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Make time for the work that matters

More hours in the day — what everyone wants, yet impossible to attain. But what if you could free up significant time to focus on the responsibilities that really matter?

More hours in the day — what everyone wants, yet impossible to attain. But what if you could free up significant time to focus on the responsibilities that really matter?

We have spent the past three years studying how knowledge workers can become more productive and found that the answer is simple: Eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with value-added ones.

Our research indicates that knowledge workers spend a great deal of their time on discretionary activities that offer little personal satisfaction and could be handled competently by others. So, why do they keep doing them?

Because ridding oneself of work is easier said than done. We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we are willing to accept.

We believe there is a way forward, however. Knowledge workers can make themselves more productive by thinking consciously about how they spend their time; deciding which tasks matter most to them and their organisations; and dropping or creatively outsourcing the rest.

By simply asking knowledge workers to rethink and shift the balance of their work, we were able to help them free up nearly a fifth of their time and focus on more worthwhile tasks with the hours they saved.

Our process, a variant of the classic Start/Stop/Continue exercise, is designed to help you make small but significant changes to your day-to-day work schedule:

Identify low-value tasks: Look at all your daily activities and decide which ones are not that important to either you or your firm, and relatively easy to drop, delegate or outsource.

Our research suggests that at least one-quarter of a typical knowledge worker’s activities fall into both categories, so you should aim to find up to 10 hours of time per week.

Decide whether to drop, delegate or re-design: Sort the low-value tasks into three categories: Quick kills (things you can stop doing now with no negative effects), off-load opportunities (tasks that can be delegated with minimal effort), and long-term redesign (work that needs to be restructured or overhauled).

Our study participants found that this step forced them to reflect carefully on their real contributions to their respective organisations.

Off-load tasks: We heard from many participants that delegation was initially the most challenging part — but ultimately very rewarding. One participant said he could not stop worrying about the tasks he had reassigned, while another told us he had trouble remembering “to push, prod and chase”.

Allocate freed-up time: The goal is to be not just efficient but effective. So, determine how to best make use of the time you have saved. Write down two or three things you should be doing but are not, and then keep a log to assess whether you are using your time more effectively. Some of our study participants were able to go home a bit earlier to enjoy time with their families.

But more than half reclaimed the extra hours to do better work. “I stopped spending time with my project planning tool and instead focused on strategic activities, such as the product road map,” said Mr Shantanu Kumar, CEO of a small technology company in London.

Ms Lotta Laitinen, a manager at a Scandinavian insurance company, used her freed-up schedule to listen in on client calls, observe her top salespeople and coach her employees one-on-one. The result was a stunning three-week sales jump of 5 per cent, with the biggest increases coming from below-average performers.

Commit to your plan: Although this process is entirely self-directed, it is crucial to share your plan with a boss, colleague or mentor. Explain which activities you are getting out of and why. And agree to discuss what you have achieved in a few weeks’ time. Without this step, it is all too easy to slide back into bad habits.

The small intervention we propose can significantly boost productivity among knowledge workers. You do not have to redesign any parts of an organisation, re-engineer a work process or transform a business model. All you have to do is ask the right questions and act on the answers.

© 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Julian Birkinshaw is a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School and the author of Becoming a Better Boss. Jordan Cohen is a productivity expert at PA Consulting Group and the recipient of the 2010 grand prize from the Management Innovation eXchange for his previous work at Pfizer.

SELF ASSESSMENT Make a list of everything you did in a day, divided into 30- or 60-minute chunks. For each task, ask yourself the questions below and tally up the points beside your choice: How valuable is this activity to the firm? Suppose you are updating your boss on your performance. Would you mention this task? It contributes in a significant way to the company’s objectives. (4) It contributes in a small way. (3) It has no impact, positive or negative. (2) It has a negative impact. (1) To what extent could I let this go? Imagine that because of a family emergency, you arrive at work two hours late and have to prioritise the day’s activities. Which category would this activity fall in? Essential: This takes top priority. (4) Important: I need to get this done today. (3) Discretionary: I’ll get to it if time allows. (2) Unimportant/optional: I can cut this immediately. (1) How much personal value do I get from doing it? If you were financially independent and creating your dream job, would you keep this task or jettison it? Definitely keep: It is one of the best parts of my job. (5) Probably keep: I enjoy this activity. (4) Not sure: This task has good and bad points. (3) Probably drop: I find this activity somewhat tiresome. (2) Definitely jettison: I dislike doing it. (1) To what extent could someone else do it on my behalf? Suppose you have been tapped to handle a critical initiative and have to assign some of your work to colleagues for three months. Would you drop, delegate or keep this task? Only I (or someone senior to me) can handle this task. (5) This task is best done by me because of my particular skill set and other, linked responsibilities. (4) If structured properly, this task could be handled satisfactorily by someone junior to me. (3) This task could easily be handled by a junior employee or outsourced to a third party. (2) This task could be dropped altogether. (1) A low total score (10 or lower) reflects a task that is a likely candidate for delegation or elimination.

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