer, salesperson, consultant and technologist I know takes key documents, code, methodologies and contacts with him from job to job. This becomes your personal library, your own body of knowledge. Knowledge and experience isn’t confined to what’s in our heads, and it’s foolish to assume that we will re-build our libraries every time we switch jobs. (I’ll leave discussing the ethics of this principle to another blog post.)
  • Protect your personal time: Your time is yours, period. Whether that’s after hours or while you’re on vacation, do not allow your workplace to ‘claw back’ time that’s yours. Protect it vigorously by setting clear limits and communicating them far and wide. Book vacations well in advance and ensure that someone else is clearly identified and on the hook for managing your projects while you’re away. If your employer has an official policy for vacation backups, great. If not, engage a colleague and return the favour when she goes on vacation.
  • Learn what makes you productive and practice it: I’ve learned over the years that I cannot work productively with the myriad distractions of the modern open concept office all around me. Hearing other people make phone calls and hold impromptu meetings in cubicle-land are simply additional distractions that I don’t need. As a result — whether sanctioned by my employer or not — I work from my home office a lot. Many of my customer meetings are at the customer’s offices anyway, and I have most of my team communications via phone, instant messenger or email. It doesn’t really matter to my employer where I am when I work as long as I am being productive. For me, the solitude of my own space is a key enabler. What’s yours?
  • Never sacrifice quality for quantity: In the end, when it comes right down to it, the question is always, how good was your work? It’s not, how much work were you able to cram into a short period of time, or how many clients were you able to juggle at the same time before your head exploded. As I’ve established and applied these principles over the years, I’ve learned that — even though the journey is important — it’s the quality of the final deliverable that really counts. Did it work? Was it useful? Was it worth it? Like factory workers, knowledge workers are paid for their product. I know that many employers believe the journey is just as important as the final product; I think they’re wrong. I can point to any number of occasions in my career where the customer grumbled about the journey but was delighted with the outcome. That’s what they’ll remember.
  • Ensure that your team understands your principles, habits and limits: We all make assumptions about our coworkers, and we’re frequently wrong. People aren’t self-declaring, and it can take time to figure out what motivates your colleagues, what their habits and limits are, and what they’re comfortable doing. Over the years, I have become a believer in communicating my principles, habits and limitations to my coworkers liberally and early. It reduces the element of surprise later. I’m also not afraid to make adjustments to my team relationships in the course of a project. Rather than suffering in silence in the interest of ‘getting along’ I would rather we understand each other clearly and there are no personal resentments between team members stemming from our different approaches and work habits.
  • Manage yourself the way you would others: It’s only at this mid-career stage that I have truly embraced some of the elementary principles of time management and personal productivity that I’ve known about since high school. I now keep a running to-do list (I create a new one on the 1st of each month and transfer any open items from the previous month into it) and make notes in every meeting. Reducing risk should be the key driving principle of both project and self-management. I know that I can’t hold everything in my head, so I write it down. Making notes and keeping to-do lists is a form of ‘project communications’ with myself. This kind of risk management contributes to my overall sanity, and I have only myself to blame if I am lacking information later.

Of course, not every one of these strategies applies to every situation. You will have to come up with your own blend to make it work in your individual context. And it does take a certain amount of courage and groundedness in oneself to politely but firmly assert one’s limits, especially when the request for more of your time is coupled with a statement of need or tied to a promise of a bonus, a salary increase or lieu time off work.

But if you apply these principles consistently and intelligently, I’m willing to guarantee that you’ll see improvements in your overall workplace sanity — and the quality of your work will increase because for once you’ll have enough time to do it.

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