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Positive Outliers

Working Out My Work

In my recent post called, A Portal of Possibilities, I described the time I first got my hands on an Apple Macintosh 128K, and how it dazzled me and drew me into a new world of possibilities. The power of these new tools and the possibilities they gave me, consumed my focus.

However, I had a team. Whilst I focused on this new technology, I was neglecting them. I needed to rebalance my efforts, and quickly.

How Do Others Do It?

So, I began to study what other people did to organise their work lives. It was as if I had added one other project to my project portfolio: me.

I had been on time management courses, but I knew that this challenge was a larger matter than really how I sped through things, and how I allotted time to my different tasks. What helped other people to keep focused on what mattered? What is productivity?

In my story about my recruitment blunder, I wrote about the overuse of the term management and, among other things, it is unhelpful and perhaps even damaging, when we use management to the act of engaging with the people around us. I wrote this about time management:

We are in time, so how can we manage it? That’s like asking a fish to do water management. Fish swim, yes. But they don’t control the water.

I was discovering that there was only one person I should manage. In fact, it was, imperative that I did so. That person was me.

In the literature on emotional intelligence, also known as EQ, the bedrock of EQ is first, self-awareness, and then, self-management.

EQ Main Skill Areas

What should I do first? What should I do next?

Sooner or later, we all come to the realisation that even our boss – if we even have a boss – cannot be expected to tell us the What and the How of everything we should do. We need to work that out for ourselves. It also remains for us to identify next, our priority, what or whom we should attend to next.

Leading Yourself
Succeeding from the Inside Out

As I explained in my book, Leading Yourself: Succeeding from the Inside Out, self-management follows self-leadership. The enemy of effective working for any of us, particularly portfolio workers, or even portfolio creators, is stress, driven by hurry and distraction.

So I began a quest for the way to manage my time better. I later realised that this was crucial to making sense of my work and to the process of managing it effectively.

Lists

I had begun with lists, to-do lists. I think everyone creates lists, as they start to order their work. I tried labelling each item with priorities such as A or B or C, as I had been taught on my time management training, but this seemed clumsy. Also, my lists got longer. Important stuff got lost in the middle somewhere. I found myself writing out longer and longer lists. Moving them to my PC seemed a natural way to go, but I ended up printing out and amending these lists by hand. We didn’t have the list apps available to us today. But still, the handwritten vs digital divide seemed awkward to me.

Covey’s First Things First

Early on, I came across the work of the late great Stephen Covey, in such books as The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and First Things First. His approach was refreshingly different. I liked the breadth and depth of Covey’s analysis, which encompassed much of EQ. It was practical whilst being principle-based, rather than locking me into one particular methodology. Covey highlighted the Eisenhower Matrix and how something that was urgent was not necessarily important. Making a distinction between what was merely urgent and what was also important became a critical way of thinking for me.

Time/System

This Danish-based system came in the form of a training course backed up with a proprietary set of stationery. We had a quality A5 Filofax-type ring binder, with extensible add-ons that could be tailored to different uses. I remember that it had a detachable perfect-bound calendar pocket notebook that I found particularly useful. 

After a couple of years, though, I found the system a little too prescriptive. It didn’t allow me to evolve and tailor my approach. There were some software integrations later on, but those were in the early days of hybrid paper-digital solutions and software was not seamless or robust. 

GTD

As the world of knowledge workers continued to speed up with multiple streams of inboxes calling for my attention, along came David Allen with his book, Getting Things Done. His GTD approach seemed to offer the benefits of a system whilst keeping it robustly simple. His key was to keep a single inbox and to triage incoming messages to delete, do immediately if less than two-minutes’ effort, store as a project, or archive.

GTD was focused on taming these various ‘inboxes’ of our lives, and it fulfilled that objective well. But I felt GTD lacked something. It did not help me to continually reshape my work as new roles and challenges arose.

Kanban

As a coach and trainer at the time in project management, we were seeing agile software development grow as a movement. Two aspects, in particular, fascinated me:

  1. The use of the Kanban board to prioritise and move team member tasks through conception to completion; and
  2. The cycle of scheduled retrospective meetings which helped an agile development team become an adaptive, self-improving learning organisation.

At the time, I was using Trello to manage my personal commitments. Later, I came across Personal Kanban, by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry. What they set out resonated with what I was doing. I began to incorporate it into a course a client asked me to design and run, called Organising Yourself More Effectively.

The Rise of VUCA

All the while, the world seemed to be accelerating towards VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Like many, I was being challenged with increasing demands, and increasingly complex ones at that. I had to manage my own experience of VUCA and ensure I didn’t become swallowed into the vortex of aimless distraction and chaotic stress.

So, I have evolved how I work out my days. It is a critical skill in surviving these times of noise, hurry and distraction. More than that, I have to find it is possible to do more than survive. We can thrive and overcome. However, I find that I need to keep adapting my own system of self-management.

Three Conclusions

In the course of my own journey out of this chaos, I have concluded that:

  1. Margin is important, whether it be time margin, health margin, financial margin or space margin. Margin protects us from the unexpected, providing us with a buffer against becoming someone who is permanently driven by circumstances. We cannot outrun VUCA. We cannot merely increase the speed and throughput of our work. In fact, it is better to declutter and create space.
  2. There is only ever one priority in any given moment. We need a solution to help discover what that one priority is, helping keep us focused on that, despite all the distractions around us.
  3. We can become too task-focused for our own good, and we need to consider the relationships around us.

Most of the above productivity approaches are one- or two-dimensional. I’m realising now that we need to manage ourselves in at least three dimensions.

I will explain what I mean by these three dimensions in my next blog.

In the meantime, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by John Sekutowski on Unsplash

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