Twenty-four hours. 1,440 minutes. 86,400 seconds. However we measure it, there is only so much time in every day.
At work, it can seem that those hours, minutes and seconds are not entirely within our control. Despite our best intentions, we can find ourselves bouncing from meeting to meeting, never quite getting on top of that to-do list, squeezed between the people to whom we’re accountable and the people for whom we’re responsible. Where, we might ask, can we find time for our own work, let alone that essential thinking and reflection?
We know there are any number of time management tools and techniques to help us plan, prioritise and focus – and these can make a significant difference. Underlying everything needs to be a simple question: where can I add most value? That’s not necessarily an easy question to answer, but help is at hand. How to make time for work that matters was the subject of a study conducted by London Business School’s Julian Birkinshaw together with Jordan Cohen – and the results are unequivocal.
The researchers spent three years investigating how knowledge workers can use their time better. The answer, it seems, is unsurprising and simple: eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and replace them with “value-added” ones. Yet the people who took part in the study were spending, on average, 41% of their time on discretionary activities that could be handled by others – and that they didn’t even particularly enjoy.
When presented with this data, the big question is: why? But we know how easy it can be to fall into the habit of just doing something without thinking about it, delegating it – or not doing it at all. In our drive to seem busy (and perhaps a bit important too), we might cling to tasks that will fill the time rather than create that value.
Birkinshaw and Cohen’s answer to this dilemma is to encourage us to be more intentional and conscious about how we spend our time, deciding which tasks matter most and dropping or “creatively outsourcing” the rest. When they tried this approach as part of their study, they found that participants cut desk work by an average of six hours a week and meeting time by two hours a week. That means that, by asking people to rethink and shift their priorities, participants were able to free up a fifth of their time at work to focus on more worthwhile and meaningful tasks.
Sound appealing? Here are the researchers’ five simple steps we can all follow to try to make that shift too.
Identify low-value tasks
One of the reasons we fail to focus on the value-added tasks is that it can be quite hard to identify exactly what those low-value ones are. Birkinshaw and Cohen’s self-assessment gives us a structure to help us recognise and acknowledge those low-value tasks as a precursor to moving away from them.
Decide whether to drop, delegate or redesign
Once we’ve identified those low-value tasks, we can sort them into three categories:
Quick kills: things to stop doing. Now.
Offload opportunities: things that can be easily delegated.
Long-term redesign: tasks that need to be restructured or overhauled.
There are plenty of barriers to delegation, whether it's our inability to let go; the feeling that we do things easier and quicker ourselves; not having people with the right skills to take things on; worrying that things won’t get done – on time, properly or at all. There’s often a sense, too, that our teams are also maxed out and unable to take on anything else. All of these can be true, but the fact is that we simply can’t do everything ourselves. Delegation is also an opportunity for more junior colleagues to step up, learn and contribute. We need to learn how to delegate well and to be comfortable with it.
Allocate freed-up time
Birkinshaw and Cohen remind us that the aim is to be not only efficient, but effective. They advise that we should write down two or three things that we should be doing, but aren’t, and to keep a log to assess whether we’re using our time better. Participants in the research saw a range of benefits of this freed-up time, from being able to operate more strategically and having time to coach team members to improved work-life balance.
Commit to the plan
Even the best-laid plans can come unstuck, falling foul to unforeseen and new pressures that threaten to take us back to prioritisation square one. This is where sharing our plans with our boss, mentor or a colleague can help. Agree a time to check in on progress in a few weeks’ time. The very act of going public will help us to stay on track.
All in all, the participants in the study found that the exercise was a useful “forcing mechanism”, helping them to be more conscious about how they use their time and to become “more efficient, effective and engaged”. It may sound simple, but asking ourselves the right questions and acting on the answers may turn out to be the catalyst we need to work out how we really can add the most value at work.
Test your understanding
- Explain why identifying low-value tasks might help us to use our time better.
- Identify the five steps Birkinshaw and Cohen suggest we take to free up time for work that matters.
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