Urgent and Unimportant: Surmounting The Tasks That Impede Your Real Work

Getting trapped in the career mindset of “busy work” is something that we professionals are all too familiar with. Frequent workplace interruptions come to mind as the mechanism for steering us away from productivity and toward the black hole of unnecessary tasking (remember that quote from The 5 Choices noting how it has become both easier and trickier to get things done?) Well, there’s some more alarming news on the subject: The onslaught of interruptions is only the tip of the counterproductivity iceberg. There’s a deceptive mass of “busy work” that lies below the surface, silently waiting to tear a gash in the hull of your career. But you happen to be one of the lucky ones. If you’re reading this, you’re about to discover what too few of your colleagues know about the “busy work” dilemma: how to see the problems coming, and how to sidestep them before it’s too late.

The Land of Urgent

Have you ever noticed how coming to the rescue during unforeseen crises in the workplace (what I fittingly call “putting out fires”) can give you a rush of dopamine-derived pleasure? Similarly, have you ever gained a peculiar sense of satisfaction from following through with a task that you should have delegated because you felt it would be a better use of time than explaining it to someone else? This impulsive, reward-based behavior is a state of mind, and it’s what keeps us on the hunt for the next unimportant crisis to conquer. It’s also getting in the way of, or perhaps replacing entirely, our actual work, steering us further away from our career goals in the process.

Even more concerning is that our behavior in this domain can spill over into other time-sucking workplace pursuits that are far less rewarding, and sure feel that way. Does participating in unproductive meetings sound familiar? How about generating reports that end up being obsolete? These are some of the surest ways to not only be unproductive, but to consciously sense the time and career advancement opportunities being siphoned from your fuel tank. Such is your cue that resistance is futile. It’s time to reclaim your life, but without letting it effect your relationship to your colleagues. What can you do? Plenty!

Taking An Honest Look

When you consider how often you get lost in any of the tasks we mentioned, documenting the exact number of times begins to make sense. Try keeping a record of each time you engage in a particular supplemental task, hour by hour, for a single week, while simultaneously notating the completion of all the actual, prescribed work that you were responsible for in the first place. This time log is the ultimate report on how you’ve spent your week, and gives you an honest look at the trouble spots. Then you can confidently focus your efforts in the specific areas that need attention.

Email, For Example

If email is the culprit “busy work” task, it’s time to start examining your habits in that department. Acknowledging that email is addictive, and that keeping up with it tends to expand to the time allotted only illustrates how crucial it is to keep this task under control. It demonstrates what a challenge it can be as well.

When attacking the email quandary, think of it as a matter of prioritizing. Feedback from DRIVEN’s clients has shown us that there’s a noteworthy difference in the appropriate email response times for clients vs superiors. Try arranging your email check-in regimen hour by hour, doing goal-oriented work for 45 minutes, and then spending 15 minutes navigating your inbox. For 2 of those minutes, you can prioritize the messages. Place the less urgent messages into their own folder, and then address and answer those that constitute as truly urgent during the rest of the 15-minute time slot. That brings you neatly around to the top of the hour, when you can dive back in and start to find a balance in your workday.

Taking It From Here

Just like the obstacles themselves, solutions to the “busy work” crisis come in all sizes. In my next article, I will address some of the doozies by showing you how to schedule smartly and reclaim substantial time in your week for accomplishing the tasks that matter.