At any stage of your career, one of the most significant challenges is to focus your efforts on the work that adds the most value. Early in your career, you were mostly told what was important and how to spend your time. But as you rise up the corporate ladder, or start your own enterprise, you increasingly need to make your own choices on priorities.
The problem is that when you are overwhelmed with work, it is difficult to maintain an objective view of what is high-value.
Everything seems urgent and important, and it is easy to slip into low-value work. This is stressful and frustrating. You know that you are not doing what you should be, and feel that as a manager you are stuck with the same tasks as earlier in your career.
There are two common types of low-value activity:
Tasks that are not required, but become routine.
Managers make reports that either no one reads, or are read but not actionable. A document template has grown to 20 pages, when it could be 5. Weekly meetings that have long outgrown their usefulness.
Tasks that are required, but don’t need managerial attention.
Managers often end up doing work that has to be done, but should done by someone else. Sometimes the explanation is along the lines of, “My team is short-staffed, and this task is due today.”
Other times, “My team is already overburdened, I can’t give them more work.”
Or, “It is faster to do it myself than to train someone, and fix their mistakes.”
How to step back from low-value work?
What if I stop doing it?
It is surprising how often you can just stop doing a routine task. Imagine a report that has to be prepared and circulated every week, yet doesn’t seem to generate much action. Go and speak to everyone who receives the report and ask: (1) Do they actually read it? (2) Which parts are important? (3) Could distribution be less frequent?
The report might shrink to only useful information, or become less frequent, or disappear altogether.
The same approach can apply to any other task. Some tasks form essential parts of a supply chain – a delay will impact other people and their work. However, many deadlines are arbitrary. At the end of a meeting, someone assigned a due date, and that became set in stone. Explore what will happen if the timeline changes…. Does that free up time to train your team so that you can delegate?
Is there a case for hiring additional people?
As a manager, you are expected to find solutions to problems. Saying “My team can’t take on this work” or “We are too busy and the work will be delayed” isn’t helpful. Far more helpful is to come back with something like “We can do this work if we get XYZ additional staff” or “We can complete this work if we can change the timelines for ABC tasks.”
Can it be automated?
We live in an amazing world of AI and automation, yet staff can waste hours on manual admin tasks. Typical examples are copy-pasting multiple report formats into a standard template for presentation or analysis, or manually sending out marketing and customer service email. Changes are, a simple piece of software could do most of the work automatically. Speak to your IT department or the geekiest person you know.
Ask for help
When you are stuck in the weeds, it is tough to get an objective viewpoint on your work. Go to your boss and explain the aspects of your work that you feel are low-value yet time-consuming. Get their input on where you should be focussing your time. This input can provide fantastic clarity (and make you feel much better).