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"It's not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" Henry David Thoreau

What would you do if one of your employees spent over three hours each day shopping online? Chatting in the breakroom? Going for a "quick" bite to eat and coming back just in time to get ready to leave for the day?

Now, imagine this employee is you. But you'd never commit such egregious timewasters! Well... most of us do engage in behaviors that add just as little value to the organization as a three hour lunch. Why would we do that? And more importantly, how can you make time for meaningful work that moves your company and career ahead?

The Ants Go Marching...

There is no denying it: you're busy. But just what are you busy about? Productivity and strategy experts, Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, have an answer, though perhaps not one you'll like. According to their research, the average knowledge worker spends 41 percent of his or her time on work that has little meaning or which could be easily delegated to subordinates.

Cohen and Birkinshaw identify several reasons we engage in low-value work:

  • It makes us feel engaged. Cohen explains, "We've been socialized with the idea that completing a task is an accomplishment." In other words, we're industrious - just like ants - and "we cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important."
  • Leaders try to do more with less. Since we're "getting the job done," (or doing a reasonable facsimile), bosses "pile on as many responsibilities as we're willing to accept."
  • We don't want to let coworkers/leaders down. We worry that if we stop doing these tasks or do not accept them in the first place, we won't be viewed as "team players."
  • We like to chat. Plain and simple. As you might have guessed, meetings were identified as one of the biggest time-wasters. The average knowledge worker spends 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings; and unnecessary meetings cost US companies $37 billion a year. Yet we can't give them up. Many value the time to socialize with coworkers.

Regardless of the route, the destination is the same: dramatically reduced productivity and results. To paraphrase author and veteran CEO Perry Marshall, we're wasting time on $10/hour work when we should be focusing on $1000/hour work.

Top Down or Middle Ground?

Some organizations are taking steps to free their employees from the burden of low-value work. Atos CEO Thierry Breton, for instance, made international waves when he launched a "zero email initiative" in 2011. Breton felt his 70,000+ employees were spending too much time on internal emails (only about 10% of which were useful) and not enough time on management.

Jordan Cohen himself created a program called pfizerWorks that empowered the pharmaceutical company's employees to outsource "grunt work" so they could spend more time on innovation - on $1000/hour work. But as Cohen and Birkinshaw acknowledge, "it's very difficult to change institutional norms." It's hard to proclaim, from on high, that everyone else has to change how they work. Which is why finding middle ground is a must: employees themselves must take steps to jettison low-value work, and their leaders need to support them.

Try this five-step process to begin tackling high-value - and highly-rewarding - work:

  1. Identify low-value tasks. Examine your daily activities and ask which are not important to you or the organization, and which are relatively easy to hand-off, outsource, or drop altogether. Cohen and Birkinshaw estimate that about 25% of your activities will fall into both categories - giving you up to 10 hours of reclaimed time per week.

  2. Drop, Delegate, or Redesign. When you have identified your low-value tasks, categorize them as:
    • Quick Kills. You can stop doing them now with no negative consequences.
    • Off-Load Opportunities. You can delegate them relatively easily.
    • Long-Term Redesign. This work needs to be overhauled or restructured.

    Step back and ask yourself, should I really be doing this? Is it contributing?

  3. Off-Load Tasks. Delegate. What can you reasonably off-load to a subordinate - who will likely enjoy the opportunity to learn? As Melba Duncan writes in Harvard Business Review, "Work should be delegated to the lowest-cost employee who can do it well." Cohen and Birkinshaw's research found that knowledge workers could delegate from two to 20 percent of their work with no decline in productivity on the part of themselves or their teams.

  4. Allocate Your Freed-Up Time. Identifying what you shouldn't be doing, but are, is half the battle. Now look at what you should be doing but aren't. The authors suggest keeping a log to see if you're using your time optimally. When you delegate or toss low-value tasks, you free up time for high-level work - or perhaps going home early. That certainly offers its own range of benefits.

    For example, Lotta Laitinen, a manager at a Scandinavian insurance company, realized she was wasting time on meetings and administrative tasks. She refocused on strategic activities, such as observing her salespeople, listening on client calls, and coaching employees one-on-one. The result: a five percent increase in sales in just three weeks. And the biggest gains came from her below-average performers.

  5. Commit. Share your plans and initiatives with a superior (if applicable), colleague, mentor, or coach, so you have the support you need to stick with your new habits. This can help keep you accountable and make changes that will benefit both your career and your organization as a whole.

When it comes down to it, spending time in unproductive meetings or becoming enmeshed in a web of menial duties is just as much of an egregious waste of time as those three hour lunches. You have the knowledge and tools to make a change; now free up some time and go use them.


Larry Hart

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