A recent story in The Guardian highlighted an interesting phenomenon at work: how we can get varying amounts of work done in varying amounts of time. ‘Parkinson’s Law’ states that “work expands so as to fill the time available”, which is a slightly cynical way of looking at things. It brings to mind inefficient bureaucracies or being told to ‘slow down, you’re making the rest of us look bad’.
The Guardian piece explores how various organisations are experimenting with reducing formal working hours and seeing the impact it has on productivity. It’s worth remembering that time spent at work rarely equals the amount of productive work actually completed. So it’s useful to explore if adjusting time at work has any impact.
Our limited resources?
It reminded me of a productivity principle I use with clients a lot. That is, we really only have three limited resources at our disposal: time, energy and focus. We can’t create more time and we need to replenish our energy and our mental focus regularly.
Successful productivity requires us to get to know these resources and use them to our advantage. It’s something many of us feel intuitively, but don’t always act on.
But consider the meetings you’ve attending where you just know everything could have been covered in about half the time. Or think about the days in the run up to your last holiday, where you were able to complete a lot of work and a handover to colleagues. You probably felt like you’d accomplished a lot and left for your holiday with a real sense of achievement.
Imagine if you could feel like that every day? Or even most days?
We can easily fall into the trap of over-emphasising the time element of our daily work equation. And this isn’t surprising as employment contracts emphasise our working hours, society is organised around working hours and we have strong expectations of what a working day ‘should’ look like.
In addition to time available for work, we can consider some other important factors: the physical and emotional energy it will take us to complete the tasks on our list and the mental focus we’ll need to give each one. These are quite separate things.
Think about tasks that don’t require a lot of time, but will demand a lot of your mental focus and emotional energy. A difficult feedback discussion with a colleague, for example.
Or a task that doesn’t take much energy, not too much time but quite a bit of focus – such as completing your monthly expenses claim. Or again, something that requires a lot of energy, a lot of mental focus, but not much time – an important presentation to clients maybe? Can you see how the three can combine in different ways?
But we can look at it another way
If we can move away from a pure focus on time and start to consider how challenging a piece of work might be, we can get better value from our time at work. Remember those last couple of days before your holiday? What made them different? Your job was the same, your working hours were the same and you had a similar set of tasks and projects to work on.
The difference was your perception of what could be accomplished and your motivation to get it done. Having clarity on what needs to be done, the effort it will require and a goal for completion could help us replicate this positive experience. You weren’t going to cancel your holiday, were you?!
Instead of clock-watching or having unrealistic expectations of what can be done in a working day, we could re-imagine the working day, set ourselves some targets and use the power of focusing on a single task to make headway and increase our productivity.
Where to start?
For the week ahead, look at your list of tasks and projects and estimate the time, energy and focus each requires. Combine this with how you think you’ll feel at each point in the week to help you prioritise the work that’s within your control. For example, your energy and focus will differ quite a bit on Monday morning and Friday lunchtime.
Instead of denying this is the case, use this self-awareness to better plan your week and focus on tasks that best match your own levels of time, focus and energy. Get to know your own natural rhythms and, where possible, schedule your work to match them.
You can then get things done based on the time, energy and focus you have at your disposal and not simply work on one thing after another until the clock strikes ‘going home time’. Or, find that you’ve somehow spent too much time on something simple and unimportant.
With practice, estimating the time, energy and focus that tasks will get easier and you’ll estimate with more accuracy. You’ll then find it easier to shrug off arbitrary notions of how time ‘should’ be spent and instead focus on what’s possible.
And hopefully leave work feeling like you’ve achieved more.
If this is a topic that particularly interests you, or you think you and your team could benefit from time spent on developing your productivity skills, then check out our ‘Proactive and Productive‘ workshop.