We all have important things to do. Some of them are urgent, sure, but many of them are not. As entrepreneur-turned-venture capitalist Mark Suster reminds us, it’s easy to be sucked into “urgency addiction” by handling the emergencies, real and imagined, coming to us constantly. We can feel productive by knocking out emails all day, every day. But in fact, this will not get us very far at all.
Our most important work often is not our most urgent work.
We have to find time for important, non-urgent work; this is where we find our “zone of effectiveness”, according to Suster, where we’re able to approach big challenges with big ideas, spend time to work through possible approaches, and come up with first draft solutions to actually start solving problems.
In my work as an in-house lawyer, I generally classify these projects as the forms, systems, trainings and time spent in “non-legal” activities with the business that will make my clients’ lives - and by extension, my life - easier (things like contracts processes, new training programs, sales checklists, and “when to call me” guides).
This type of important work will never rise to the top of your to-do list on its own; no one is going to send six emails in an hour looking for it. Marking up documents or taking a phone call fits easily into a to-do list. Creating a strategic communications review process does not. We have to find a way to get this important, non-urgent work done. My goal is to give you a roadmap to do it.
1. Define the important work.
In my mind, work is important if it substantially improves your clients’ lives by saving them time or money, or by making them happy. As a result, doing important work is an act of giving to your clients.
You may already know what important work you need to do. In fact, you might have one or two (or ten) projects sitting around on your to-do list that you think are important. (Full disclosure: I have one of these projects on my list too, even though to-do lists are not the place for conceptual projects.)
Before you move forward, make sure this work is truly important - take a minute to define who it helps and how you know it will help them (i.e. make sure the need is real, not imagined). If you know that one or more of your clients would benefit from the work, either because they’ve told you or the need is clear, go for it. If not, or if you don’t know what you need to do, follow the steps below and use the time you block out to explore what you should be doing. Aim high: where do you see similar issues over and over, either for your work or your clients? Where can you make the most impact at scale?
This is important: if you’re at a firm, you’re not exempt, even if you can’t bill for it. What problems are your clients having repeatedly? If you don’t know, pick up the phone or go buy them coffee. It doesn’t have to be fancy or formal and it doesn’t have to take long, but it is your job to be interested and ask the questions. Once you know your clients problems, spend your own time to come up with solutions for them.
2. Find the right time.
Scheduling a time block will help remind you that this work needs to be done and will commit you to doing it when you will do it best...
Once you’ve decided what you need to do, you need to figure out when to do it. You can’t just hope to get to it this week, or even worse, put it on your to-do list and hope it gets done. It will never get done. You have to schedule time to work on your important work. I have two pieces of advice here:
First, experiment with doing different types of work at different times. I know, for example, that I do my best writing and drafting before 10:30am and that I’m best on conference calls after lunch. This is very simple to test: for two weeks, schedule different types of tasks at different times during your day. At every 90 minute interval, write what you finished and how you felt about it on a post-it note. Through this test, you’ll get a better feel for your strengths at different times as well as how you handle distractions and interruptions (by tracking what you actually get done in the time you allot).
Second, once you’ve identified time to work on your important work, go into your scheduling program and actually set up a meeting during that time. In the excellent book, The Power of Full Engagement, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz detail how 90-120 minute sprints are most effective for managing energy and attention in your work. Scheduling a time block will help remind you that this work needs to be done and will commit you to doing it when you will do it best. Added bonus: in companies where others schedule meetings by looking at your open calendar slots (like mine), it could also help to prevent others from scheduling meetings for you during this time.
3. Find the right place.
Where you work matters.
Most of us feel like we have to do work at “work” (the office), but that’s just not true, at least not all of the time. Experiment with doing your important work somewhere other than your desk, whether it’s a local library, park, coffee shop, home office, wherever, even if you don’t think you’re allowed to do it. If you produce excellent results, asking for a little forgiveness is pretty easy to do. If you don’t produce excellent results, then you shouldn't continue doing it. Look for somewhere close by that feels different than your office. Working somewhere different can help you find the mindset you need to work on bigger picture projects, and can also help you avoid distractions for your block of time. Test it.
4. Respect the time block and do the work.
If it’s not already closed, close Outlook. Seriously. Just close it.
At this point, you’ve identified the work and found the right time and the right place to do it. I find that the hardest part from this point is not the doing work itself, but avoiding the distractions that interrupt me from doing the work. Here is a routine that you can follow when your Outlook reminder goes off for the “meeting” to do your most important work:
If you’re leaving the office, go wherever you’re going to work. Make sure your reminder goes off with enough time for you to get there before you need to start your work.
If it’s not already closed, close Outlook. Seriously. Just close it.
Turn on your cell phone ringer and turn off your desk phone ringer (if you’re at your desk). If it’s a true emergency in the 90 minutes, trust me, your clients will reach you on your cell phone.
Use http://e.ggtimer.com/ to set a timer for the length of your “meeting”. It’ll beep (loudly) when you’re finished. When the timer beeps, pencils down.
Close all other internet windows. The internet is a black hole of distraction, no matter how disciplined you think you are. Avoid it during your focused time at all costs. If you need to research or look things up online, make notes as you go and spend the last 5-10 minutes looking them up.
And now that you’re doing the right things, in the right place, at the right time and without interruption… it’s time to really get to work.
[Josh Beser is Assistant General Counsel at Lonza, a global leader in life sciences and specialty ingredients with over 10,000 employees worldwide. Previously, Josh was a corporate associate at Bingham McCutchen LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, representing emerging companies in the technology and life sciences industries. Connect with Josh on Twitter and LinkedIn.]
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