To do lists are just one of those things. We know they matter, a lot. We know that having them and following them certainly leads to getting more done. Then why is it, that they tend to get longer and not shorter? It’s because not all tasks are created equal. It’s because our human operating system is a 200,000 year old piece of software not designed for a list based society. Let me explain.
The Urgent and the Important
Generally the things we do can be broken down into either Urgent or Important. If it’s neither of these things it shouldn’t be on the list. Urgent stuff has deadlines and customer requirements and might even be a fire that needs extinguishing. Important tasks are the other things we’d like to do, and know we should do, but very often don’t get around to. We don’t get around to them because they’re well, not urgent. Our DNA is designed to respond to urgent, to fear, to danger. And while urgent tasks don’t mean a sabre tooth tiger is going to eat us for dinner, our emotive reaction is much the same. It’s why fear and urgency most often wins. In a modern, sans sabre tooth tiger world, we need to do the opposite of what our instinct tells us to.
The irony is that the less important tasks we do, the more urgent things pop up. By only doing the urgent we create a perpetual cycle of inefficiency. We start carrying buckets of water to the ‘fire’, instead of building a pipeline and hose system for the time a fire breaks out. If we ever want to get in front, and start hacking our to do list we need to undertake some counter intuitive actions. Are you ready for it?
- We need to miss some deadlines.
- We need to disappoint some people.
- We need to let some urgent things go unattended and go, wrong, break, fail.
- We need to embrace a metaphorical ground zero.
To get started it is worth splitting your do list into two columns: Urgent and Important Tasks – see what gets your attention at the end of each day and you’ll see the trap we all fall into. You’ll also see that important tasks also change their shape and often become urgent later. What we need to do is the important things which build a structure and system to remove many of the recurring urgencies. Once we have to courage to do this, we’ll end up being the people who can respond to urgent, the fewer times they occur. It may even be worth taking secret holiday for a week (pretend to be out of town, off line and on vacation) to get your important stuff in order and start a new pattern.
Happy To Do list hacking!
If you, like me earn your living through intellectual or emotional labour (read you don’t lift heavy things) then it’s easy to mistake the former for the latter. It’s easy to think there is a physical limit in our output capabilities, that there are only so many intellectual calories available to be burnt. And because of this we should probably save ourselves, just a little. Play it on the safe side so we still have some brain juice left for the important moment, the moment that really matters.
I used to think that too. But here’s what I found. The more I do, the more I can do. The more creative output I have, the more creative output I come up with. It feels like (at least to me personally) that the more I do, the more I receive back from the creative process. As if there is a creativity multiplier effect. I was was recently scrambling to finish the manuscript for my first book. During the process I was worried that blogging might interfere with the thoughts available for the book. I thought I should save my best work. I didn’t want to waste words on the non vital project. But what I found towards the end, was that the more I wrote the more I had. I just started pumping out the blog entries anyway, and on these days I had the largest and most prolific output for the book. It was counter intuitive to me.
The lessons for me is clear, the more we create, the more we can create. And as far as modern day work goes, it’s important we don’t confuse our physical limitations with our creative possibilities.
As I write this I am siting in an airport lounge and thinking about how much work I have got done, simply because I have not been interrupted by meetings.
But let me start by saying there is nothing more powerful than people sharing ideas when done right, the problem is that most meetings are what I call ‘Public Reading Scenarios’. That is people aggregating in the same room so that someone will read to them, something they could read in their own time, or more often the case, is totally irrelevant and no meeting is needed.
So I started doing this weird exercise every time I happen to be in a meeting filled with people. What I do is this:
- I count the number of people on the meeting.
- I decide what I think the average salary in the room is.
- I work out the hourly rate of the average salary.
- Add this to the number of hours the meeting goes for
- Work out the cost of meeting in wages
Last week I was in a meeting with 22 people. I calculated the average salary as $150k per annum, which then translated into an hourly rate of $75. The meeting went for 5 hours. The cost of this meeting was then $8250. I don’t care how big or wealthy the companies involved are, this is a lot of money. What makes it more significant is that most meetings are pointless – as this one was.
