It would be very easy to inadvertently neglect a task only to find it was crucial, and at that point the spinning plates would come crashing down. Unfortunately for us, fixing it wouldn’t be as simple as replacing a broken plate--missing a crucial requirement or annoying a key stakeholder might have repercussions that last for months or years.
As our careers progress, it’s important that we become adept at managing our workload. There are many approaches out there, personally I’m a fan of David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ method. I first read David’s book over a decade ago, and I’m still using the core elements of it today (if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend getting a copy. However, in this article I wanted to discuss one specific practice that I’ve adapted that has really made a difference. I’m sure this was inspired by the ‘Getting Things Done’ method.
A Busy And Interrupted World
One thing that strikes me about many organizations today is that:
- Important but not urgent tasks often get neglected. They are only picked up when they become ‘urgent’ (by which time the options are often reduced)
- Interruptions and personal schedule changes are pretty normal
Let’s explore the second of these points first. In the last few months, I suspect many of us have spent time working from home and there is a tendency to schedule meeting after meeting after meeting. Whereas, with physical meetings, we need to build in time to travel, get lunch etc, the virtual world gives us the illusion of real back-to-back meetings.
Of course, this is never really the case. A couple of crucial stakeholders are delayed, so an instant message arrives: “Sorry folks, we need to delay the meeting by 20 minutes.”. This means we have an unexpected 20 minutes of productive time, but it presents us with a challenge: what do we do?
So let me put this question to you: If that instant message landed on your device, what would you do?
It’s a tricky question isn’t it. A time slice like 20 minutes is long enough to do something but not long enough to do much. A common response is ‘I’d look at e-mails’. This is understandable, but it’s easy to spend 20 minutes staring at a sea of unanswered e-mails, not really getting any ‘processing’ done. Perhaps you end up reading a few, figuring out they are too complex… so you come back to them later and start again.
Or perhaps you look at your to do list--but everything is too big, so you go back to your e-mail box and the situation repeats. Or perhaps you just grab a tea, coffee or comfort break (frankly, that’s probably the best of all of the options!)
Bring in the IFRAs
One practice I’ve started is compiling an IFRA list. IFRA stands for “If Resources Allow”. It is a list of small chunks of important but not urgent work. This can include ‘work work’ and also personal work. If I look on my IFRA list for today I have:
- Brainstorm titles for upcoming blog articles
- Send a specific e-mail enquiry to a stakeholder (it’s a simple query, but the wording needs some thought)
- Call my insurance company regarding the renewal premium (the telephone number & policy number is written on there, so I don’t have to look that up)
- Get up and stretch (frankly I need to be reminded of this a lot and my back will thank me for it)
- Write up personal notes from a meeting
- Look at my professional development log and plan what I do next
Now, the thing about an IFRA list is that there’s no intention to actually finish it. It’s a bit like a ‘backlog’; all of the things do need to be done, they just don’t need to be done today. But if a 20 minute slot emerges, I’ve already decided how I’ll use it. I’ll pick the top one off the list, and do it. And, of course if some of these things aren’t done then they’ll eventually make it onto a main to-do list.
I find this practice helps avoid ‘procrastination paralysis’. You know the feeling, there so much to do that nothing gets done. I also find it useful for when I feel ‘creatively blocked’. You know when you’re working on something detailed and mentally taxing, 3 hours fly by but then all of a sudden everything grinds to a halt? I grab a coffee (well, tea in my case…) do a quick IFRA and then get back to it. I find the deliberate context switching freshens me up.
I hope you’ve found these ideas interesting. I’d love to hear what works well for you. Drop me a line on social media, and let’s discuss!