There's a deluge of things coming your way through every channel available. Email. Phone. Instant Messenger. The blokey who pops to your desk and asks if you have a minute. Working from home hasn't made this any better. In fact, it's probably made it worse.
I'm talking about the everyday, reactive, side-of-desk stuff that comes in and disrupts our flow. There's a cost to this. Humans are consistently not good multi-taskers. Performance drops when there is a need to switch contexts. Interruptions add cognitive overhead that, when sustained, leads to stress and burnout.
Cal Newport calls this the "Hyperactive Hive Mind" in his book A World Without Email. It's (unfortunately) rapidly becoming just the way we do things. Business as usual. So many group chats, so many emails, so many "Hi Sam" direct messages.
How are we supposed to get anything done?!
I have a simple mantra that I run through to work out how to deal with an incoming request:
- Does it have to be done?
- Does it have to be done now?
- Does it have to be done by me?
- Do it.
This system, the Four D's of time management - Delete / Defer / Delegate / Do - originates from The Power of Focus.
There are only so many hours of the working day. Therefore, a decision to do something is explicitly also a decision not to do some other stuff. Being conscious of this helps you focus on what's truly the most valuable use of your time. The flip side is by saying no to the wrong things you can say yes to the right things.
Learning to say no, or at least not now, is an important time management skill to develop. As you progress to a leadership role this becomes even more important, as more folks will make demands of your time. Others in the organisation who aspire to your role will look to you to set an example. The way you do that is by showing, not telling.
After all, one of the core principles of the Agile Manifesto tells us
Simplicity - the art of maximizing the amount of work not done - is essential.
The Urgency of the Recent
Bob Carter famously wrote:
A lack of planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine
Not all requests coming your way are last-minute oh-shit-I've-dropped-the-ball requests. Nor are they always indicative of poor planning (especially in an environment where work is emergent). Often they're line of business requests. It is relatively infrequently that stop-the-bus requests come through.
Think of the quote and the "does it have to be done now" step as a defence mechanism against recency bias. Just because it's new doesn't mean it needs to be done now.
Delegation isn't about palming the work off on some unwilling schmuck. Rather, it's an opportunity to develop the team's cross-functional capabilities.
One perspective on the role of a manager is to "shield the team", acting as an umbrella and giving the team space to focus. While important to some degree, it places you in the unenviable and inescapable position of becoming a go-between. In the long run this hurts and hinders the team, reducing the bus factor to one.
So, make that work visible. Delegate it down to the team. They'll learn something along the way.
Working Hard, Hardly Working?
Give tasks you need to do your full, undivided attention. The 4 D's technique is one that carves out the space for focus, so turn off the chat and email clients. It's remarkable what can be achieved in a block of pure focus time. Don't worry, if something genuinely more important comes up you'll get a phone call. It is within this space that you close loops and get stuff done.
In today's always-on, always-busy world, focusing on one thing at a time may seem basic. You may worry others will think this is slacking. Put it this way - how can you reasonably expect to get more than one thing at a time done, if you can't reliably and repeatedly get one thing at a time done?