This meeting in particular was what I call a ‘Public Reading Event’. There was now real exchange of ideas, debate or in depth discussion. Rather a few people stood in front of copy heavy power point slides and read it out to the people sitting around eating muffins and pretending to listen. A total waste of time and the $8250. This is before we add to the price the opportunity cost of real work that wasn’t done during the 5 hours, or the cost of the meeting ‘culture’ it creates. And we all know a strong ‘meeting culture’ results in a vortex of indecision and slow business practice.
No point raising the issue without proposing a solution. So here is mine.
We add a widget to every email / meeting / calendar organiser which does my calculation above and estimates the ‘Cost of the meeting’. So when the meeting request is sent through the organiser and the participants see the cost in time – which is the real cost. It would say something like – estimated cost of meeting $3000. If people have to travel it should calculate that cost as well. This will make people think twice before they send the meeting request. It will also make us think twice before we accept the request. We measure the cost of most things in a company, but for some reason we rarely measure the cost of employees time in ‘salary employee’ environments, which is ironic when they usually represent 20-50% of the cost of running most companies. The widget is a pretty simple idea that could be mashed into any calendar function. Maybe it’s an iPhone calendar app that someone ought build?
When a meeting does occur and we agree it is worth while and attend, there would be a pretty strong emphasis on the value that occurred during it. I’m certain that ‘Public Reading Events’ would be a rare experience indeed.
So the only question remaining is which nimble app startup firm is going to build this?
The problem with email is that far too many people let it be the compass of their day. They refer to it religiously, checking it with every spare moment they have at their desk.
Maybe some new information has arrived?
Maybe they should use it to justify a change in direction?
Email tricks us into believing that we should stop on the path we are heading down and change direction, react to micro pieces of data. We often know it is a detour from the desired destination, yet we follow it anyway. When we do this email becomes a self multiplying tool. The more we attend to it, the more it demands. Entrepreneurs time is better invested talking to people.
Email is not a compass, it is more like a shadow. It reflects blockages that other people are creating, and what we need to do is move out of the shadows emails create so we can see our own path, and not theirs.
Why we still have so many of them is beyond me. We know they waste a lot of time. We know they probably cost us more revenue than they generate. So what if we actually tried to quantify the real cost of meetings. Especially those with a cast of thousands, or say 5-10 people. Let me break it down.
Cost of meeting with 10 people in it:
10 people with an average annual salary of $100,000
Total salary of human resources = $1,000,000
Weekly cost of the salaries = $19,231
Cost of $480 an hour. So a 4 hour meeting costs just under $2000 to conduct in pure wages. Not to mention the cost of stuff not getting done while the meeting is happening. Or the cost of another weeks wages while people go away and think about it, before returing next week with the same 10 people to make the final decision.
Here’s an idea. Put the $2000 in the middle of the table (the cost of the meeting in wages). If it finishes in half the time split 50% of the money between the participants. If it finishes in a quarter of that time, split 75% of the funds amonst the participants….
Startupblog says: the best decisions are those that get made. The decisions which have a chance of being wrong so we can cross them off the list. Having expensive meetings just elongates the process. Avoid them where possible.
Before the Industrial Revolution the average number of hours worked in the western world was less than 6 hours per day. Some say we worked less than two and a half days a week.
I won’t quote what the average number of hours are today, but it’s more for everyone I know personally. I’m certain many people reading this would work in excess of 12 hours on certain days.
So what happened?
We got stooged. The industrial revolution made it possible for a larger segment of the population to work year-round, since this labor was not tied to the season and artificial lighting made it possible to work longer each day. Peasants and farm laborers moved from rural areas to the factories and work times during a year has been significantly higher since then the important innovation of piece labour. That is, the ability to earn income based on output. Think bolts in car doors.
Over time longer hours lead to greater amount of industrial accidents and workplace injuries. Unions formed and laws changed on the factory floor. But, the office was a different place altogether.
Office workers – salary based workers who where historically in management worked for salaries. A fixed wage for a fixed number of hours. My father constantly reminds me that in his day office workers only worked from 9am until 4.30pm. That tradesman and factory workers were the only people who did extra hours. And they did this to make up for the pay discrepancy which was favour of salary workers.
Clearly times have changed. If you are working in a large corporate, cubicle farm, in front of a screen or any place where you don’t get your hands dirty then chances are your are part of the ever growing white collar underclass. Here’s the some of stuff that defines members of the White Collar Underclass:
- A fixed salary with no overtime (factory workers, tradesman, retail staff all have overtime)
- Regularly working beyond the ‘official hours’ including weekends.
- It is expected that you arrive before and leave after your official hours.
- No representation in your industry to protect employment conditions.
- No tax benefits or uniform allowances, because your work clothing doesn’t have a logo on it. Even though it is in real terms a ‘uniform’ and costs you 10 times what hands on workers wear to work.
- Your annual performance review is based on the subjective assessments of your direct manager who may or may not like you.
- You work in a large building full of people who look and act like you do, and no one really knows what anyone else does.
- In an economic downturn, you panic, because you know what you do is essentially expendable.
- Large parts of your day are dealing with procedure, invented by other workers to justify their own existence.
- You look at a screen for large parts of your day, but have restrictions on what information you can bring onto the screen from the outside world.
- You feel as though your rarely use the skills acquired in the formal education you needed to get that job.
- You can work for days, weeks and months without any physical evidence of tangible outputs of what you have done. You don’t make or fix anything real.
If some of the above apply to you, chances are you are part of the white collar underclass. A group of people who have been victimized by efficiency. A group of people who don’t do anything real. Which is why there will be a significant value shift and higher pay going to people (like tradesman) who make stuff. Simple supply and demand. In the past 50 years companies have became so good at what they do, that very few people really do anything, including you. But you are giving so much of your time… you know it, and it eats at your soul.
Startup blog advice: Earn your living. Do something that adds value, not takes up space. Even if it must be done at nights and on weekends. Even if it provides no income. The human soul feeds on real activity, not simple economic existence. Feed your soul in 2010.
It was easy for white collar workers to be smug during the 1980’s. Their blue collar counterparts faced a dire future as hands on jobs increasingly went overseas to low cost labour markets. It even made it possible for information workers to extract larger salaries as the profitability of their organizations soared. The white collar desk jockey rode the wave of efficiency as corporations globalized and consolidated manufacturing.
Life has a funny way of going full circle. And now it’s our turn, the white collar worker. We are also an endangered species in developed markets.
Yep, you and me. We too, will be outsourced. All us accountants, IP Lawyers, Engineers, Computer Programmers (insert university educated profession here).
Don’t believe me? Then consider this: In India each year there are over 300,000 Engineering graduates and over 400,000 IT graduates who will happily work for 10% of what conglomerate X pays you right now. It’s only a matter of time before large corporations, who are usually struggling for top line growth, can get over the emotional barrier of having a large corporate head office and go offshore. The spreadsheet will make that decision for them. But this time the barriers will be lower than when all the call center went overseas because consumers wont even notice. Society wont care either. They are sick of people earning well above average incomes in ivory towers. No one will feel sorry for us.
What to do?
Stop being a factor of production and start organizing them. Stuff gets done, things can be built, and anything which is done at a desk is about to disappear to low cost labour markets. The way information workers can survive is through undertaking entrepreneurial endeavors (corporate & private). Be able to manage complex projects and by managing situations and people, not doing stuff. The age of the entrepreneur is about to become something which is so significant it changes work just like the industrial revolution did.
Startup blog says: Are you ready?
Get ready at Startup School.
Small tip for startups for today.
Trim the ‘to do’ list and actually deliver on something.
All to often we get caught up in ‘options’ and priorities and a simple solution is to have 1 priority, and 1 thing to do.
Then do it.
Take your to do list and put everything which isn’t number one and file it in a digital format somewhere to return to later. This way you’ll ensure that the ideas and projects aren’t lost.
I know, you know this. I know you’ve heard this idea before…..
But if you’ve forgotten it, or you don’t do it – do you really know it?
To do lists matter. In fact they matter a lot. The problem I find with always long to do lists is the that urgent always takes place of the important. And occasionally important projects fall off the agenda. They do this because they seem to live on the bottom of the ‘to do’ list.
The beauty of the digital to do list is the footprint lasts for ever. The important, but not urgent items on the bottom of the list don’t need to be carried over with the pen. So they wont get lost in transition.
A good way to do it is to have a digital project list and an actual to do list for the day – that is, the items which you will certainly finish today. Remember, we can always add another item if we blow our own minds and finish all our tasks early.